English Literature: Its History and Its Significance For the Life of the Englishspeaking World


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Gender Studies,English Literature,Women in History

Gender Studies,English Literature,Women in History

Conversation with William J. Long


The purpose and plan of this little book may easily be gathered from the introductory chapter. Only a few words of preface, therefore, are needed.

As I conceive it, a history of English literature, however brief, should still be a history of English literature in fact as well as in name; and for a history something more is required than a list of authors and their books, and even than a chronologically arranged collection of biographical sketches and critical appreciations. It is true that a nation’s literature is made up of the works of individual writers, and that for the ordinary purposes of study these writers may be detached from their surroundings and treated separately.

Gender Studies,English Literature,Women in History

Gender Studies,English Literature,Women in History

But we cannot get a history of such literature unless and until each one has been put into his place in the sequence of things and considered with reference to that great body of literary production of which his work must now be regarded as a part. A history of English literature, then, must be interested primarily in English literature as a whole. Its chief aim should be to give a clear and systematic account, not of the achievements of successive great writers merely, as such, but of national changes and development.

This does not imply neglect of the personal factor. On the contrary, it brings the personal factor into relief; for if each writer is to be considered with reference to literature as a whole, one main subject of enquiry must be the nature and value of his particulars contribution to that whole.

Gender Studies,English Literature,Women in History

Gender Studies,English Literature,Women in History

But it does mean that, together with the personal factor, the great general movement of literature from age to age has to be investigated, and that every writer has to be interpreted in his connection with this general movement. To exhibit the interplay of the personal and the impersonal in the making of history is, indeed, one of the fundamentals of the historian’s task; and since history, properly understood, is as much concerned with the explanation of facts as with the facts themselves, it follows that a history of English literature must also include some record of the forces which, period by period, have combined in the transformation of literary standards and tastes.

I have put these ideas, into different, and perhaps rather simpler language in my introductory chapter. Here, therefore, I have only to say that this Outline History represents a modest attempt towards a real history of English literature in the sense which I attach to the term. One special feature of the book may be noted. It appears to be an accepted principle with many critics that literature is produced, as it were, in a vacuum, and by men who stand outside all conditions of time and place, and that therefore it may best be studied as a thing in itself. I, on the other hand, believe that the literature of any age is necessarily shaped and coloured by all the elements which entered into the civilisation of that age. So far as the limits of my space would allow, therefore, I have tried always to suggest the vital relationship between English literature and English life.

William Henry Hudson


1. What Is a History of English Literature? Perhaps it seems hardly worthwhile to put this question, because the answer to it is so very obvious. A history of English literature, we reply without a moment’s hesitation, is simply a chronological account of the books which have been written in the English language, and—since we cannot think of a book without thinking also of its author—of the men who wrote them.

In a rough way, this answer is all right so far as it goes. But it is too vague, and it does not go far enough. It will be well for us, therefore, to pause at the outset of our own work to consider a little closely what it is that a history of English literature, however brief, really involves.

Stress may first of all be laid upon the personal element in it which our answer already recognises. We cannot, we say, think of a book without thinking also of its author. Every book, in other words, takes us back immediately to the man behind it, of whose genius it is a product, and whose thoughts and feelings it embodies. In a history of English literature, therefore, we must fix attention upon the personalities of the men by whom this literature has been made. In a short sketch we cannot, of course, examine in detail their lives, experiences, and characters. This must be left for a more extended study. But we must try nonetheless to understand the distinctive quality in the genius of each man who comes before us. The reason of this is clear. Genius means many things, but at bottom it means strength of personality and, as a consequence, what we call originality. Every great writer, it has been well said, brings one absolutely new thing into the world—himself, and it is just because he puts this one new thing into what he writes that his work bears its own special hallmark, and has something about it which makes it unlike the work done by anyone else. In the detailed study of any great writer this essential element of individuality is the chief feature to be considered, and in an historical survey, no matter how slight, it must be carefully noted too, for otherwise we cannot learn why such a writer counts as he does in the literature of his nation. A history of English literature, then, is concerned to indicate the nature and value of the particular contribution which each writer personally has made to that literature.

This, however, is only a small part of its task. A mere list of authors, taken separately, and of their books, does not constitute a history of literature, for literature as a whole grows and changes from generation to generation, and in tracing this growth, history must show the place which each writer occupies in it, and his relations with those who went before, and with those who came after him. A writer of exceptionally powerful personality is certain to stamp his impress upon his age, and amongst those who follow him many will always be found who, whether they are conscious of it or not, reveal his influence in their thought and style. Moreover, the popularity obtained by any writer with a particular kind of work will naturally breed imitations, and what has once been done successfully will for a time be done again and again. In this way ‘schools’ are formed and ‘movements’ initiated, which last for a while, and then, when tastes presently change, and other ‘schools’ and ‘movements’ arise, disappear. Thus we speak of the ‘school’ of Pope, meaning the whole succession of poets who wrote in the particular style which he had brought to perfection and made current; of the ‘classic’ movement in verse which, following his lead, these writers carried on; of the ‘romantic’ movement in prose fiction which owed its principal impulse to Scott’s historical novels; and so on. Such schools and movements always play a large part in the development of literature, and are often as important to the student as the individual writers themselves.

It must be remembered, too, that even the most original men—the men who are most completely themselves—have their intellectual ancestry, and are often deeply indebted to others for inspiration and example. I have just spoken of Pope’s particular style; but this was not his own independent creation; and while it assumed perfection in his hands, it was really the final result of a long ‘movement’ in verse which had already found one great representative in his immediate predecessor, Dryden. Scott was educated in a ‘romantic’ school before he became in his turn a supreme master in that school. We frequently think of Shakespeare, as if he stood altogether apart in the literature of his day, but in fact, he took the drama up at the point which it had reached when he began to write for the stage, and followed the lines which his forerunners had laid down. The history of literature, then, must take account of all these things. It must bring out the relationships between writer and writer and group and group; it must trace the rise, growth, and decline of ‘schools’ and ‘movements’; and whenever any given writer had been specially prominent in their evolution, it must consider the influence he exerted in making literature either by keeping it in the old channels or in directing it into new.

We have, however, to go much farther even than this.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ 812913540X
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Rupa Publications India; First edition (4 October 2015)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 672 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9788129135407
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-8129135407
Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 540 g
Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 14 x 3.67 x 21.6 cm
Country of Origin ‏ : ‎ India