Two literary figures bridge the gap between the mediaeval age and the Renaissance. They are Sir Thomas Malory, the author of Le Morte D'Arthur, and the first 'poet-laureate', John Skelton. In their entirely separate ways, they made distinctive contributions to the history of literature and to the growth of English as a literary language.........Le Morte D'Arthur is, in a way, the climax of a tradition of writing, bringing together myth and history, with an emphasis on chivalry as a kind of moral code of honour. The supernatural and fantastic aspects of the story, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are played down, and the more political aspects, of firm government and virtue, emphasised. It was a book for the times. The Wars of the Roses ended in the same year as Le Morte D'Arthur was published. Its values were to influence a wide readership for many years to come. There is sadness, rather than heroism, in Arthur's final battle........John Skelton is one of the unjustly neglected figures of literature. His reputation suffered at the hands of one of the earliest critics of poetry, George Puttenham, and he is not easily categorised in terms of historical period, since he falls between clearly identified periods like 'mediaeval' and 'Renaissance'. He does not fit in easily either because of the kinds of poetry he wrote. But he is one of the great experimenters, and one of the funniest poets in English.
The Romantic journey was usually a solitary one. Although the Romantic poets were closely connected with one another, and some collaborated in their work, they each had a strong individual vision. Romantic poets could not continue their quests for long or sustain their vision into later life. The power of the imagination and of inspiration did not last. Whereas earlier poets had patrons who financed their writing, the tradition of patronage was not extensive in the Romantic period and poets often lacked financial and other support. Keats, Shelley and Byron all died in solitary exile from England at a young age, their work left incomplete, non-conformists to the end. This coincides with the characteristic Romantic images of the solitary heroic individual, the spiritual outcast 'alone, alone, all, all alone' like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and John Clare's 'I'; like Shelley's Alastor, Keats's Endymion, or Byron's Manfred, who reached beyond the normal social codes and normal human limits so that 'his aspirations/Have been beyond the dwellers of the earth'. Wordsworth, who lived to be an old man, wrote poems throughout his life in which his poetic vision is stimulated by a single figure or object set against a natural background. Even his projected final masterpiece was entitled The Recluse. The solitary journey of the Romantic poet was taken up by many Victorian and twentieth-century poets, becoming almost an emblem of the individual's search for identity in an ever more confused and confusing world.
Shakespeare's plays do not present easy solutions. The audience has to decide for itself. King Lear is perhaps the most disturbing in this respect. One of the key words of the whole play is 'Nothing'. When King Lear's daughter Cordelia announces that she can say 'Nothing' about her love for her father, the ties of family love fall apart, taking the king from the height of power to the limits of endurance, reduced to 'nothing' but 'a poor bare forked animal'. Here, instead of 'readiness' to accept any challenge, the young Edgar says 'Ripeness is all'. This is a maturity that comes of learning from experience. But, just as the audience begins to see hope in a desperate and violent situation, it learns that things can always get worse:Who is't can say 'I am at the worst?' The worst is notSo long as we can say 'This is the worst.'Shakespeare is exploring and redefining the geography of the human soul, taking his characters and his audience further than any other writer into the depths of human behaviour. The range of his plays covers all the 'form and pressure' of mankind in the modern world. They move from politics to family, from social to personal, from public to private. He imposed no fixed moral, no unalterable code of behaviour. That would come to English society many years after Shakespeare's death, and after the tragic hypothesis of Hamlet was fulfilled in 1649, when the people killed the King and replaced his rule with the Commonwealth. Some critics argue that Shakespeare supported the monarchy and set himself against any revolutionary tendencies. Certainly he is on the side of order and harmony, and his writing reflects a monarchic context rather than the more republican context which replaced the monarchy after 1649.It would be fanciful to see Shakespeare as foretelling the decline of the Stuart monarchy. He was not a political commentator. Rather, he was a psychologically acute observer of humanity who had a unique ability to portray his observations, explorations, and insights in dramatic form, in the richest and most exciting language ever used in the English theatre.
THE METAPHYSICAL POETSHad we but world enough, and time,This coyness, lady, were no crime(Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress)While theatre was the most public literary form of the period, poetry tended to be more personal, more private. Indeed, it was often published for only a limited circle of readers. This was true of Shakespeare's sonnets, as we have seen, and even more so for the Metaphysical poets, whose works were published mostly after their deaths. John Donne and George Herbert are the most significant of these poets.The term 'Metaphysical' was used to describe their work by the eighteenth-century critic, Samuel Johnson. He intended the adjective to be pejorative. He attacked the poets' lack of feeling, their learning, and the surprising range of images and comparisons they used. Donne and Herbert were certainly very innovative poets, but the term 'Metaphysical' is only a label, which is now used to describe the modern impact of their writing. After three centuries of neglect and disdain, the Metaphysical poets have come to be very highly regarded and have been influential in recent British poetry and criticism. They used contemporary scientific discoveries and theories, the topical debates on humanism, faith, and eternity, colloquial speech-based rhythms, and innovative verse forms, to examine the relationship between the individual, his God, and the universe. Their 'conceits', metaphors and images, paradoxes and intellectual complexity make the poems a constant challenge to the reader.
It is the voice of everyday people, rather than of a self-conscious 'artist', that we hear in Caedmon's Hymn, and in such texts as Deor's Lament (also known simply as Deor) or The Seafarer. These reflect ordinary human experience and are told in the first person. They make the reader or hearer relate directly with the narratorial 'I', and frequently contain intertextual references to religious texts. Although they express a faith in God, only Caedmon's Hymn is an overtly religious piece. Already we can notice one or two conventions creeping in; ways of writing which will be found again and again in later works. One of these is the use of the first-person speaker who narrates his experience, inviting the reader or listener to identify with him and sympathise with his feelings.
Revolution was the great nightmare of eighteenth-century British society, and when first the American Revolution of 1776, then the French Revolution of 1789 overturned the accepted order, the United Kingdom exercised all its power so that revolution would not damage its own hardwon security and growing prosperity. Eighteenth-century writing is full of pride in England as the land of liberty (far ahead of France, the great rival, in political maturity),and saw a corresponding growth in national self-confidence accompanying the expansion of empire.
Later, Hobbes will stress the notion central to Augustan thinking, the binary of passion and reason:The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Fear of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them. And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles ofPeace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement. These Articles, are they, which otherwise are called the Laws of Nature.
The beliefs and behaviour of the Restoration reflect the theories of society put forward by Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan, which was written in exile in Paris and published in 1651. Like many texts of the time, The Leviathan is an allegory. It recalls mediaeval rather than Renaissance thinking. The leviathan is the Commonwealth, society as a total organism, in which the individual is the absolute subject of state control, represented by the monarch. Man - motivated by self-interest - is acquisitive and lacks codes of behaviour. Hence the necessity for a strong controlling state, 'an artificial man', to keep discord at bay. Self-interest and stability become the keynotes of British society after 1660, the voice of the new middle-class bourgeoisie making itself heard more and more in the expression of values, ideals, and ethics.
The Restoration did not so much restore as replace. In restoring the monarchy with King Charles II, it replaced Cromwell's Commonwealth and its Puritan ethos with an almost powerless monarch whose tastes had been formed in France.It replaced the power of the monarchy with the power of a parliamentary system - which was to develop into the two parties, Whigs and Tories - with most of the executive power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Both parties benefited from a system which encouraged social stability rather than opposition.Above all, in systems of thought, the Restoration replaced the probing, exploring, risk-taking intellectual values of the Renaissance. It relied on reason and on facts rather than on speculation. So, in the decades between 1660 and 1700, the basis was set for the growth of a new kind of society. This society was Protestant (apart from the brief reign of the Catholic King James II, 1685-88),middle class, and unthreatened by any repetition of the huge and traumatic upheavals of the first part of the seventeenth century. It is symptomatic that the overthrow of James II in 1688 was called The 'Glorious' or 'Bloodless' Revolution. The 'fever in the blood' which the Renaissance had allowed was now to be contained, subject to reason, and kept under control. With only the brief outburst of Jacobin revolutionary sentiment at the time of the Romantic poets, this was to be the political context in the United Kingdom for two centuries or more.In this context, the concentration of society was on commerce, on respectability, and on institutions. The 'genius of the nation' led to the founding of the Royal Society in 1662 - 'for the improving of Natural Knowledge'. The Royal Society represents the trend towards the institutionalisation of scientific investigation and research in this period. The other highly significant institution, one which was to have considerably more importance in the future, was the Bank of England, founded in 1694.
Milton argued, in 1649, after the execution of Charles I, that a people 'free by nature' had a right to overthrow a tyrant; a subject that recalls vividly the questions examined by Shakespeare in his major tragedies about fifty years before.Milton continued to defend his ideals of freedom and republicanism. But at the Restoration, by which time he was blind, he was arrested. Various powerful contacts allowed him to be released after paying a fine, and his remaining years were devoted to the composition - orally, in the form of dictation to his third wife - of his epic poem on the fall of humanity, Paradise Lost, which was published in 1667.It is interesting that - like Spenser and Malory before him, and like Tennyson two centuries later - Milton was attracted to the Arthurian legends as the subject for his great epic. But the theme of the Fall goes far beyond a national epic, and gave the poet scope to analyse the whole question of freedom, free will, and individual choice. He wished, he said, to 'assert eternal providence,/And justify the ways of God to men'. This has been seen as confirmation of Milton's arrogance, but it also signals the last great attempt to rationalise the spirit of the Renaissance: mankind would not exist outside Paradise if Satan had not engineered the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. For many critics, including the poets Blake and Shelley, Satan, the figure of the Devil, is the hero of the poem.
There is a vast expanse of time before the Norman Conquest in 1066, from which fragments of literary texts remain, although these fragments make quite a substantial body of work. If we consider that the same expanse of time has passed between Shakespeare's time and now as passed between the earliest extant text and 1066, we can begin to imagine just how much literary expression there must have been. But these centuries remain largely dark to us, apart from a few illuminating flashes and fragments, since almost all of it was never written down, and since most of what was preserved in writing was destroyed later, particularly during the 1530s.
The character and the play of Hamlet are central to any discussion of Shakespeare's work. Hamlet has been described as melancholic and neurotic, as having an Oedipus complex, as being a failure and indecisive, as well as being a hero, and a perfect Renaissance prince. These judgements serve perhaps only to show how many interpretations of one character may be put forward. 'To be or not to be' is the centre of Hamlet's questioning. Reasons not to go on living outnumber reasons for living. But he goes on living, until he completes his revenge for his father's murder, and becomes 'most royal', the true 'Prince of Denmark' (which is the play's subtitle),in many ways the perfection of Renaissance man.Hamlet's progress is a 'struggle of becoming' - of coming to terms with life, and learning to accept it, with all its drawbacks and challenges. He discusses the problems he faces directly with the audience, in a series of seven soliloquies - of which 'To be or not to be' is the fourth and central one. These seven steps, from the zero-point of a desire not to live, to complete awareness and acceptance (as he says, 'the readiness is all'),give a structure to the play, making the progress all the more tragic, as Hamlet reaches his aim, the perfection of his life, only to die.
The language of Shakespeare is the first and lasting affirmation of the great changes that took place in the sixteenth century, leaving the Middle English of Chaucer far behind. In many ways, the language has changed less in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote than it did in the 150 years before he wrote.
As a novelist, Scott's influence was immense: his creation of a wide range of characters from all levels of society was immediately likened to Shakespeare's; the use of historical settings became a mainstay of Victorian and later fiction; his short stories helped initiate that form; his antiquarian researches and collections were a major contribution to the culture of Scotland.
Few poets better convey the uneasy transition from Victorianism to Modernism than Thomas Hardy. His novels, written between 1870 and 1895, made him not only the recorder of his distinctive region of 'Wessex', but the explorer of the transition of lives and minds from the age of traditional values and religious certainties to the age of godlessness and modern tragedy, a transition sometimes described as 'the clash of the modern'.