English belongs to the Germanic arm of the Indo-European family of languages that can roughly be defined as Slavic / Slavonic, Romantic and Germanic. There are a couple of European anomalies that don’t fit the pattern; namely Finnish and Hungarian.

As is the case in many languages English literature has a proliferation of what have become classics. However English literature is relatively unique in that it formed a number of hard forks with the emergence of most prominently American literature among other Anglophone writings.

What is literature?

In this context the Oxford Dictionary defines literature as ‘written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit,’ and thus it is not just restricted to the novel, but also includes plays and poetry.

Classic literature also encompasses a whole sub-genre of children’s literature and broadly it has evolved hand in hand with the English language and the very earliest English Classics didn’t even sound English and were somewhat closer to German with Saxon roots.

It is impossible in a short piece like this to provide a wholesale summary or an in-depth thesis of any of these writers and their respective authors. The point of this piece is to pick out some exemplars from each period.

On the whole, English evolved through an additive process of absorbing new vocabulary from other languages. Most if not all –tion words are derived from French and the English word robot is not an acronym but comes from the Czech word for worker and indeed you will find similar-sounding words in other Slavic languages – for example, the Polish word robotnik.  Broadly speaking English can be described in terms of Old English, Middle English and Modern English.

Old English –Beowulf

When it comes to Old English, because there isn’t such a breadth of literature the go to work has to be Beowulf. Written sometime in the second half of the first millennium, its exact authorship is unknown. In the form of an epic poem it tells the story of Beowulf who defeats the monster Grendel in aid of Hrothgar the King of the Danes before going on to fight against other monsters and finally being mortally wounded in his victory against a dragon.

Much of the detail on the emergence of Beowulf is shrouded in mystery as there is only one original manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. To the modern reader, it would not be recognisable as English to read or be heard.

Middle English – Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer, writing during the second half of the 14th century is not only remarkable because of the large body of work he produced, but also because of his lasting significance on the evolution of English. This was driven in a large part by his choice to write in a vernacular form of Middle English, which was very much tied to the London accent of the time. This conscious decision to use English rather than Latin or French helped shape the nature of Middle English.

Unsurprisingly many call him the father of English literature

He is best known for The Canterbury Tales, which are a mixture of short stories, written in a poetic style. In some ways his stories are seen as a social commentary on English society at the time.

Unlike Beowulf it is recognisably English.

Modern English – John Bunyan

Pilgrim’s Progress, written a century later. although not necessarily recognised as part of the canon of English literature by many, is definitely worth an honourable mention. Written in 1678, it is a Christian allegory which tells the story of an everyman called Christian who embarks on a journey, which is a kind of pilgrimage and metaphor for life. On his way, he meets a variety of companions and passes through places that all have significant names that again are representative of the pilgrim’ life. For believers, it represents a tract and a much easier way of communicating spiritual understanding than the often obscure Bible.

A bit like CS Lewis, who followed much later, much of the allegory is obvious and that is its great strength, in that it wasn’t high literature that was inaccessible to the masses, but it is also for high minded people a possible weakness.

What elevates Pilgrim’s Progress to be worthy of mention here is not necessarily the quality of the writing. This in itself, raises the interesting question of what defines a classic. Is it the literary quality of such a work or is it the popularity of such a piece? While Pilgrim’s Progress has a certain charm and quality, it is the latter that makes it stand out.

To quote the Guardian:

The Pilgrim’s Progress is the ultimate English classic, a book that has been continuously in print, from its first publication to the present day, in an extraordinary number of editions. There’s no book in English, apart from the Bible, to equal Bunyan’s masterpiece for the range of its readership, or its influence on writers as diverse as William Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, CS Lewis, John Steinbeck and even Enid Blyton.

Early Modern English – Shakespeare and Marlowe

Early modern English spanned the period from the early Tudors until approximately 1750 and this was when the great hero of English literature, William Shakespeare a prolific writer of plays, was active. It is thought that Shakespeare contributed more words to the English language than any other individual. His plays were written to be performed and less so to be read, which is why countless generations of English literature students have contended with what to all intents and purposes is almost a foreign language (stuffed with words like thee, thy and thou and other archaic forms) in stuffy classrooms. His plays broadly divide into histories, tragedies and comedies and his style was even slightly out of date at the time of writing.

One of the problems with reading Shakespeare is that it can at times be misinterpreted. Consider the following line from Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo?

It is from the famous balcony scene and as Juliet looks over Verona she is not asking where Romeo is as some might understand it, she is actually asking why he is Romeo and more to the point why is it out of all the families he could belong to why he is a Montague. To explain, in the opening scenes of the play a feud between his family and Juliet’s family, the Capulets, was explained as a backdrop to the whole tragedy. In the modern vernacular it could be translated as:

‘Romeo, Romeo why the hell did you need to belong to that family?’

He was a contemporary of Christopher Marlowe and indeed there is a large body of research that indicates that it was Marlowe who influenced Shakespeare. It is therefore strange that Shakespeare is better remembered and this may simply come down to the fact that Marlowe died young at 29 and thus wrote a lot less. It is almost certain that his early death was a coincidence when his most famous play was Dr Faust, which tells the age-old story of selling your soul to the Devil for a mortal life of ‘fame, wealth and maidens faire’.

It is a cautionary tale with a final reckoning, one that came far too early in Marlowe’s case.

On that slightly spooky note we will go on to examine the great literature of the 19th Century in Part 2.