English Literature, literature produced in England, from the introduction of Old English by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century to the present. The works of those Irish and Scottish authors who are closely identified with English life and letters are also considered part of English literature. For other Irish and Scottish authors.
Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, Era
This period extends from about 450 to 1066, the year of the Norman-French conquest of England. The Germanic tribes from Europe who overran England in the 5th century, after the Roman withdrawal, brought with them the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, language, which is the basis of Modern English They brought also a specific poetic tradition, the formal character of which remained surprisingly constant until the termination of their rule by the Norman-French invaders six centuries later.
Much of Old English poetry was probably intended to be chanted, with harp accompaniment, by the Anglo-Saxon scope, or bard. Often bold and strong, but also mournful and elegiac in spirit, this poetry emphasises the sorrow and ultimate futility of life and the helplessness of humans before the power of fate. Almost all this poetry is composed without rhyme, in a characteristic line, or verse, of four stressed syllables alternating with an indeterminate number of unstressed ones. This line strikes strangely on ears habituated to the usual modern pattern, in which the rhythmical unit, or foot, theoretically consists of a constant number (either one or two) of unaccented syllables that always precede or follow any stressed syllable. Another unfamiliar but equally striking feature in the formal character of Old English poetry is structural alliteration, or the use of syllables beginning with similar sounds in two or three of the stresses in each line.
All these qualities of form and spirit are exemplified in the epic poem Beowulf, written in the 8th century. Beginning and ending with the funeral of a great king, and composed against a background of impending disaster, it describes the exploits of a Scandinavian culture hero, Beowulf, in destroying the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. In these sequences Beowulf is shown not only as a glorious hero but also as a saviour of the people.
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English Literature (intimately)
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