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Literary history is a history of the major literary traditions, movements, works, and authors of a country, region, etc. (Barber 837). The understanding of literary history allows us insight into the past, a recognition of historical events and tensions written into the works of those who witnessed them. By including societal behaviors, political tensions, and common folklore, historical authors have indirectly provided the reader with a broader and deeper understanding of the literature and the period in which it was written. Besides insight into collective societal culture, literary history has provided future writers with models of poetic device, style and content influencing literary works and building upon past literary ideas. Literary history is a vehicle to understanding the past and plays a major role in its influence on literature up to and including the present day.
Knowledge of historical literature gives us insight into the traditions and societal conventions of the time in which the piece was written. One outstanding example comes from Anglo-Saxon times. Beowulf is a literary work which enables a reader to glimpse not only the societal customs but into the savage and seemingly uncontrollable environment of the first century. Literary historian, Raymond Chambers points out that in the fight between Grendel and Beowulf it appears as though Grendel is representative of the degraded form of human life attempting to gain power through violence, in his attempt to overthrow Hrothgar and take control of Heorot he is fatally wounded by Beowulf. Beowulf is a character who exemplifies the collective societal agreement as to the role of a hero and his duty to control a seemingly ungovernable environment (Chambers 46). The Beowulf poet describes Grendel and Beowulf as "Both ..enraged, fury filled, the two who meant to control the hall." (Beowulf 36). The fight for control of the hall could be seen as representative of the struggle between good and evil or perhaps the control of the king over an uncontrollable people. Taking into account Mr. Chambers explanation of Grendel, a reader may also reason that the dragon symbolizes a threat from outside the human realm. One notes that the dragon is not given the humanistic qualities of Grendel, he has no kin and appears to have no mortal thoughts. Due to his lack of humanistic characteristics, the reader may believe that the dragon is less representative of a human threat such as an enemy warrior, etc.
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Another, much later example supporting historical representation in a literary work, in this case religious tension, is evident in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale . The Pardoner’s Tale was written in a time when "the Age of Faith was passing into an age of skepticism and all authority was being called into question by the English public" (French 2). The church was corrupt at a time when, if anything, it should have been protecting its congregations. It was making no attempt to secure faith through true belief but instead portraying salvation and redemption as an item to bought and sold by the church. In Chaucer’s description of the Pardoner’s feelings about being the absolver of sins he writes "For myn entente is not but for to winne [for my intent is not to but make money]" (Chaucer 67) . Chaucer’s use of satire and his unfaltering description of the Pardoner’s morals is a deep reflection of the religious and secular tensions of this period in history.
Literary history is also important as literature acts as a vehicle allowing authors, poets and song writers to be influenced by past writing styles. Writers constantly borrow from past literature, manipulating and redefining it into something new and unique unto themselves. The ballad, for example, was initially referred to as a dance. The ballad of tradition is a story set to music, passed along orally from generation to generation. It has been noted that ballads have surpassed most other sources in their influence on poetry of the last two centuries (Woodring 11). The sonnet is another influential form that has been borrowed and modified to fit an authors personal style. Oppenheimer, an expert on the sonnet, recorded its historical lineage. He claimed that it was originally developed in Italy by an official named Giacomo da Lentino. Unlike in the past the sonnet was not to be performed or set to music but was to taken in as silent reading. It had such appeal that it was not long before it was taken up by such literary giants as Dante and Petrarch. The sonnet soon expanded into the Western World and was eventually developed by a young writer name William Shakespeare. Shakespeare restructured it to his own personal preference changing the format and rhyme scheme (Oppenheimer 9). There are two main recognized sonnet forms today, the Italian sonnet and the English or Shakespearean sonnet. There have been many other influential poetic styles and devices all of which have influenced modern literature and captured the interest and intellect of those involved in the English language. Past influences are evident in modern songs, poetry, plays and novels and will continue to be so so long as there is interest in literary history.
Literary history generates great interest in the modern world and it is imperative that we understand it so that we are aware of its vast influence over several different fields of study. One such example in Beowulf is of interest to historical geography. Beowulf tells us of the "struggle between Swedes and Geatas, with prophecies of the complete subjugation of the Geatas by the Swedes, mark the beginning of Sweden as we now know it" (Chambers 418). Raymond Chambers also makes the point that these stories then have also identified Sweden as one of the oldest of European states. Another area affected by literary history is psychology. The study of Greek writings for medical and philosophical ideas, and interest in writers such as Donne and Milton and their writings on determinism, etc. There is also simple curiosity about the sexual orientation and creative genius of Shakespeare. Art is another subject for which an understanding of literary history is important. This year alone there have been two reenactment of Shakespearean plays, and a reenactment of Beowulf. There is much proof that interest in literary history does not fade over time but in fact gains strength. An understanding of past literature gives modern writers and intellects a porthole in which to view, fantasize and explore.
Literary history is by far more involved than a meaning in the dictionary. It engulfs whole historical periods and allows the audience a glimpse into the life and times of the author. Through the reading of Beowulf a reader is able to catch a glimpse of the collective societal culture. In Chaucer’s poem The Pardoners Tale one can see the shift in faith from the devout to the skeptic. Through his satire the audience is able to grasp the idea that the world was changing. Following the line of literary history one observes the influences of one writing style over another and understand that it plays an important role in understanding our present world. The Arts, the Sciences, Geography and many such subjects are highly dependent on literary history. It encompasses major literary traditions, movements and authors of a country and region (Barber 837) and allows the audience a porthole in which to experience the past and use it to influence future literary works.
· Barber, Katherine., ed. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
· Beowulf. Beowulf. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams et al . 6th ed. 1 vol. New York: Norton 1993. 1:27-63.
· Chambers, Raymond. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
· Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. 6th ed. 1 vol. New York: Norton. 1:164-178.
· Economou, George D. "Chaucer". In The Columbia History of British Poetry. Ed. Carl D. Woodring. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994: 55-79.
· French, Robert Dudley. A Chaucer Handbook, 2nd ed. New York: Appleton Century Crofts Inc., 1955.
· Oppenheimer, Paul. The Birth of the Modern Mind; Self, Consciousness, and the Invention of the Sonnet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.