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English Literature I. Background to the English Language. History/ The Makings of Modern Day English.

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english literature i

English Literature I

Background to the English Language

history the makings of modern day english
History/ The Makings of Modern Day English

About 449 AD, several large Germanic tribes, the Angles (from Denmark), Saxons (from Germany), and Jutes (from Jutland or Rhineland), traveled to the islands known as Britannia. At the time, England was not yet united and these Teutonic plunderers brought with them a Germanic-based language that would become Anglo-Saxon, or Old English.


history the makings of modern day english cont d
History/ The Makings of Modern Day English (cont’d)

In 597 AD, St. Augustine arrived from Rome to spread Christianity and convert Anglo-Saxons. Clergy were literate—priests brought writing to England (writing was a result of Christianity).

Most “literature” of the time was in the Oral Tradition, or passed down by a SCOP who could memorize and recite pages and pages of poems. The Scop praised deeds of past heroes, recorded history, and provided entertainment.

With the arrival of Christianity, more writing took place (in Latin, the language of the church). The church controlled what was written down so less religious ideas were lost.

history the makings of modern day english cont d1
History/ The Makings of Modern Day English (cont’d)

In 827, King Egbert named Britannia Englaland, or “land of the Angles,” and the language came to be called Englisc.

In the ninth century, Norse (Norway) and Danes (Denmark) were pressured by their own populations and set out for other lands—namely, the British Isles. In 871, King Alfred (the Great) was able to resist further encroachment by these Vikings; Saxons acknowledged Danish rule in the North and Danes respected Saxon rule in the South. Alfred the Great also encouraged a rebirth in learning and education (he was a great patron of the arts). He became known as the “Father of English Prose.”

King Alfred the Great


history the makings of modern day english cont d2
History/ The Makings of Modern Day English (cont’d)

By the close of the tenth century, Saxons were forced by the Danish to select Danish kings, and this went on until Edward the Confessor eventually was able to regain Saxon Rule. His death in 1066 brought about the end of Anglo-Saxon rule.

In 1066, Edward’s chosen Saxon predecessor battled with William of Normandy over rights to the throne. William won the Battle at Hastings or what was called the Norman Conquest. During his reign he saw that business was conducted in French or Latin. French became the official language, which then mixed with English (OE) to become what is now known as Middle English (ME).

history the makings of modern day english cont d3
History/ The Makings of Modern Day English (cont’d)

Middle English eventually gave way to Early Modern English, then MDE or PDE (Modern or Present day English).

OE= Beowulf, Exeter Book, etc.

ME=Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

MDE or PDE= Shakespeare

o ld english sample
Old English sample

This is from the epic Beowulf , and in its original form—Old English. Click here for a link to hear it read aloud: http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/Beowulf.Readings/Beowulf.Readings.html

middle english sample
Middle English Sample

Whan that Aprillwith his shouressooteThe droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swichlicourOf which Vertuengendred is the flour; WhanZephiruseek with his sweetebreethInspired hath in every holt and heethThe tendrecroppes, and the yongesonneHath in the ram his halve coursyronne, And smalefowelesmakenmelodye, That slepen al the nyght with open ye (so priketh hem nature in hircorages); Thannelongen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to sekenstraungestrondes, To fernehalwes, kowthe in sondrylondes; And specially from every shires endeOf Engelondto Caunterburythey wende, The hoolyblisfulmartir for to seke, That hem hath holpenwhan that they were seeke.

variations in evolvement of english
Variations in/ evolvement of English

Source: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/OE_vs_ME.pdf

characteristics of old english anglo saxon writings
Characteristics of Old English/ Anglo-Saxon Writings

Most Anglo-Saxon Writing /Poetry:

  • was fatalistic, gloomy, melancholy, and grim (dealt with the Germanic idea of wyrd, or fate)
  • addressed the reality of a warrior society
  • focused on a seafaring tradition
  • was mostly pagan though written down by monks/clergy who injected Christian ideas
characteristics of old english anglo saxon writings1
Characteristics of Old English/ Anglo-Saxon Writings
  • Poetry was usually epic (heroic; dealing with the achievements of warriors) or elegiac (lamenting the loss of a loved one).
  • Anglo-Saxon poetry had two general features: repetition and variation (on a theme)
poetic elements associated with anglo saxon poetry
Poetic elements associated with Anglo-Saxon Poetry
  • A strong rhythm, usually four beats in a line
  • Caesuras, or pauses within a line, which gave a Scop the chance to catch his breath
  • Kennings, or metaphorical two-word poetic renamings of people, places, and things, such as “whales-home” for the sea
  • Assonance, or repetition of vowel sounds
  • Alliteration, or repetition of initial consonant sounds
  • Elegy, a lyric poem mourning the loss of someone or something
  • Epic, a long narrative poem, usually developed orally, that celebrates the deeds of a hero
  • Lyric poetry,developedfrom the lyre, a stringed instrument used when poetry was recited; was both secular and religious and full of emotion
the exeter book
The Exeter Book

Acollection of manuscripts that includes pieces from oral tradition, probably compiled by monks around the time of Alfred the Great between 871 and 899.

It was a blend of traditions mixing pagan ideas about fate with Christian ideas about faith and heaven.

Included were the stories and boasts of proud warriors with lessons in humility, and the famous Exeter Riddles; most material was in poetic form.

  • -The riddles, orenigmata, are sometimes sexual in nature with their use of double-entendre. The reader is teased by a misleading description of an object.
  • -Of the 95 riddles, there are only 5 on which everyone agrees on the answer
  • -People pretty much agree on 15 of them
  • Beowulf is the oldest surviving work of English poetry, written in Old English sometime around the 11th century, although the poem dates from around the eighth century. The action takes place in Scandinavia.
  • The epic Beowulf explores the nature of heroism in medieval society.
  • The character Beowulf is a Geat from what is now southern Sweden. He sets sail to help Danish King Hrothgrar in his fight against the evil monster Grendel, who is terrorizing Denmark’s great mead hall, Herot.
  • The second battle is between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, who seeks revenge for the murder of her son.
  • The third and final battle takes place in Geatland about 50 years after the first two battles. When a dragon threatens his kingdom, the aged Beowulf is determined to slay him.
anglo saxon prose
Anglo-Saxon Prose

All prose was usually written in Latin before the reign of Alfred the Great.

Bede (673-735), a priest and a scholar, wrote The History of the English Church and People, whichgives an account of England from the Roman invasion up to his own time. He was able to generate the history of Britain, although his main concern was the spread of Christianity in England.

The Venerable Bede


themes and motifs of this time period and its literature
Themes and Motifs of this Time Period and its Literature
  • The characters outside the male community are disruptive: monsters, women, etc. Women did not hold as much importance and were infrequently found in writings of the time.
  • Nothing lasts; human relations are discordant
  • No human effort can change the course of wyrd or go against God’s will.
  • Pagan vs. Christian values
  • Making a good name for oneself was almost as good as immortality
  • Survival
  • Good vs. Evil
  • The sanctity of the home
  • Loyalty and allegiance
  • Heroism/ heroic deeds