The field of English literature comprises the body of written works produced in the English language by inhabitants of the British Isles, including Ireland. As a literary discipline, it is generally agreed to have begun sometime in Anglo-Saxon England, between the 8th and 11th centuries with the epic poem Beowulf, which remains to this date one of the most famous and formative works of Old English. English literature continued to develop and expand through the early medieval Middle Ages with the publication of texts such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and during the late 16th and early 17th centuries of the Renaissance with poetry from the likes of William Shakespeare, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton (responsible for the prose epic Paradise Lost).
The field continued to develop through the 18th and early 19th century with contributions from Romantic poets such as William Worsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The arrival of the Victorian Era saw the novel become the world’s leading literary genre through significant writers such as Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville. The early 20th and 21st century saw the development of the modernist genre with poets and writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence.
English literature is one of the broadest and most studied academic disciplines in the world, and involves the development of sophisticated reading and analytical skills, as well as an insight into framing literary texts within their wider historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts. The study of English literature also engages in the critical analysis of literary form and technique, narrative theory, and the development of the English language throughout literary and human history.
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