The eras of western literature

When looking at the history of literature emerging from the West, the Medieval era we have Beowulf (975-1010), an Old English epic poem with themes of loyalty, courage and Chivalry.

Later, The Song of Roland was produced in the 11th-century, which is an epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. The Story of the Volsungs is a late 13th-century poetic rendition in the Icelandic language. During the 1390s Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales becomes a noteworthy part of literature. It is a collection of 24 stories running over 17,000 lines.

The Renaissance era from 1500 to 1670 is marked significantly by the literary works of William Shakespeare. From Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth; from Midsummer Night’s Dream to King Lear; from Othello to The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s works evolved and reshaped how Western literature was produced, viewed, read, and understood. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse, poetry written with regular metrical lines that do not rhyme. The first version of Paradise Lost, comprising ten books, has over ten thousand lines of verse.

The Enlightenment Era saw the rise of authors including Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain among others. The Romantic Period began with William Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was a take on a metaphorical figure reflecting Shelley’s tragic childhood. Lord Bryon’s Don Juan is a satirical, epic poem portraying Don Juan, not as a womanizer but a man that women can seduce with ease.

The Transcendental Movement was a major era in Western literature. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech “The American Scholar” is considered to be a pioneering event in this Movement. Emerson delivered the speech on August 31, 1837, to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College. Emerson was invited in recognition of his work, Nature, that for the first time provided a philosophical framework to building a distinct American cultural identity.

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau was another major work produced during this period. Thoreau in this essay argued that individuals should not allow governments to overrule or waste their principles, ethics, and integrities. His motivation behind writing this essay came forth by studying slavery and witnessing the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

The Transcendental Movement was followed by the Victorian Period (1837 to 1901). Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was perhaps the first novel of prose fiction. Bronte’s narrative was focused on the moral and to a larger extent the spiritual journey of the protagonist through a first-person narrative. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a cult classic novel because of its complicated characters. The array of emotions along with tragic deaths make it an engaging read. The novel goes way ahead of a tragic romance novel for it combines the plot, characters, and structure to present a holistic view of the character’s evolution embedded with the author’s perception of the lifestyle depicting the era the novel is set in.

The Naturalism movement was important because of The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. It is a war novel set during the American Civil War. The story traces the life of Henry Fleming, a young private serving in the Union Army. He escapes from the war zone. He soon realizes his mistake and become ashamed for his actions while aspiring to get wounded on the battlefield and to be awarded the “red badge of courage,” to neutralize his timidity. During the era of Realism (1820 to 1920), the authors presented actual life in their works. The realism movement was an opposite era to the imagined acts included in literature. Authors of this era wrote about characters that were ordinary and faced normal situations. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis touched upon and expressed themes such as alienation, family responsibility, and an unexpected transformation.

Similarly, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald focuses on themes such as idealism, resistance to change, corruption, and social upheaval. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway is considered the premier American war novel from World War I. The novel perhaps looks at how a man cannot escape love and violence. Lieutenant Frederic Henry, the protagonist, faces an inner conflict between his love interest, Miss Catherine Barkley, and his duty to serve on the battlefield.

The writer is an independent researcher, author and columnist. He can be reached at and Tweets at @omariftikhar

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