Sequencing teaching carefully is very important in supporting our students’ memory and ensuring that we are embedding knowledge of context that will ultimately support any new learning that they do. Here is an overview of the literary time periods that I teach my A Level English Literature students and also weave throughout my KS3 and KS4 teaching. It’s particularly useful as a knowledge organiser or learning checklist if your students find them useful.
14th-17th century (arguably)
Meaning ‘rebirth’, the Renaissance saw society break away from the feudal control that defined the dark ages. The invention of a more efficient printing press in 1440 gave birth to increased literacy rates and allowed the wider and quick distribution of texts. This meant that ideas about fashion, art, literature and government made their way around Europe and into Britain very quickly. Thought of as isolated and inaccessible, Britain was finally able to become involved in the cultures that swirled around the continent. With few people being able to read or write, the medieval tradition or reading stories out loud was a dominant practice within communities; this gave way to quiet reading, which is a definitive part of the renaissance: the individual on a journey with the writer. Literature was no longer only for the privileged elite. It’s important to remember that each country experienced the renaissance in different ways. Spanning 1500-1650, it saw England offer some of the most famous literary works ever known.
- Donne, John (1572-1631)
- Jonson, Ben (1572-1637)
- Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)
- Marlowe, Christopher (1564-1593)
- Milton, John (1608-1674)
The age of Enlightenment was focused on scientific discovery and the continued questioning of religious orthodoxy. As a movement, it sought to action the ideas and realisations that the renaissance had sparked. Literacy levels continued to rise and many libraries started to appear across Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were on the front line of the Enlightenment. Rousseau’s most important work was Emilé which pushed for liberal education for all as a means to create productive and good citizens that would develop society further. The ideas that the Enlightenment advocated did have their consequences – the French Revolution revealed how the idea that a collective power can solve all problems could descend into bloody horror.
- Pope, Alexander (1688-1744)
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778)
- Voltaire (1694-1778)
- Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759-1797)
The most significant form of expression during this period was poetry. Writers made strong connections to mythology and medievalism and there was a clear fascination with the mystical and with nature. Conventional rules of form, rhyme and structure were also loosening with blank verse becoming popular. William Blake and John Keats are both definitive of this movement. Blake was also a master engraver and his language choices and themes meant his poetry was widely accessible. Country life, or pastoral poetry, were used to great effect; romanticist writers were widely influential, but as time went on, their writing tended to be considered a little too mystical and out of touch with reality.
- Poe, Edgar Allen (1809-1849)
- Shelley, Mary (1797-1851)
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792-1822)
- Wordsworth, William (1770-1850)
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772-1834)
- Blake, William (1757-1827)
- Lord Byron (1788-1824)
- Keats, John (1795-1821)
Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and Eliot’s Middlemarch are amongst a melody of famous works published in the period whilst Queen Victoria reigned. The novel was the leading form during this time period and portrayed idealised stories based on everyday life. Love, luck, hard work, determination and perseverance were popular themes. The Bronte family produced masterpieces of fiction, with Wuthering Heights featuring violence and the supernatural, which was quite unusual. Reclaiming the past was a huge part of Victorian literature; it drew on classical and medieval influences with stories of knights in shining armour and heroism was particularly favoured. Oscar Wilde was on the frontline of poetry in the late Victorian period; The Importance of being Earnest was incredibly popular because of its irony and its presentation of the aristocracy.
- Charles Dickens, 1812-1870
- Anthony Trollope, 1815-1882
- Wilkie Collins, 1824-1889
- Elizabeth Gaskell, 1810-1865
- Charlotte Bronte, 1816-1855
- Emily Bronte, 1818-1848
- George Eliot, 1819–1880
Naturalism focuses on the observation and the scientific method in the portrait of real life. Thomas Hardy is particularly definitive of this movement. Writers observed the given positions in society of their characters. It disposed of the concept of free will and looked at the inevitable effects of negative preconditions. It is possible to see the literal application of Darwin’s theory of evolution to the social situations of characters, however this is never what Darwin suggested or intended as possible. Fate played a huge part in the naturalism movement and the idea that a person cannot move from their given position was a central focus; it takes a dispassionate and detached view of human life.
- Hardy, Thomas (1814-1928)
- Wharton, Edith (1862-1937)
- Norris, Frank (1870-1902)
- Zola, Emile (1840-1902)
- Crane, Stephen (1871-1900)
19th and 20th century
Modernism takes a clear and purposeful break from tradition. Both World War One and World War Two sent shockwaves through society that changed cultural tradition when it came to writing. The inner self and individuality were pushed forward as popular, both of which would previously have been discouraged. This focus did however, became favoured less so when movement towards social and gender equality became central to cultural conversation. Critics point to T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland as a definitive example of Modernist literature. It loses traditional structure and is occupied with inwardness and the self.
- Bishop, Elizabeth (1911-1979)
- Eliot, Thomas Stearns (1888-1965)
- Faulkner, William (1897-1962)
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1896-1940)
- Hemingway, Ernest (1899-1961)
On teaching context: