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History of English Literature

Andrew Lang

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History of English Literature by Andrew Lang is a massive book that covers English literature from Anglo-Saxon literature all the way through to authors like Anthony Trollope and William Morris. Inbetween Lang covers Latin Literature, The Stories of Arthur, Political Songs, Romances and Poems. Early Scottish Literature, Rise of the Drama, Elizabethan and Jacobean Prose Writers, Georgian Prose, The Romantic Movement, and Late Victorian Poets, among many others.

This book has 493 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1912; this edition, 1921.

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Excerpt from 'History of English Literature'

The literature of every modern country is made up of many elements, contributed by various races; and has been modified at different times by foreign influences. Thus, among the ancient Celtic inhabitants of our islands, the peoples whom the Romans found here, the Welsh have given us the materials of the famous romances of King Arthur, and from the Gaelic tribes of Ireland and Scotland come the romances of heroes less universally known, Finn, Diarmaid, Cuchulain, and the rest. But the main stock of our earliest poetry and prose, like the main stock of our language, is Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxon tribes who invaded Britain, and after the departure of the Romans (411) conquered the greater part of the island, must have had a literature of their own, and must have brought it with them over sea.

For all early peoples, even the least civilized, possess the germs of literature. They have their hymns to their Divine Father above the sky, and to gods and spirits; they have magic songs, to win the love of women, or to cause the deaths of men; they have love-songs, and songs of feats of war. They possess fairy-tales, and legends in prose concerning gods and fabulous heroes; they have tales of talking birds and beasts; and they have dances in which the legends of old heroes are acted and sung. These dances are the germ of the drama: the songs are the germs of lyric poetry; the beast-stories are the sources of books like Æsop's Fables and Ovid's "Metamorphoses"; and the fairy-tales are the earliest kind of novels.

The Anglo-Saxon invaders were, of course, on a very much higher level than that of savages. They were living in the age of iron; they did not use bronze for their swords, spears, and axes; much more remote were they from the period of stone axes, stone, knives, and stone arrow-heads. They could write, not in the Roman alphabet, but in "Runes," adapted at some unknown time by the Germanic peoples, probably from the Greek characters; and there is no reason why they should not have used this writing to preserve their poetry, though it is not certain that they did so at this early, period.

One early Anglo-Saxon poem, indeed, "The Husband's Message," professes to be written in runic characters on a staff or tablet of wood. Even more ancient poems may have been written and preserved in this way, but the wood, the bóc (book) as it was called, has perished, while brief runic inscriptions on metal and on stone remain.

The Anglo-Saxon Way of Living.

The society of the Anglo-Saxons, as described in the oldest surviving poems, was like that of the early Irish about a.d. 200 as depicted in their oldest romances, and like that of the early Icelanders as painted in the sagas, or stories of 1100, and later. Each free man had his house, with its large hall, and a fire in the centre. In the hall, usually built of timber, the people ate and passed their time when not out of doors, and also slept at night, while there were other rooms (probably each was a small separately roofed house) for other purposes. The women had their "bower," the married people had their little bedclosets off the hall, and there were store-rooms. The house stood in a wide yard or court, where geese and other fowls were kept; it was fenced about with a palisade, or a bank and hedge. Tilling the soil, keeping cattle, hunting, and war and raiding, by sea and land, were the occupations of the men; the women sewed and span, and kept house.

A group of such homesteads, each house well apart from its neighbours, made the village or settlement: there were no towns with streets, such as the Romans left in Britain.

A number of such villages were united in the tribe, each tribe had its king, while the other chief men, the richest and best born, constituted a class of gentry. Later, tribes were gathered into small kingdoms, with a "Bretwalda" or "Over-Lord," the most powerful of the kings, at the head of all.

This kind of society is almost exactly the same as that which Homer describes among the Greeks, more than a thousand years before Christ. As in Homer, each Anglo-Saxon king had his Gleeman (scop) or minstrel, who sang to his household and to the guests in hall. The songs might be new, of his own making, or lays handed down from of old.

We shall see that the longer Anglo-Saxon poems, before Christianity came in, were stories about fabulous heroes; or real kings of times past, concerning whom many fables were told. Most of these tales, or "myths," were not true; they were mere ancient "fairy stories," in which sometimes real but half-forgotten warriors and princes play their parts. The traditions, however, were looked on as being true, and the listeners to the gleemen thought that they were learning history as well as being amused. Meanwhile any man might make and sing verses for his own pleasure, about his own deeds and his own fancies, sorrows, and loves.

There was no lack of old legends of times before the English invasion of Britain, or of legends quite fabulous about gods and heroes. We know from Roman and early Christian authors, that the other Germanic peoples, on the Continent, had abundance of this material for poetry: thus the Germans sang of Arminius, the Lombards sang of Alboin, or Ælfwine (died a.d. 573), and the Scandinavians and Germans had legends of Attila, the great Hun conqueror, in the fifth century, and of Sigurd, who slew Fafnir, the Snake-Man; of the vengeance of Brynhild, and all the other adventures of the Volsungs and Niblungs; in Germany fashioned, much later, into the famous "Nibelungenlied".

The Anglo-Saxons, too, knew forms of these legends; and mention the heroes of them in their poetry. Thus there is no reason why the Anglo-Saxons should not have produced poems as magnificent as those of the early Greeks, except that they, like all other peoples, had not the genius of the Greeks for poetry, and for the arts; and had not their musical language, and glorious forms of verse. They were a rough country folk, and for long did not, like the Greeks, live in towns.

But even if they had possessed more genius than they did, much of their old literature would probably have been lost when they became Christians; and when the clergy, who had, most to do with writing, generally devoted themselves only to verses on Biblical or other Christian subjects, or to prose sermons; and to learned books in Latin. While plenty of Anglo-Saxon Christian poetry survives, of poetry derived from the heathen times of the Anglo-Saxons there is comparatively little, and much of it has been more or less re-written, and affected by later changes and additions, in early Christian times.

The fragments of old poetry enable us to understand the poetic genius of our remote ancestors as it was before they had wholly adopted Christianity, or come under Latin, French, and Norman influences. From the descendants of the Britons whom they had conquered, or who survived as their Welsh neighbours, they seem, at this time, to have borrowed little or nothing in the way of song or story.

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