understanding literary periods
Literary periods figure prominently in the treatment of literature by critics, scholars, teachers, publishers, readers, book sellers, and others. There is a great deal of misunderstanding, confusion, ambiguity, and disagreement about the way terms are used and works classified with respect to time. Here, The Muse attempts to clear up some of this confusion.
about literary Periods, sub-periods, and schemas
Literary periods have sub-periods which belong to them; literary periods and sub-periods can be arranged into literary schemas that display the relationships between them. The conceptual connections between literary periods, sub-periods, and schemas are implicit in their definitions:
the unity of literary periods
In literature, a unity is a combination or ordering of parts in an artistic production that constitutes a whole or promotes an undivided total effect, and the resulting singleness in effect, symmetry, and consistency of style and character.
For example, in his Poetics, describing Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, Aristotle requires a tragic play to have a single action represented as occurring in one place and within one day. Almost a thousand years later, his description became a literary guideline for French dramatists writing classical tragedies, who called Aristotle's dictum unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time.
A literary period is also a literary unity, but in a different sense, one that is analogous to Aristotle's idea. A literary period is not just a specific span of time; it is a combination of three unities—a unity of action, a unity of place, and a unity of time; together, these three unities describe an undivided total effect, symmetry, and consistency of style and character that applies to authors or groups of related authors and their works, and to the literary, cultural, and social milieus in which they work or in which they set their works.
This insight comes as second nature to those who are accustomed to literary theory; they find nothing wrong with the word period, even though it actually denotes a combined, integrated set of actions (milieus) and places as well as times. But the term period can be a source of misunderstanding to the uninitiated.
Since a single literary period is a combination of time, place, and milieu, wouldn't it be more accurate and less confusing to refer to it by a term other than period?
The short answer is yes, but terms like action and time and place or action-time-place lack that certain ring. Literary period is the customary term, one that has come to be recognized and accepted through much use. If period makes you balk, it may help to think of literary period as shorthand for literary action, literary time, and literary place. That may make the term a little easier to swallow.
Some fallacies encountered when trying to define literary periods
In the literary community, there is only partial agreement about the names to use for periods and places, the best start and stop times for demarking periods, and the conditions and circumstances that make up a milieu.
the fallacy of sub-periods
Definitions for what to call literary sub-periods, how to define them, and where to set their starting and ending dates tend to be even more equivocal than for periods. This is because smaller changes usually (not always) define the starts and ends of sub-periods, and smaller changes are harder to pin down or get people to agree to.
Equivocation can occur even when the periods in which sub-periods occur have the same names (they often do not). For example, there was a literary Renaissance in England and one in Italy, but it's wrong to assume that the two Renaissance periods match each other in all respects, even in major ones.
When does a period start? When does it end?
By now it should be apparent that a literary period usually starts with a watershed event or the start of a major new trend at a particular place, when a distinctive set of new historic, societal, or artistic characteristics emerges or comes into play, or when an old one dies. A period ends the same way. In other words, periods begin and end with key changes in a locale's milieu and with corresponding, induced changes in the works of local authors.
Scholars normally assign a precise start and end date to a period, if one is conveniently available. For example, it is common to link the start and end dates of a period to the birth and death of royalty, a major political event, or interregnum. Since most real-world changes take place gradually, precision in start and end dates is usually nominal and presumptive.
Often periods coincide with calendrical divisions, but sometimes they don't. For example, the Elizabethan Age, which is part of the Renaissance Period, begins with the ascendancy to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558; it ends with the queen's death in 1603. On the other hand, the term fin de siecle, which refers to the effete artistic climate and society that prevailed in Western Europe at the end of the 19th century, has no precise starting or ending date. It denotes roughly the period between 1880 and 1914.
Scholars and educators take pains to define the conditions which mark the start and end of each literary period. Usually their demarcations are well-advised; but sometimes they are questionable. Often scholars take different positions on what is most important or when a trend makes itself felt. Well-founded or not, scholars have demanded and exercised the license to devise periods for good reason; they have established conventional classifications for literary periods because of their need to organize, analyze, and teach their subject matter. The Muse has tried to follow these conventions wherever possible.
For convenience, the term period is commonly loosely substituted for sub-period in situations where context makes clear that sub-period is actually what's meant.
While there is considerable agreement among scholars over the names they assign to specific literary periods, there are also differences. Scholars usually name periods and sub-periods after places, towering literary figures, major political personalities, or sweeping new trends in thought that characterize a period. Period names are built out of words like Anglo Saxon, Renaissance, Classical Roman, British, Jacobean, Johnson, Romantic, and Modern.
The names actually chosen for a period are intended to reflect the most important environmental factors that define the literature in the period. As with the start and end times of a period, scholars and educators take different positions on what factors are most important, and, therefore, on what names to use.
Scholars do not even agree on the word to use for the most significant aspect of a period—time. In addition to period, era, movement, age, and epoch are other terms that are invoked.
Why divide literary works, authors, and topics according to time, place, and milieu? Dividing literature into periods has many salubrious consequences, With periods, the connections between milieus and literature can be explored and analyzed in greater detail and with more precision. Once certain properties of literature are classified and organized by period, the authors and literatures that fall within a given period become easier to examine and understand; they may become more interesting and more fruitful to explore.
Contrasts and similarities between periods and sub-periods can be illuminating. The sub-periods of a period exhibit many of the characteristics and trends exhibited by the period they share in common; but the characteristics and trends of a sub-period can differ from those of its mates in interesting and illuminating ways. For example, the Renaissance Period is sometimes subdivided into the Tudor Period, in which Spenser wrote his poetry, and the Elizabethan Period, which saw the works of early Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kydd. Comparative analysis reveals that although Protestantism was an important factor in both periods, but as time went on literature adapted to new historic events, changes in religion, culture, and new milieus.
Dividing literature into periods helps people:
Scholars identify and establish a literary period by examining the culture, society, history, and literature of a nation, region, or other cultural or geopolitical unit for a protracted period. theydefine and describe a place by examining a locale's culture, society, history, and literature. They determine its major and distinguishing cultural, societal, historic, economic, and other trends. they analyze the content, style, themes, genres, forms, and other literary aspects of the works produced by indigenous authors and assess how and to what degree these characteristics are typical. Do they reflect or influence the locale's distinguishing characteristics? They look for authors and works that seem to be organic to the place, that is, to be derived from or inherent to it. These organic works are a place's national or regional literature and their authors are a place's national or regional authors.
Scholars consider how the characteristics of these components change over the course of time, usually years or decades. They analyze the place's prominent people and institutions, the ones that have shaped the nature of life and literature throughout the passing years—the movers and shakers—and key actions and events of historic significance. they look for major, distinguishing cultural, societal, and literary trends that, in the aggregate, seem to mark the place as unique. Minutia are not overlooked when they have large consequences.
A consensus gradually develops.
Once American authors began to create characteristically American literature, it was inevitable that American scholars would apply the British notion of a literary period to New World developments. Today, British and American scholars read each other's research publications and interact. Now each group has an opportunity to address issues concerning the other's literature. Where current literary theory is concerned, decision-making is a subtle but mutual process.
The Age of Communication has also facilitated ever-closer interchanges between cultures and authors of the two nations. Consequently, the milieu and literature of each country has influenced the other. The result in the 20th and 21st Centuries has been literary periods for the two nations that are alike. For example, it is possible to identify a modern period and a postmodern period in each nation, each with unique characteristics, but both sharing overwhelmingly similar dates and other characteristics. These kinds of outcomes demonstrate how and why, in the modern era, literary periods in different places resemble each other.
As a result of these developments, by and large there is considerable agreement among scholars about what name to give each of the periods that subdivides British and American literature, their distinguishing characteristics, and the date at which each one starts and ends. Perhaps agreement stems from the fact that the two national languages resemble each other to such and extent that the literature of each nation is extensively read by the other. Scholars of the two nations cooperate with each other because they are familiar with each other's literature and teach it to the same reading public.
All the exchanges among scholars not withstanding, the period names, characteristics, and dates that a reader runs across depend on what reference or text book is accessed or who is consulted.
Fortunately, although the precise classification of literary periods can be critical to scholars, the rest of us only use literary periods to improve reading comprehension and for orientation; precision is not a requisite. Unless you want to become expert in this field, The Muse advises you to approach period schema the way you would a survey course. For this reason, The Muse offers you a selection of lists of literary periods you can easily access on the internet and compare.
Explore a cross section of literary period schemes composed by different experts and sources; use them to compare what different experts have to say about literary periods:
The notion of literary periods helps scholars describe, analyze, and characterize literature by chronologically dividing it. But a literary period is not the only chronological unit that is useful for characterizing literary authors and works. The terms era, movement, age, and epoch are also employed.
The meanings of these terms are nuanced; but for practical purposes, there is little difference between any of these words when it comes to designating a literary period; each may be used for this purpose—to designate a unit of time created to classify literature.
For some reason, English and American scholars and tradition incline to the term period when classifying English Literature, although scholars have no qualms about using era or movement when it suits. Age and epoch are also employed.
The Muse encourages you to remain alert to the fact that these terms have overlapping but sometimes subtly different meanings. At once they can mean the same thing or they can mean something different.
What meanings do these terms have in common?
In literature, the idea of place is more than a pushpin pressed into a spot on a map. The notion of place involves factors such as literary style, genre, and form, culture, society, history, a sense of belonging, and a number of other geopolitical, economic, and psychological factors. Most of all, it involves spirit—a set of attitudes or principles inspired by a locale that animates or pervades the literary thought, emotion, temperament, feelings, attitudes, and actions of a single author or group of authors.
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