A blend of Germanic and Latin-based languages, English has produced a literary canon that spans centuries. From the eighth-century epic poem “Beowulf” to Anne Tyler's Pulitzer-winning novel "Breathing Lessons," English literature has shaped Western culture and influenced world literature; poet and playwright William Shakespeare has been translated into every major living language, for example. English literature can be divided into four main types.
It was an unknown, world-weary poetic voice that first inaugurated the English language into literary form with the heroic poem “Beowulf” and the elegiac poem “The Seafarer.” English poetry, the meter and rhyme of lines, evolved with the language, giving way to sonnets and then the metered but unrhymed lines of “blank verse” in the Renaissance and Romantic periods. "Free verse” followed in the 19th century, embodied by Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” an intensely lyrical poem that flowed freely of any line pattern or rhyme scheme. Modernist poets like E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound experimented further with syntax, breaking traditional rules of grammar and punctuation.
The best-known English dramatist is arguably Shakespeare, whose tragedies and comedies, such as “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” are performed throughout the world more than 400 years after their creation. Unlike poetry and fiction genres, English drama relies solely on dialogue -- that is, characters’ spoken interaction as expressed in a scene before an audience. Scenes make up acts, akin to narrative chapters, and acts make up plays. Modern English dramatists include George Bernard Shaw, whose “Pygmalion” was later adapted into “My Fair Lady,” and Tennessee Williams, who penned such notable dramas as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” English drama broadened its reach in the 20th century with the advent of the film industry. Screenwriting paralleled dramatic writing in many ways, adapting stories to the screen rather than the stage.
English fiction tells a story with dialogue and event narration. Novels became the dominant form of English fiction in the 19th century, with popular Victorian novelists such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The latter’s “Great Expectations,” for instance, explored class differences in London at the height of the Industrial Revolution through the point of view of its young, working-class protagonist, Pip. In the 20th century, short stories became a popular mode of fiction. Whereas novels were long and comprehensive in their portraiture, short stories were often brief sketches, as in the shorter works of Ernest Hemingway. For example, Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” is only four pages long.
As a type of English literature, nonfiction includes essays, polemics, histories, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies and journalistic writing. Nonfiction focuses on historical realities rather than the imaginative worlds and emotional realities of poetry, fiction and drama. Essays were a particularly important form of nonfiction writing during historical political movements in England and America. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” published at the end of the 18th century, was an early argument for feminism. During the birth of America, the “Federalist Papers” were first published anonymously as a series of articles and essays arguing for a national constitution. Nonfiction remains a popular way to tell stories, as in Jon Krakauer's 1997 chronicle of an actual mountaineering disaster, “Into Thin Air.”