Father of English Literature, Prose, Poetry, Novel, Drama

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Father of English Literature

Geoffrey Chaucer ( 1340s – 25 October 1400) was a famous English poet, author, and civil servant considered as “Father of English Literature”. He is best known for The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.

Father of English Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer is not only called the “father of English literature”, but also the “father of English poetry”.

Father of English Literature - Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer (19th century, held by the National Library of Wales)
Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer (19th century, held by the National Library of Wales)

He was the first writer to be buried in Westminster Abbey, what has since come to be called Poets’ Corner. Chaucer also gained fame as a philosopher and astronomer, composing the scientific A Treatise for his 10-year-old son Lewis. He maintained a career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier, diplomat, and member of parliament.

Chaucer is sometimes considered the source of the English vernacular tradition. His achievement for the language can be seen as part of a general historical trend towards the creation of a vernacular literature, after the example of Dante, in many parts of Europe. A parallel trend in Chaucer’s own lifetime was underway in Scotland through the work of his slightly earlier contemporary, John Barbour, and was likely to have been even more general, as is evidenced by the example of the Pearl Poet in the north of England.

Portrait of Chaucer by Romantic era poet and painter William Blake, c. 1800
Portrait of Chaucer by Romantic era poet and painter William Blake, c. 1800

Although Chaucer’s language is much closer to Modern English than the text of Beowulf, such that (unlike that of Beowulf) a Modern English-speaker with a large vocabulary of archaic words may understand it, it differs enough that most publications modernise his idiom. The following is a sample from the prologue of The Summoner’s Tale that compares Chaucer’s text to a modern translation:

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer

Original Text:

This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder.

For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle
In spirit ones by a visioun;
And as an angel ladde hym up and doun,
To shewen hym the peynes that the were,
In al the place saugh he nat a frere;
Of oother folk he saugh ynowe in wo.

Unto this angel spak the frere tho:
Now, sire, quod he, han freres swich a grace
That noon of hem shal come to this place?

Yis, quod this aungel, many a millioun!
And unto sathanas he ladde hym doun.
–And now hath sathanas, –seith he, –a tayl
Brodder than of a carryk is the sayl.

Hold up thy tayl, thou sathanas!–quod he;
–shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place!–
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute,
And comen agayn as faste as they may gon,
And in his ers they crepten everychon.
He clapte his tayl agayn and lay ful stille.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer

Modern Translation:

This friar boasts that he knows hell,
And God knows that it is little wonder;
Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.

For, by God, you have ofttimes heard tell
How a friar was taken to hell
In spirit, once by a vision;
And as an angel led him up and down,
To show him the pains that were there,
In all the place he saw not a friar;
Of other folk he saw enough in woe.

Unto this angel spoke the friar thus:
“Now sir”, said he, “Have friars such a grace
That none of them come to this place?”
“Yes”, said the angel, “many a million!”
And unto Satan the angel led him down.
“And now Satan has”, he said, “a tail,
Broader than a galleon’s sail.

Hold up your tail, Satan!” said he.
“Show forth your arse, and let the friar see
Where the nest of friars is in this place!”
And before half a furlong of space,
Just as bees swarm out from a hive,
Out of the devil’s arse there were driven
Twenty thousand friars on a rout,
And throughout hell swarmed all about,
And came again as fast as they could go,
And every one crept into his arse.
He shut his tail again and lay very still.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

General Prologue, l. 1-12:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swych licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

Father of English drama:

Henrik Johan Ibsen or Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright and theatre director. He was born in 20 March 1828 and died 23 May 1906. Henrik Ibsen is famously known as the Father of Modern Drama, and it is worth recognizing how literal an assessment that is.

Portrait of Henrik Ibsen 1863-64
Portrait of Henrik Ibsen 1863-64

As one of the founders of modernism in theatre, Ibsen is often referred to as “the father of realism” and one of the most influential playwrights of his time. His major works include Brand, Peer Gynt, An Enemy of the People, Emperor and Galilean, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, When We Dead Awaken, Rosmersholm, and The Master Builder. Ibsen is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare, and A Doll’s House was the world’s most performed play in 2006.

The Norwegian playwright was not merely one of a wave of new writers to experiment with dramatic form, nor did he make small improvements that were built upon by successors. Rather, Ibsen himself conceived of how the theatre should evolve, and, against great adversity, fulfilled his vision.

Portrait by Henrik Olrik, 1879
Portrait by Henrik Olrik, 1879

“The standing of the theater in the 1850s was at its lowest, in both Europe and the United States,”

supplies Ibsen scholar Brian Johnston.

“In Britain, for example, the last new play of any significance to appear until the arrival of A Doll’s House in London in 1889 was Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777). During one of the most prolific periods of English-speaking literature, which saw the full flowering of the Romantic movement in poetry and the arts and the rise of the realistic novel as a major literary genre, not a single drama of major significance appeared.

It was the period, in fiction, of Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Wharton; in poetry, of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Whitman. No other period has been at once so rich in literature and so barren in drama.”

Adding to the obstacles was the fact that Ibsen hailed from Norway, a country with almost no dramatic tradition of its own. Because Denmark had ruled Norway for the previous 500 years, most theatre was performed in Danish, by Danish companies.

Father of English Novel:

Henry Fielding is considered as “Father of English Novel”. He was an English novelist, irony writer and dramatist known for earthy humour and satire. He was born at Sharpham Park, Glastonbury, Somerset, South West England, UK. He studied at Leyden, and began to write theatrical comedies, becoming author/manager of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket (1736). However, the sharpness of his burlesques led to the Licensing Act (1737), which closed his theatre.

Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding

In search of an alternative career, he was called to the bar (1740), but his interests lay in journalism and fiction. On Richardson’s publication of Pamela (1740), he wrote his famous parody, Joseph Andrews (1742). Several other works followed, notably The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749), which established his reputation as a founder of the English novel. As a reward for his government journalism, he was made justice of the peace to Westminster, where he helped to form the Bow Street Runners within the police force.

Fielding married his first wife, Charlotte Craddock, in 1734. She died in 1744. In 1747 he married his wife’s former maid, Mary Daniel. She was pregnant at the time of their marriage. Mary bore five children, three of whom died young.

Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding

Fielding’s ardent commitment to the cause of justice as a great humanitarian in the 1750s (for instance, his support of Elizabeth Canning) coincided with a rapid deterioration in his health. This continued to such an extent that he went abroad to Portugal in 1754 in search of a cure. Gout, asthma and other afflictions made him use crutches. He died in Lisbon two months later. His tomb is located inside the city’s English Cemetery (Cemitério Inglês).

Father of English Prose:

There is a lot of debate on this issue. Some people say John de Mandeville “has been called the “Father of English Prose.

William Tyndale may be regarded as the father of English prose as a whole, but when only Anglo-Saxon period is considered, there is no such conclusive answer. Some consider Alfred the Great to be the father of English prose. Following is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article “Old English Literature”:

The most widely known secular author of Old English was King Alfred the Great (849–899), who translated several books, many of them religious, from Latin into Old English. Alfred, wanting to restore English culture, lamented the poor state of Latin education:

So general was [educational] decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could…translate a letter from Latin into English; and I believe there were not many beyond the Humber

— Pastoral Care, introduction

Alfred proposed that students be educated in Old English, and those who excelled should go on to learn Latin.

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