English literature means different things in different contexts, but all definitions agree that English literature includes literary works---novels, stories, poems, nonfiction and plays---composed in English. At the college or graduate level, English literature tends to refer to British literature, while in high school and in general usage, English literature often refers to any literature written in English.
High School English Literature
According to the College Board, the entity that offers the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition exam each year, an AP English Literature course should study works "written originally in English, including pieces by African, Australian, Canadian, Indian, and West Indian authors." For high school purposes, English literature spans from the 1500s to the present. (Reference 1)
When English literature solely refers to literature from the British Isles, it is said to begin around 1450. The Tudors and the Elizabethan era brought humanism, renaissance and foreign influence such as the Italian sonnet. Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe and Shakespeare are noteworthy writers from this era of English literature. (Reference 2)
This period in English literature was marked by the rule of James I, increased pessimism in England and the rise of Protestantism. Shakespeare wrote some of his darker plays in the early 1600s. Later, great writers emerged like Donne, Milton and Bunyan, author of the important and controversial "Pilgrim's Progress." (Reference 2)
These years brought neoclassicists like Pope; popular writers like Johnson; Romantics like Shelley, Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft; and Jane Austen, one of the most important women in English literature. The Victorian era, starting in the 1830s, introduced seminal novelists (Dickens, Eliot, and the Bronte sisters), poets (Hopkins, Housman and Rossetti) and non-fiction writers (Macaulay, Carlyle and Ruskin) to English literature. (Reference 2)
The early 1900s brought important works by Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, all Irish. Woolf, Huxley and Orwell are studied in English classrooms throughout the anglophone world. After WWI and WWII, English literature focused less on politics, and more on social concerns and aesthetics. Some major writers from the post-war years include Murdoch, Lessing, Graves and Heaney. (Reference 2)
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