In grouping texts according to "type," the concept of genre is applied to all literary works, past, present, or future. Thus seeing a single work in its generic context becomes inseparable from seeing it as part of literary history. The concept of literary period also implies a grouping through time. But a work, rather than being "placed" within the entire sweep of literary history, is "placed" within a much more restricted time frame. The period concept provides another system of classification, ordering literary and cultural data chronologically, within certain discrete time periods. It assumes every age has its characteristic special features, which are reflected in its representative artifacts or creations. (Indeed, among these characteristic features may be its typical choice of genres.) The kind of coherence displayed is not accidental, for literary works participate in the culture of their times.

The Period Concept

      Basically, the period concept suggests two things: (1) that literary works can be grouped according to what they share with each other within a given time span, and (2) that this grouping can be differentiated from other such chronological groupings. Literary periods share, in Rene Wellek's phrase, "systems of norms," which include such things as conventions, styles, themes, and philosophies.

Cautions and Qualifications

      When we read, most of us like to have at least some information about historical periods because it seems to give us immediate and satisfying entry into a literary work. It often seems to explain a number of things about a poem, play, or novel. Yet before we look more specifically at how study of a period can help us, we ought to raise certain kinds of questions that are important for literary study or, for that matter, for any study which purports to search for truth. Scholarly method and scholarly care often mean observing, questioning, and noting necessary qualifications to any general theory.

      We may ask, for example, how are the "characteristic features" of a given period determined? The facts suggest that very often the majority of writers in a period will continue to use the norms of the previous period. We should note, then, that it is usually a special minority, the greatest and most significant artists, who shape and reflect the defining character of a literary period.

      It also becomes clear that at least three qualifications to the period concept are necessary. First, the features that differentiate periods are always relative: works written in one time period often display continuities with works of other periods as well as differences among themselves. Second, the beginning, the flowering, and the end of each literary period can be defined, but cannot be fixed precisely; in addition, such terminal dates may vary from one country to another. Third, no individual work can ever embody all that is associated with a given period.

      Another thing we might try to avoid as we read in, or about a period, is what may be called the "evolutionary fallacy." This involves the claim that a particular period represents an "advance" of some sort or that something "higher" has "evolved" out of earlier, more "primitive" forms. The more one studies literature, the more one recognizes that the paradigm of cumulative progress is untenable, that one period cannot be said to be "better" than another. What we do see is that works of differing styles (which reflect their time periods) often go through cycles of enthusiastic reception, then disfavor, and then perhaps revival of interest.

      Finally, the attentive student may note that even the labeling of literary periods and movements does not always appear to be consistent. This has come about because the traditional names derive from a variety of sources. "Humanism" came from the history of ideas, and the "Renaissance" from art historians; "Restoration" came from political history, and "The Eighteenth Century" is strictly chronological; "Neoclassic" and "Romantic" came from literary theory, while both "Elizabethan" and "Victorian" came from the names of reigning monarchs.

Usefulness of the Concept

      Despite these cautions and qualifications, the study of literary periods and movements can be helpful in three ways. At the least, for student or for scholar, there is always some teasing contemporary allusion that can only be cleared up by study of the age. More significantly, such study may help one avoid the potential danger of misreading a work through ignorance of its historical context. Finally, and most importantly, great works of art do indeed seem clearer and more interesting in proportion to the reader's possession of certain broad kinds of information about the age in which they were produced--whether it be about the age's religious orientation or its cosmology, about its attitude toward "love," toward the classics or its own place in history, toward the state, the individual, or society. The reader's experience of literature will necessarily be enriched by knowledge of the prevailing attitudes toward education, money, arranged marriages, duty, ethics; by its attitudes toward human nature, including the importance attached to various human faculties (spirit, reason, feeling, imagination). And especially important to the student of literature is the age's representative attitudes toward art and the methods of its creation.

Period Descriptors

      The literary periods and movements following the classical period are usually labeled as follows:
  • medieval (from the fall of Rome through the fourteenth or fifteenth century);
  • Renaissance (from its earliest beginnings in Italy in the fourteenth century through the sixteenth century elsewhere in Europe, with a shift in some countries to "Baroque" in its last phase);
  • the neoclassical (starting in the mid-seventeenth century, with its subsequent eighteenth-century development as the "Age of Enlightenment");
  • the Romantic period (beginning in the last decades of the eighteenth century and continuing at least through the middle of the nineteenth);
  • the Realist movement and its late nineteenth century extension into "naturalism";
  • and finally, the modern period, which has been given many names, all of them, so far, provisional.
Each of these major periods and movements is international in scope and designates the system of norms that dominated Western culture at a particular time of the historical process.       Historians of English literature employ period labels which emphasize, in some cases, local variations of these international periods. For example, "Elizabethan" designates a period that corresponds to the late Renaissance. "Victorian" designates the literature of the mid-nineteenth through the turn of the twentieth century in England and its spheres of influence. Nevertheless, the multiple labelings, while derived from varied sources, are ultimately compatible.

      Most required literature courses present a sampling of "landmarks," representing different genres and selected from different literary periods. There are of course elective courses in literature which study both genre and period in greater detail, by examining more specifically works of a given "type" or period, or by reading the works of a single author.

Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©Brooklyn College.

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