How does Literature Reflects the Spirit of the Age?

It is often said that history is the biography of a nation while literature is its autobiography. Truly speaking an author is as much a product of his society as his art is product of his own reaction to life. Literature reflects ‘zeitgeist’ or the time-spirit. Everyman, according to Goethe’s statement, is the citizen of his age as well as of his country. Literature as a whole grows and changes from generation to generation and obviously it is the rise, growth and decline of ideas, precepts and morals. Thus literature becomes a sort of sociological approach, a supplementary and commentary on history. As the pearl is the product of the oyster shell, literature is the product of the society.

In the overview of Western critical thought we find both ancient and modern critics who directly relate the literature to the life and manners of the society. Way back into the 5th century B.C Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher and critic says that the nature of the universe is imitation and Plato compares poets to bad man, and calls them an imitator of an imitation. However, we can see the irony of the fact that Plato is not above using the power of poetry for his own ends. Plato definitely believes that poetry has power, and that power make people want to imitate what they saw in art. Aristotle, like Plato, sees Art as imitative, but, unlike Plato, sees it as imitating essence, rather than audience. Therefore, Art is actually higher on the chain than the empirical world, and elevates rather than lowers us. Longinus's On the Sublime is all about how to maximize transport or elevation since, according to Longinus that is the one true character is tic of great art. Read More Criticism  Sidney in his Apology For Poetry states that poetry blends the universal and the particular along with the capacity to inspire us to noble action. Arnold in his Essay in Criticism defines poetry, criticism and culture almost interchangeably. Poetry, to him, is at bottom a criticism of life’. Though the theories differ, more or less the texts of English literature must be analyzed as the larger story of English social life – the rise and mission of a nation. In fact it is true for all nations and continents.

The best possible option of under standing the relationship between literature and society is the study of works of literature as social documents and as assumed pictures of social reality. The outline of social history can be documented through literary texts. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales portrays the whole picture gallery of English society in the 14th century. The thirty odd pilgrims are the realistic picture of English social life. The Fairy Queene by Spenser is all about an allegorical dream. The aim and object of his great epic is didactic. The poem is inspired with the high seriousness and religions fervour of Puritanism. In his Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh Spenser says that the general end of his epic is to fashion a gentleman, or noble person, in virtuous and gentle discipline. All of the tragic heroes of Marlowe are the product of renaissance.Read More Criticism Dr. Faustus, Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine the great, Edward II are outburst of passion which is uncanny and bold. Notably, Dr. Faustus has the infinite passion after new learning of necromancy and infinite knowledge and power. Shakespeare in his plays, both comedy & tragedies, tries to reflect the Elizabethan audience. The Elizabethan female folk, the middle-class, the courtly life and its artificial pomp – everything is vivid in his plays. His famous play Hamlet contains a famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’ – which is most philosophical statement is the conflict between passion and reason. It is in fact, the very spirit of renaissance. Milton is one the other hand revolutionary both in content and in form. In his Paradise Lost we find Satan overwhelmed yet courageous, in Samson Agonistes resurrection courage.
In the Restoration England, Dryden and pope are more social than other English poets. Moreover British culture during their time is more literary than ever before. The social, intellectual, literary and religious aspects of the England are best exhibited in their texts. The Romantic writers, however, live through much momentous changes in the political, economic, social and literary spheres. The idea of revolution informs the Romantic Movement from the beginning. Many mayor writers of this period are aware that great changes are taking place around them and that these changes would inevitably find their way into literature also. The French Revolution seems to be the great divide and the beginning of a new era in the history of mankind. William Hazlitt rightly observes in his book The Spirit of The Age: “There was a mighty percent of the heads of statesman and poets, kings and people …. It was a time of promise, a renewal of the world and of letters”. The new slogans, liberty, equality and fraternity is everywhere in the texts of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and such great writers.
The most representative spirit of Victorian period is its compromise – in religion, in morals and in social life. Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, Hardy are the great exponents of this age. In the novels of Dickens Thackeray and George Eliot we find the industrial England, its progress, it mirth and sorrows. The sweet little pool of domestic English is seen in Jane Austen too. Read More Criticism But the basic pre-occupation of this age is the doubt and uncertainty – Next, the modern age is more complex. It writes about the absurdity of life. The human conditions are largely incomprehensible and ridiculous in the writings of Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf etc. the two world wars and the spiritual bankruptcy of the modern men are their primary focus.
In a nutshell, we can conclude by saying that literature give us details of a man called an author who stamps his impress upon his age by his strong personality and by the same process he also takes the impress of his age; and the success of his work, entirely original as it may seem to be, is often due to the way – in which it meets or anticipates the general taste of the public to which he appeals.