The cradle of writing

Mesopotamia: 3rd millennium BC

The earliest uses of writing are strictly practical - lists of commodities, temple accounts, details of a contract. Such documents are short and not too daunting to a Mesopotamian scribe, writing with a reed stylus on a tablet of Damp clay. For centuries it seems unthinkable to write down an entire epic poem, familiar to these societies only in the form of recitation.

When writing is first developed, an oral poetic tradition is already a feature of civilized life. Eventually the scribes get round to the task of recording some of this material. Mesopotamia provides the world's two earliest surviving works of literature.

They are Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Both probably date back in their oral form to the middle of the third millennium BC. Both are known from fragments of clay tablets of the second millennium and from more complete texts in the library of Ashurbanipal.

Enuma Elish, a Creation story of considerable complexity, is not very rewarding if read as literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh, by contrast, is a masterpiece - worthy of being spoken of in the same context as the Homeric poems. Homer is on a far grander scale, but is more than a millennium later.

The eastern heritage

India and the Vedas: 1500-400 BC

The Sanskrit literature of India dates back in oral tradition to the middle of the second millennium BC. It enshrines the Vedic religion of the newcomers into India at this time, the Aryans.

The earliest and best known of the four Vedas is the Rigveda, a collection of temple hymns. Of the other three, the Samaveda and the Yajurveda are collections of priestly chants and prayers for use during sacrificial rituals; the Atharveda is more concerned with religion in the life of the individual worshipper.

Loosely attached to the four Vedas are the more mystical texts called in modern times the Upanishads (from a Sanskrit word meaning 'sitting down near'). Written down over a long period from oral tradition (a process largely complete by about 400 BC), they deal with the nature of the individual soul and of the ultimate divine being - and with how the one may gradually approach the other.

The Upanishads complete the so-called Vedic period of Sanskrit literature, essentially religious in its concerns. Nevertheless, one of the central texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, comes from an epic poem of the next period (usually referred to as the Classical period). It is a speculative dialogue during a lull before one of the many battles in the Mahabharata.

Mahabharata and Ramayana: from the 4th century BC

The Mahabharata ('Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty') is by far the longer of India's two national epics. It is a massive compilation of chronicle and myth, brought together from about the 4th century BC and probably reaching its present form by about AD 200. It is traditionally (but most improbably) attributed to a single author, a wise man by the name of Vyasa.

The poem amounts to nearly 100,000 couplets, about seven times as long as the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. Like the Homeric poems, it probably derives from historical events - and events of much the same period (somewhere between 1400 and 1000 BC).

Unlike the Mahabharata, the somewhat shorter Ramayana ('Romance of Rama') does show signs of being largely the work of a single author - the poet Valmiki, writing in about 300 BC.

A reasonably coherent story, full of romance and adventure, it has remained immensely popular in India for more than two millennia. Passages from it are frequently recited. Rama's adventures provide many of the scenes depicted in Hindu sculpture and painting; and a dramatic version of the story is performed every year in the towns and villages of north India in the pageant of Ram-Lila.

China: from 1100 BC

Poems ranging in date from 1100 to 600 BC are collected in the earliest work of Chinese literature, the Shijing or 'Classic of Poetry'. Most of them are lyrical and often wistful - as, for example, in the poignant appeal of a girl growing old without a lover. This collection of about 300 poems has a profound influence on the development of literature in China, inclining writers to delicate impressionism rather than the more violent epic tradition of India and Europe.

The poems of the Shijing are gathered together shortly before the time of Confucius. He makes much use of the collection as a source of quotations, and it becomes known as one of the five Confucian Classics.

The other four Confucian Classics are of less interest from a literary point of view. The best known, the I Ching or 'Classic of Changes', is a book of divination. The Li Chi or 'Book of Rites' gives instruction in matters of ritual and good behaviour, a subject of great importance to Confucius. Passages from this text have been memorized over the centuries by generations of well-behaved Chinese schoolchildren.

The Shu Ching or 'Classic of Documents' is a collection of state papers of various kinds. And the Ch'un Ch'iu is a history of the state of Lu, the birthplace of Confucius, from the 8th to the 5th century BC.

The solemnity of the official works of Confucianism is somewhat offset by the Lun Yu or 'Analects', a collection of the master's sayings gathered together a century or so after his death. Here his ideas seem much less predictable than one would imagine. Indeed the glimpses of Confucius among his disciples are often quite surprising.

The other important Chinese book of this period is also an antidote to rigid Confucianism. It is the Confucius ('The Way and its Power'), the manual of China's alternative religion, Daoism.

The western heritage

Twin sources Bible and Homer: from 1000 BC

Two great reservoirs of source material for European literature (and indeed for all European art) are recorded for posterity in regions bordering the eastern Mediterranean during the centuries after 1000 BC.

The holy books of Judaism are slightly the earlier of the two. Known to Christians as the Old testament, they are written down (at first from earlier oral sources) from about 1000 BC onwards. The other comparable body of material derives entirely from an oral tradition. Somewhere around 750 BC the Odyssey and the Iliad are transformed from bardic songs into written texts - the transition from folklore to literature. They are credited to a blind poet, Homer.

The Homeric question

Who was Homer? When did he write? What did he write? These difficult matters, known collectively as the 'Homeric question', have puzzled scholars since as early as the 6th century BC. The problem is neatly avoided in Max Beerbohm's phrase 'those incomparable poets Homer'. And it is well stated in a legendary schoolboy howler: 'Homer was not written by Homer but by another poet of the same name.'

The truth is that nothing is known about Homer other than what can be gleaned from the Iliad and the Odyssey (and it is not even certain that they are by the same hand). But a greater truth is that European literature begins, in Homer, with two amazing masterpieces.

Important clues to the date of Homer are provided by physical details recorded in the poems, such as the design of costume and armour, or methods of fighting. These reflect the realities of life (as known from archaeology) at two particular periods, the 13th century and the 8th century BC.

The 13th century sees the final flowering of Mycenaean Greece. It is the time when the Greeks probably go to war against Troy and it is therefore the period of the events remembered, in heroic form, in the story of the Iliad (see the Trojan War). The 8th century is when the poems become fixed in approximately the versions now known to us.

In the unsettled centuries following the Trojan War, the art of writing (known in Mycenae in the form of Linear b) is lost. But the events of the war are remembered, celebrated and richly embroidered by generations of bards. At festivals, or in the houses of great men, these bards recite incidents from the story.

Their narratives, made more memorable in rhythmic couplets, are the stock in trade of these men. Their livelihood depends on exciting an audience, eager to enjoy the exploits of heroes and gods. A well-told episode, honed in performance, is a valuable property, to be handed on to the next generation.

Newly added details, if found to give pleasure, are included for a while as a regular part of the story. But details added a generation a two or ago are easily recognized by the audience as anachronistic, old-fashioned. They are neither from the heroic past nor up to date. They are yesterday's material. They are dropped.

So the bardic recitals at any time tend to consist of the original core of the stories with a sprinkling of contemporary detail. This is the basis for the conclusion that the poems become stabilized (or written down by the mysterious Homer) during the 8th century BC.

Written texts of Homer: 8th - 5th century BC

There is a good reason for this particular date, the 8th century BC. It is when writing returns to Greece, in a more congenial alphabetic form.

But it is not a case of someone simply writing down an existing poem. The strongest argument for Homer as a single writer of genius is the accomplished literary form of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The separate incidents which make up the two stories must certainly have been in the repertoire of many performers, but no single bard is likely to have sung all the material that Homer uses. And nobody, in an age before writing, has either the incentive or the opportunity to fashion such skilfully shaped overall narratives - with beginning, middle and end.

The plot of the Iliad follows one very precise thread, announced in the opening words of the poem: 'The wrath of Achilles is my theme'.

Achilles is wrathful at the start of the poem because Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, has taken from him a beautiful girl, Briseis, a prize of war. Achilles, the great warrior, sulks in his tent and the Greek cause suffers. Many dramatic events follow directly from this premise, and while describing them Homer fills in the broader picture of the Trojan War. By the end there is reconciliation; order is restored; Briseis is back in the bed of Achilles. In masterly fashion, and with wonderfully vivid story-telling and characterization, a wide canvas has been sketched without loss of focus.

By contrast the Odyssey is a collection of fantastic adventures, experienced by Odysseus on his ten-year journey home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. But again they are held within a clear narrative frame.

At the start of the poem Penelope, wife of the absent Odysseus, is plagued by a crowd of suitors. They abuse her servants and consume her wealth. At the end Odysseus returns home. Having by now the appearance of a beggar, he too is roundly abused. But in a contest to string the great bow of Odysseus, he is the only one with the strength to do so. He uses it to kill the suitors, in a dramatic climax reminiscent of a shoot-out in a western. Even Penelope at first fails to recognize him, but soon the pair are happily reunited.

The oral tradition of Homer: 8th - 5th century BC

The writing down of the Homeric poems in the 8th century BC does not mean that they become available to readers. The texts merely enable his followers to preserve the works and to perform them in a consistent manner.

A group of such followers, the Homeridae, become associated with the island of Chios, off the coast of Ionia. Ancient tradition links Homer himself with Ionia, and the language of the poems seems to confirm an Ionic background.

It is not until about 425 BC that a book trade develops in Athens, with educated people acquiring Papyrus scrolls to read in the privacy of their homes. Plato, writing in the Phaedrus in about 365 BC, expresses strong disapproval of this new-fangled fashion for reading by oneself.

So the first great flowering of European literature reaches its original audience through their ears rather than their eyes, in public performance. This convention provides not only the beginning of epic poetry, in Homer. It also produces another extraordinary Greek innovation - the theatre.

Greek drama

Greek theatre: from the 6th century BC

The origins of Greek theatre lie in the revels of the followers of Dionysus, a god of fertility and wine. In keeping with the god's special interests, his cult ceremonies are exciting occasions. His female devotees, in particular, dance themselves into a state of frenzy. Carrying long phallic symbols, known as thyrsoi, they tear to pieces and devour the raw flesh of sacrificial animals.

But the Dionysians also develop a more structured form of drama. They dance and sing, in choral form, the stories of Greek myth.

In the 6th century BC a priest of Dionysus, by the name of Thespis, introduces a new element which can validly be seen as the birth of theatre. He engages in a dialogue with the chorus. He becomes, in effect, the first actor. Actors in the west, ever since, have been proud to call themselves Thespians.

According to a Greek chronicle of the 3rd century BC, Thespis is also the first winner of a theatrical award. He takes the prize in the first competition for tragedy, held in Athens in 534 BC.

Theatrical contests become a regular feature of the annual festival in honour of Dionysus, held over four days each spring and known as the City Dionysia. Four authors are chosen to compete. Each must write three tragedies and one satyr play (a lascivious farce, featuring the sexually rampant satyrs, half-man and half-animal, who form the retinue of Dionysus).

The performance of the plays by each author takes a full day, in front of a large number of citizens in holiday mood, seated on the slope of an Athenian hillside. The main feature of the stage is a circular space on which the chorus dance and sing. Behind it a temporary wooden structure makes possible a suggestion of scenery. At the end of the festival a winner is chosen.

The Greek tragedians: 5th century BC

Only a small number of tragedies survive as full texts from the annual competitions in Athens, but they include work by three dramatists of genius. The earliest is the heavyweight of the trio, Aeschylus.

Aeschylus adds a second actor, increasing the potential for drama. He first wins the prize for tragedy in 484 BC. He is known to have written about eighty plays, of which only seven survive. One of his innovations is to write the day's three tragedies on a single theme, as a trilogy. By good fortune three of his seven plays are one such trilogy, which remains one of the theatre's great masterpieces - the Oresteia, celebrating the achievement of Athens in replacing the chaos of earlier times with the rule of law.

Sophocles gains his first victory in 468 BC, defeating Aeschylus. He is credited with adding a third actor, further extending the dramatic possibilities of a scene. Whereas Aeschylus tends to deal with great public themes, the tragic dilemmas in Sophocles are worked out at a more personal level. Plots become more complex, characterization more subtle, and the personal interaction between characters more central to the drama.

Although Sophocles in a very long life writes more plays than Aeschylus (perhaps about 120), again only seven survive intact. Of these Oedipus the King is generally considered to be his masterpiece.

The youngest of the three great Greek tragedians is Euripides. More of his plays survive (19 as opposed to 7 for each of the others), but he has fewer victories than his rivals in the City Dionysia - in which he first competes in 454 BC.

Euripides introduces a more unconventional view of Greek myth, seeing it from new angles or viewing mythological characters in terms of their human frailties. His vision is extremely influential in later schools of tragic drama. Racine, for example, derives Andromaque and Phèdre from the Andromache and Hippolytus of Euripides.

The beginning of Greek comedy: 5th century BC

From 486 BC there is an annual competitition for comedies at Athens - held as part of the Lenaea, a three-day festival in January. Only one comic author's work has survived from the 5th century. Like the first three tragedians, he launches the genre with great brilliance. He is Aristophanes, a frequent winner of the first prize in the Lenaea (on the first occasion, in 425 BC, with the Acharnians).

Eleven of his plays survive, out of a total of perhaps forty spanning approximately the period 425-390 BC. They rely mainly on a device which becomes central to the tradition of comedy. They satirize contemporary foibles by placing them in an unexpected context, whether by means of a fantastic plot or through the antics of ridiculous characters.

A good example is The Frogs, a literary satire at the expense of Euripides. After the death of the great man, Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back his favourite tragedian. A competition held down there enables Aristophanes to parody the style of Euripides. As a result Dionysus comes back to earth with Aeschylus instead.

In The Wasps the Athenian love of litigation is ridiculed in the form of an old man who sets up a law court in his home, to try his dog for stealing cheese. In Lysistrata the horrors of war are discussed in a circumstance of extreme social crisis; the women of Greece refuse to make love until their men agree to make peace.

Greek history

Herodotus the father of history: 5th century BC

The next great achievement of Greek literature is the writing of history. No one before Herodotus has consciously attempted to discover the truth about the past and to explain its causes. He is rightly known as the 'father of history'.

The saga which inspires him to undertake anything so new and so difficult is the one which has overshadowed his own childhood and youth - the clash between Greeks and persians. Herodotus grows up in Halicarnassus, in Ionia. At the time of his birth the Greeks are winning great battles in mainland Greece. During his adult life they drive the Persians from the Greek colonies of Ionia.

Asia Minor lies between these two great civilizations, Greece and Persia. Brought up within the first, Herodotus determines to find out about the second. He spends much of his life travelling within the Persian empire, which extends at this time into Egypt. So this first work of history is also, in a sense, the first travel book. In the way of travel books, it includes exotic details - such as how the Egyptians make Mummies.

Copies of Herodotus are available by 425 BC. By then his story has a patriotic urgency, with its account of a time when all the Greeks combined against a common enemy. In strong contrast is the bitter contemporary squabbling of the Peloponnesian war, which has entered a new phase in 431 BC.

Thucydides and contemporary history: 431 - 411 BC

The second Greek historian, Thucydides, adds a new dimension - that of contemporary history. An Athenian, born probably in about 460 BC, he is a young man when war is renewed between Athens and Sparta in 431, after a peace of sixteen years.

Although the complete work of Herodotus is not yet published, Thucydides is certain to know the work of the older historian - who has made his living by reciting the highlights of his narrative. Herodotus has told the story of the last great war, between Greeks and Persians. In 431 Thucydides recognizes the onset of the next major conflict, between Greeks. He resolves to record the Peloponnesian war as it happens.

He is immediately in the thick of events. In the summers of 430 and 429 Athens is stricken by plague. The Athenian leader, Pericles, dies of the disease. Thucydides himself catches it but survives. His account of the symptoms is a first-hand report of unprecedented vividness.

In 424 he is elected one of the ten strategoi or military commanders for that year. Put in charge of an Athenian fleet in the northern Aegean, he fails to prevent the Spartans capturing an important city in the region. As a result he is exiled from Athens. He says later that the misfortune helps him in his great task, forcing him to travel and enabling him to view the conflict from different perspectives.

An important characteristic of Thucydides' work is his determination to achieve an objective view of what has happened, and of its causes. He states this clearly at the end of his introduction, saying that he will begin by listing the precise complaints of each side which, in their view, led to war.

But he then adds that he believes such arguments obscure the issue. In his own considered opinion, 'what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta'.

A clear statement of the available evidence, leading to an informed conclusion, has remained the basic principle of history. The serious historian is advocate for both sides as well as presiding judge. To this end Thucydides uses a method which seems strange to a modern reader. His protagonists put their points of view in long speeches, perhaps in an assembly or before a battle. In the narrative these fall naturally enough. But since Thucydides himself was usually not there, his method is a fictional one which now seems out of place in history.

His account ends abruptly in 411. Whatever the reason may be, it is not his own death. He returns from exile to Athens at the end of the war, in 404.

Xenophon and eyewitness history: 400 BC

Thucydides' history is continued from 411 BC by the third and last of the great trio of Greek historians - Xenophon. The fact that a contemporary continues the work so precisely from this date proves that Thucydides did indeed finish his work there, rather than the remainder being lost. But Xenophon, though a vivid writer, proves a very inadequate historian at a serious level. A supporter of Sparta, he lacks any sense of objectivity.

Fortunately this does not spoil the work which has made him famous. In 400 BC he finds himself part of a Greek force making a desperate Retreat from persia. Objectivity is irrelevant. He describes only what he sees and hears. The result is vivid eyewitness history, akin almost to journalism.

Xenophon's Anabasis (Greek for 'the journey up') is full of fascinating detail, as the Greek mercenaries struggle homewards from defeat in Persia. Desperate for provisions, they are constantly skirmishing with hostile tribesmen. Xenophon is voted into the leadership group and he gives himself much of the credit (possibly with justification) for their safe return to Greece, five months later.

The most famous moment in his account is when the leaders of the column come over the ridge of a mountain and begin shouting thalassa, thalassa (the sea, the sea). They have reached the Black Sea and relative safety.

Greek philosophy

The beginnings of Greek philosophy: c.500 BC

In addition to epic poetry, tragedy, comedy and history, the Greeks pioneer yet another branch of literature - philosophy.

The earliest Greek philosophers, begining with Thales in the 6th century, are concerned chiefly with what we would call science. They seek explanations of the mysteries of the cosmos and of our planet. But their method is philosophical rather than scientific. Instead of observing the natural world, and testing their ideas against what they observe (a scientific procedure for which they lack the equipment), they take a more high-minded and dangerous route. They dream up magnificent theories which can only be judged by their own interior consistency - a congenital habit of philosophers.

The first man to call himself a philosopher (philosophos 'lover of wisdom') is Pythagoras, whose mystical system of mathematics combines some genuine scientific analysis with much other-worldly speculation.

One of the first Greek thinkers to deserve the name of philosopher in its modern sense is believed to have had links with the sect of Pythagoras in southern Italy. He is Parmenides, who concentrates not so much on what reality may be as on what 'being' actually means. This is an undying question for philosophers. In tackling it, in a poem called Nature, Parmenides pioneers one of philosophy's essential tools - the technique of logic, ensuring that a conclusion follows inevitably from a premise.

Philosophy and Athens: 5th century BC

Greece, in the century following Parmenides, sees the rise of a professional class often described as philosophers. They are the Sophists, who derive their name from the same Greek root, sophos. But unlike pure philosophers, their aims are practical. They are travelling teachers, earning their living by educating the sons of the rich.

Education of this kind is carried out largely in conversation. The dialogue becomes a feature of the classroom, and the art of persuasion - formalized as rhetoric - is an important part of the curriculum. Like the teaching of Confucius in China a little earlier, this training prepares young men to make their way in the world. There is a particular need for it in Athens.

Democracy in athens is more extensively developed than in any other Greek city-state. This means that the ability to persuade others, in a public speech, is more necessary in a political career here than elsewhere. There are rich families willing to buy that skill for their sons, and talented men from less privileged backgrounds eager to acquire it too.

The result is a thriving culture of successful masters with often aristocratic pupils. From it there emerges a brilliant teacher who differs in two important respects from the Sophists. He does not charge for his services, and he regards the pursuit of truth as an end in itself. He is Socrates.

Socrates: late 5th century BC

Socrates, one of the most famous philosophers in history, is the author of not a single book. All that is known about his philosophy derives from what he says in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. These are written some years after his death. It is a much debated question whether the ideas they contain are mainly those of Socrates or Plato.

During his life Socrates is a familiar figure in Athens - sufficiently so to be satirized in 423 BC in a play of Aristophanes, The Clouds (the modern equivalent would be featuring on television in Spitting Image). He is said to be ugly in appearance. He is also eccentric, cussed and tetchy, but with an underlying charm - characteristics shared by many a great teacher.

Socrates spends much of his time in the open air, discussing matters of importance with anyone who wishes to join in. Such meetings often take place in one of the city's gymnasiums - public spaces where young men can train in the various Greek sports.

The regular members of Socrates' circle tend to be rich young men with time on their hands, whose inclinations are against democracy and in favour of oligarchy. An education in logic gives the group a natural scepticism. They regard the traditional Greek gods (a quarrelsome, vindictive and libidinous bunch) as figures of fiction rather than serious objects of devotion. The character of these young aristocrats has a bearing on the death of Socrates.

The trial and death of Socrates: 399 BC

After the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 an oligarchic government, brought to power by the Spartans, imposes a brief reign of terror on the city. Democracy is soon restored, but some followers of Socrates have been connected with the repressive oligarchs. In 399 a charge of impiety is brought against him. The two particular accusations are 'corruption of the young' and 'neglect of the gods whom the city worships'.

Plato is in court on the day of the trial. Some years later he writes the Apology, an account of what Socrates says in his own defence. It is in itself partly a Socratic dialogue; the philosopher leads his accuser into various absurd statements.

The Apology (if at all close to what Socrates says on the day of the trial) seems too philosophical for the average jury, let alone an Athenian jury of 500 citizens. Socrates is convicted - but only by a fairly small majority, probably 280 to 220.

The next stage is for prosecutor and defendant each to suggest a punishment. The jury must choose between them. The prosecutor demands death. It seems certain that an almost balanced jury will accept any more reasonable suggestion by Socrates. Instead he declares himself a public benefactor, more deserving of reward than punishment, and proposes a very small fine. The affronted jury votes, by a larger majority than before, for death.

The date of an annual religious event delays the execution for a month, during which Socrates entertains his friends in prison. Escape would be easy, but he rejects it on the grounds that the law must be obeyed.

Execution in Athens is by a relatively civilized method. The condemned man drinks hemlock, a poison which slowly numbs the body. He can be accompanied by his friends. Plato on this occasion is not present. But in the Phaedo he describes the last round of philosophical conversation between Socrates and a circle of followers. The day ends with the drinking of the cup and Socrates' slow death. The only person to remain calm is the victim, 'the most wise and just and best of men'.

Plato: c.428-c.347 BC

Plato's fame today derives from his philosophical works, perhaps more influential than any others over the centuries. In his own time an equally great accomplishment is the school he establishes in about 387 BC in Akademia, a suburb of Athens. From the accident of its location come the words 'academy' and 'academic'.

Instruction at the school includes mathematics (in the mystical tradition of Pythagoras), geometry, law and the natural sciences - in addition to philosophy. Plato's academy lasts more than nine centuries, until closed in AD 529 by the Christian emperor Justinian. It has a good claim to be considered the world's first university.

Plato's books are not directly connected with the academy, but the convention in which they are written must reflect the way in which teaching is carried out. In each so-called Socratic dialogue, named characters progress together in discussion towards some form of agreed conclusion.

This follows a tradition probably established by Socrates himself, who is the central character in most of Plato's works. Four of them, in particular, provide a rounded character portrayal of him. They set out to defend his reputation against the charges which led to his death.

The Euthyphro takes place just before the trial of Socrates. In it he discusses religion with Euthyprho, dealing with the charges laid against him of impiety. The apology is Plato's eyewitness record of the speech made by Socrates in his own defence to the jury. The Crito takes place in Socrates' prison cell; his friend Crito arrives with the means and the method for him to escape; Socrates persuades him that it would be wrong to do so. And the phaedo describes Socrates' last day, in which he discusses the soul and immortality before calmly confronting death.

So these dialogues show Socrates, respectively, as devout, persuasive, law-abiding and courageous. They are the tribute of a devotee to a master.

The Symposium and Platonic love

The Symposium, one of the best-known pieces featuring Socrates, is almost an early example of a novella, or short novel. It describes Socrates going as a guest to a dinner held in 416 BC in the house of a playwright, Agathon, who in that year achieves his first theatrical victory in the Lenaea. (The victory and the playwright are historical, but not one of his plays has survived.)

It is decided that each man shall take it in turns to make a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love. Through the sequence of speeches, and the conversation arising from them, Plato is able to turn the occasion into a dialogue on the nature of love.

The love in question is essentially homosexual, which in Athens usually means a relationship between an older and a younger man. In theory the older man, the lover, is inflamed by the beauty of the loved one, while the younger man, the object of love, learns from the greater experience and wisdom of his friend.

One of the main gathering places for social life is the gymnasium, where men train and exercise naked. So the appreciation of male beauty is an everyday fact of life. Since women are largely restricted to the home, relationships between men are the only form of sexual friendship to be seen and acknowledged in public.

The discussion in the Symposium soon reveals such everyday lovers to be merely on the first rung of a ladder of excellence. Like all who love, they are searching for what is good and beautiful; but their satisfaction is mainly physical. Lovers at a higher level are inspired by physical beauty to become intellectually creative. Beyond that, at a stage reached by Socrates and by other good philosophers, physical beauty in this world leads the soul in search of a higher and more absolute beauty.

Somewhere on this ladder of progression physical experience becomes unnecessary. Hence the abiding concept of Platonic love (Socrates fails even to notice the attempt of Alcibiades to seduce him).

The doctrine of Forms and the analogy of the cave

The idea of a higher Beauty or Good (the two are treated as if almost synonymous), of which the reality known to us is only a pale reflection, is a central concept in Plato's philosophy. Known as the theory of Forms, it probably derives from Socrates but is much elaborated by Plato.

The Forms are eternal realities, existing in some higher realm, of which our physical senses only perceive a transient and partial version. There are not only Forms of abstract qualities such as Beauty and Good. There is even, somewhere, the ideal Form of a tree, a chair or a cow.

In his most wide-ranging and ambitious work, the Republic, Plato attempts to explain this concept. He likens the Good, which he sees as the source of all reality, to the sun. They have two main things in common. The sun is a generative force, causing things to exist and grow; so is the Good. More important as an analogy, in terms of Plato's philosophy, is the sun as the source of light. It is light which enables our eyes to have partial sight of reality. In the same way Good enables our minds to have partial knowledge of what is real.

In each case we perceive what is real with varying clarity. To demonstrate this, Plato produces his most famous analogy - that of the cave.

A long deep cave, with a distant opening to the outside world, provides the context in which Plato sets up his different levels of apprehended reality. At first his human observers are prisoners in the cave, seated in a fixed position with their backs to a fire. Their eyes take reality to be the shadows cast by the fire. Then they turn to look towards the fire. After an initial shock they accept the increase in dimension and colour as the real world.

Finally they go out of the cave. Their eyes dazzle. At first they can only look at shadows, then at reflections in water, and finally at what we ourselves take for everyday reality.

For Plato the ordinary man or woman is the prisoner looking at shadows in the cave. The philosopher, who according to the argument of Plato's Republic should also be the ruler in society, undertakes the journey out of the cave towards increasing knowledge of the Good which is absolute reality.

It is a religious concept, whether the ultimate be Good or God. It is echoed in St paul's famous contrast between this world and the next: 'Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.' This mystical side of Plato's philosophy, reflected later in Neo-platonism, has been one reason for the appeal of his work. The other is his brilliance as an author, giving philosophical dialectic the qualities of drama and literature.

Aristotle: 384-322 BC

It is a striking fact that the three greatest philosophers of the ancient world are like three generations of an Athenian family. Socrates, in the last ten years of his life, discusses the eternal verities with Plato, a young member of his circle. Plato, in the last 20 years of his life, has Aristotle as first a pupil and then a teaching colleague in his famous academy. The trio, whose ideas in different ways dominate western speculation for the next two millennia, are in a very real sense akin to a grandfather, father and son.

But while the first two generations remain closely linked, the third - in the form of Aristotle - takes a radically different approach.

Aristotle comes from the peninsula of Chalcidice, in northern Greece, and his family has strong links with neighbouring Macedonia - where his father has been personal physician to the king, Amyntas III. At the age of seventeen Aristotle is sent to Athens, to study at Plato's academy. He remains there for twenty years, until Plato's death in 347 BC.

At this point he leaves Athens. The main reason is no doubt Plato's death, but anti-Macedonian sentiment in the city may have contributed. Greece is increasingly threatened by the expansionist ambitions of Philip ii, son of Amyntas III. Aristotle may have felt it wise to move on. And by 343 he is in Philip's employment, as tutor to his son Alexander.

Macedonian control in Greece is established after a congress at Corinth in 337, and in 335 Aristotle returns to Athens. He now sets up his own school in the peripatos or covered walkway of the Lyceum, one of the leading gymnasiums of Athens. Whether he walks while teaching, or merely sits in the walkway, the peripatos becomes so associated with his school that his followers are later known as Peripatetics.

This is probably the point at which his teaching begins to diverge from that of Plato. All his early works are lost, but references to them suggest that they were Socratic dialogues of a kind intended, like Plato's, to make attractive reading. His surviving texts are altogether more severe.

Indeed it has even been suggested that many of Aristotle's texts are his lecture notes, edited by his followers into more readable form. Certainly the tortuous route by which they have reached us is a fascinating example of the haphazard way in which ancient texts survive. It begins in the library of his successor as head of the school - see the Survival of Aristotle's texts.

Whatever the reason, the surviving Aristotle is essentially practical and commonsensical where Plato is poetic and mystical. This has made him fewer friends in recent times. Nevertheless his achievement is astonishing. He sets himself the task of thinking logically about every aspect of human life, subject by subject. The result is encyclopedic.

The range of Aristotle

Even if some are lost, nearly fifty works attributed to Aristotle have come down to us. They fall into several distinct categories.

Of his various works on logic the Prior Analytics has been the most influential, for it introduces the important device of the syllogism. This is a deductive procedure, used in philosophy ever since, which leads from two categorical premises to an implicit conclusion. (From the premises 'All men need to eat' and 'All Greeks are men', the conclusion can be drawn that 'All Greeks need to eat'.)

A lasting interest attaches to the works in which Aristotle attempts to find underlying principles for the everyday experiences of his own society. In the Ethics he sees happiness as the goal of a good life and introduces his principle of the golden mean - defining each virtue as the middle way between two vices (courage, for example, as the firm ground between cowardice and bravado).

The Politics provides useful insights to the systems and prejudices of Aristotle's times, as well as including his own often sensible objections to the utopian society envisaged in Plato's Republic. The Rhetoric analyzes the essential political skill of the classical world, the art of oratory.

The Poetics can be considered in the same category, since it analyzes the material available to Aristotle in his own society. It is, in effect, the world's first treatise of literary criticism.

From his survey of Greek examples, from Homer onwards, he concludes that the aim of poetry is mimesis - 'imitation' of reality. Men are shown as worse than they really are in comedy, better than they are in epic poetry or tragedy. One difference between these two is that epic poetry has no limits of time, whereas the plot of a tragedy should be completed within a day. The good effect of tragedy, Aristotle believes, is the purging (catharsis) of the emotions through the experience of fear and pity.

Another group of Aristotle's works concerns science. Those of most lasting value are the treatises on natural history, where he differs from most Greeks in attempting a scientific observation of the real world (Darwin, in a famous tribute, acknowledges 'old Aristotle' as the first biologist).

By contrast his astronomy (On the Heavens) suffers from the necessary limitations of his time. Much of his Physics is about large issues (the nature of life, the existence of a Prime Mover) which are nowadays more in the realm of philosophy and religion than of science. But his theory of hot and cold, moist and dry, modifying the Four elements, plays an important part in the story of alchemy and thus of chemistry.

The works of Aristotle which are most purely philosophical have accidentally provided us with the word 'metaphysics' for the study of basic questions, or first principles, such as the nature of being and knowing. Aristotle's Metaphysics (meaning literally 'after physics') are given that name in early editions only because they feature after his Physics. The word has subsequently been adapted to mean 'beyond' the physical world.

In the Metaphysics Aristotle dismisses Plato's theory of Forms, as an explanation of differing levels of reality. He replaces it with his own system of 'substances' and 'universals'.

The Platonic and Aristotelian heritage

Between them, in an ever-shifting balance, the works of Plato and Aristotle remain the dominant influence on western thought for 2000 years, until the time of Descartes. In 3rd-century Rome Plotinus merges them in Neo-platonism. During the dark ages of western Europe their works are preserved and commented on by Greek scholars in Constantinople, by Persians (such as Avicenna) and by Arabs and Jews in Spain (Averröes, Maimonides). Such men hand on the tradition until Aristotle is adopted as the patron saint of scholasticism and Plato, in his turn, of the Renaissance.

This is a remarkable result from some sixty years of hard thinking in ancient Athens.


Roman comedy: 3rd - 2nd century BC

In most cultural matters Rome is greatly influenced by Greece, and this is particularly true of theatre. Two Roman writers of comedy, Plautus and Terence, achieve lasting fame in the decades before and after 200 BC - Plautus for a robust form of entertainment close to farce, Terence for a more subtle comedy of manners. But neither writer invents a single plot. All are borrowed from Greek drama, and every play of Terence's is set in Athens.

The misfortune of Plautus and Terence is that their audience is very much less attentive than in Athens. And the reason is that Roman plays are presented as part of a broader event, the Roman games.

The games, held every September, are originally a harvest festival. Taking place between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome, in an area known as the Circus Maximus, the main events are sporting contests - chariot races or boxing matches. Clowns soon become one of the side shows, to be joined from 240 BC by plays - enjoying much the same status. A play of Terence's, in 165, fails to attract much attention because it is going on at the same time as a rope dancer and a boxing match.

Since 264 BC gladiatorial contests have also been part of Rome's entertainments. In popular terms make-believe drama proves no match for the excitement of real death. The Roman circus is more famous than Roman theatre (see the Roman circus and gladiators).

Augustus and patronage

Literature in the Augustan Age: 42 BC - AD 17

The golden age of Latin literature coincides with the peace and prosperity of Italy in the early decades of the empire. The link is more than coincidence. In the intimate circle of the emperor Augustus is the immensely rich Maecenas, whose name has become synonymous with patronage of the arts; and the writers encouraged by Maecenas share the widespread enthusiasm for the peace brought to Rome by Augustus.

So the Augustan age, in literary terms, is a circle of mutual benefit and esteem. It can be extended to either side of the reign of Augustus himself (27 BC - AD 14). The span from 42 BC (when Virgil begins writing) to AD 17 (the death of Livy) includes also the careers of Horace and Ovid.

Virgiw's Eclogues and Georgics: 42 - 29 BC

Born in 70 BC in a farming community near Mantua, Rome's greatest poet finds his inspiration in the traditions and history of the Italian countryside. As a young adult Virgil lives under the shadow of the Civil wars which convulse Italy during the 40s (one of his earliest poems, the first Eclogue, concerns the confiscation of Virgil's family farm to settle veteran soldiers after the battle of Philippi). In his work he celebrates the subsequent peace.

Virgil's reputation is established with the publication of the ten short Eclogues, written between 42 and 37 BC (see Publishing in Rome). Their success brings him to the notice of his future patron, Maecenas.

The Eclogues, also known as Bucolics, are delicately artificial poems, closely based on Greek originals in a pastoral tradition which uses an idealized world of shepherds in Arcadia as a vehicle for a wide range of speculation and fantasy.

Virgil turns next to a more robust treatment of nature in the four longer poems which make up the Georgics, written between 36 and 29 BC and dedicated to Maecenas.

Ostensibly each of the four books of the Georgics sets out to give practical instruction on one aspect of husbandry: the first deals with preparing the land, the second with the cultivation of olives and vines, the third with the care of horses and cattle, the fourth with beekeeping.

This practical basis is treated seriously, but it also provides Virgil with a perfect framework in which to celebrate the strength and traditions of Italian rural culture. Octavian (the future Augustus) controls Italy when the poem is started. He is ruler of the entire Roman world by the time it is complete. Octavian believes profoundly in the traditional moral values, and the Georgics hail him as the man who will restore them.

The Aeneid: 29 - 19 BC

Virgil's greatest work, on which he spends the rest of his life, is written when Octavian has been named Augustus Caesar and is in fact (though not in theory) a Roman emperor. Where the Georgics gently celebrate Italy and its countryside, the Aeneid is an epic in praise of Rome - the power which will liberate the genius of the Italian people. The reign of Augustus, and the recently achieved Pax romana, is implicit as the natural finale of the story.(see The Aeneid).

By a quirk of fate Augustus himself, praised for saving Rome, also saves the poem. It is in his interest to do so. The Aeneid traces his own descent back to Aeneas himself, the founder of Rome.

In 19 BC, when the Aeneid is complete but awaiting revision, Virgil goes on a journey to the Aegean - to visit the homeland of Aeneas, his fictional hero. On his way home he falls ill and dies.

The instruction left by Virgil with his literary executor has been, in the event of his death, to burn the unpublished poem. Augustus intervenes, ordering the executor to publish. He authorizes cuts, where necessary, but no additions. The resulting text, containing only a few inconsistencies which Virgil might have removed, becomes rapidly and widely accepted as Rome's national epic.

Horace: 39-8 BC

Horace represents a new idea of the poet, similar to one later developed in another culture - China in the T'ang dynasty. In this tradition the poet is someone distanced from the immediate business of public life, free to concentrate on capturing, in the difficult craft of poetry, more lasting perceptions of the human condition.

The subjects of Horace's short but tightly packed Odes (called Carmina or 'songs' in their Latin title) are friendship, love, wry amusement at the passing scene - anything which might occur to a man living a quiet country existence but in touch with a wide circle of sophisticated acquaintances. The setting for this existence is his famous Sabine farm.

The Sabine farm is the best known of the many acts of patronage of Maecenas. Horace, the son of a freed slave, arrives in Rome with little hope of advancement in about 39 BC. By the following year his poems have brought him to the attention of Virgil, who introduces him to Maecenas. The patron and the provincial poet become firm friends; and in about 34 BC Maecenas makes him a present of the Sabine farm, a little to the northeast of Tivoli. Horace lives here for the rest of his life.

More than a farm, it is a small estate run for Horace by a foreman and eight slaves, with five tenanted properties attached. And more than that, it is security.

Horace's early poems are grander in theme and less compressed than his Odes. Known as the Satires, they are poetic essays full of sharp comment on themes of philosophy, literary criticism, morality or contemporary manners. Later he writes similar long pieces, lighter in tone, which he calls his Epistles.

But his central achievement is the Odes, dating mainly from the 20s. Three books of them are published together in 23 BC; a fourth follows in about 13 BC.

Ovid: c.23 BC - AD 18

The fourth great author writing in Latin during the Augustan Age is not so much a celebrant of the emperor's achievements as a victim of his autocracy.

Ovid is a generation younger than Virgil, horace and livy. By the time he is an adult, from about 23 BC, the civil wars are over; the stability and prosperity of the new Roman empire are established facts. High life, rather than a quiet life, is what appeals to Ovid and his contemporaries. And his poetic talents are well suited to amuse a society devoted to pleasure.

An early work brings Ovid success while he is young. Entitled Amores, it is a collection of love poems offering a witty account of an affair with an imaginary courtesan, Corinna. The poet goes much further in the same vein in Ars Amatoria ('Art of Love'), a manual on the techniques of seduction published in about 1 BC.

Soon after Ars Amatoria, Ovid begins work on his most successful book - the Metamorphoses, a collection of mainly Greek stories involving a wide range of transformations. The wit and skill of the narrative ensure immense popularity for these tales, which will be regularly quarried by later writers and painters.

The Metamorphoses are not quite complete when disaster strikes. In AD 8 Augustus exiles Ovid to a remote shore of the Black Sea. There could hardly be a more exquisite punishment for a man so involved in cosmopolitan delights, but the reason for it has never been discovered. Ovid hints that the causes were two, a poem and an indiscretion; and these have been taken to be Ars Amatoria (well calculated to offend the puritanical emperor) and perhaps a link of some sort with a sexual scandal involving Augustus' granddaughter Julia, who is banished at the same time.

A stream of petitions and complaints about the Black Sea make their way back to Rome. But the poet dies, ten years later, still in exile.

4th - 8th century

Sanskrit literature in the Gupta empire: 4th - 6th c. AD

The final flowering of Sanskrit literature takes place at the courts of the Gupta dynasty. By this time the spoken languages of India have long been evolving in their own separate directions. Sanskrit has become a literary language, known and used only by a small educated minority - much like Latin in medieval Europe.

The poems and plays of the Gupta period are correspondingly artificial in style, but at their best they have considerable charm. Shakuntala, a play of about AD 400 by Kalidasa, has been popular far beyond India's borders ever since its translation into English and German in the 18th century.

Kalidasa is the most distinguished of India's Sanskrit authors. He is believed to have lived at the court of Chandra Gupta II, son of Samudra Gupta, in the late 4th century. This is a time of peace and prosperity in India, and Kalidasa's work is sophisticated and courtly.

In epic poetry and drama, often with elaborate metrical schemes, he recreates stories from traditional Sanskrit literature. Raghuvamsha celebrates the exploits of Rama, as described in the Ramayana. Kalidasa's most famous work, Shakuntala, dramatizes in elegantly languid fashion a complex incident from the Mahabharata. A ruler loves a beautiful hermit girl who turns out, happily, to be the daughter of a famous warrior.

St Augustine: AD 387-430

The first Christian writer since St paul to reach a wide readership is also the last great figure in the story of Latin literature. Confessions, his account of his early life and conversion to Christianity, is the world's first autobiography, introducing the genre with a masterpiece. And the massive city of god is one of the most influential works of Christian philosophy.

The author of these very different but seminal works is the bishop of Hippo in north Africa, St Augustine.

Confessions: AD c.400

Augustine's famous Confessions is essentially a spiritual autobiography, written from the viewpoint of a Christian bishop describing how he came to the truth. It provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of the prevailing influences on an intelligent young man in the declining years of the Roman empire and the early centuries of established Christianity.

Augustine's mother, Monica, is a Christian; his father is a pagan; but their main concern is that their brilliant son shall thrive in the world, probably as a civil servant. Instead, as a student at Carthage, he becomes interested in philosophy and launches into a precarious existence as a freelance teacher.

The first prevailing fashion to take his fancy is Manichaeism, to which he subscribes for some nine years. This religion, devised by Mani in Persia in the 3rd century AD, attempts a synthesis of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity. The resulting truth, enlivened by a colourful theology invented by Mani, is that life is an eternal struggle between two irreconcilable opposites - Good and Evil, which can be seen also as light and darkness.

Jesus plays a large part in Mani's theology, and Augustine's account reveals how easily the Manichees find followers within an ostensibly Christian community. But the next stage of his own development derives from a more central influence on early Christianity, that of Neo-Platonism.

Formulated by Plotinus (a 3rd-century philosopher teaching in Rome), Neo-Platonism is less literal than Manichaeism but deals with the same contrast at the heart of all religious thought - between the pure and the impure, or the spiritual and the material.

The ideas of Plotinus derive at several removes from Plato's theory of Forms, but they add a more religious element. The ultimate reality, called the One or the Good, is at the far extreme of a hierarchy; everyday material existence is at our end. In between are successive spheres of higher experience ('soul' nearest to us, then 'mind'). Each individual, by looking inward to these more refined realities, may approach the One.

This Neo-Platonic scheme allows more scope for God than Manichaeism, and it brings Augustine an intense mystical experience. The disappointing brevity of this experience convinces him that he is still too bound up in the flesh, prompting the most famous confession of his Confessions - that on many occasions in his amorous youth, knowing his duty, he has prayed to God with the words 'Give me chastity and continence, but not yet'.

Augustine is finally brought to Christianity after hearing the sermons of Ambrose in Milan, where he has taken a post as professor of rhetoric. Baptized by Ambrose in AD 387, he returns to Africa - where he is ordained a priest in 391 and becomes bishop of Hippo in 396.

Arabic oral poetry: pre-Islamic

The poems of the Arab nomads are invented, embroidered, recited by specialists known as sha'ir (meaning approximately 'one who knows', and therefore close to the English word 'seer'). Recorded in anthologies of the 8th century and 9th century, and dating from perhaps two centuries earlier, the surviving examples provide a rare glimpse of poems from a pre-literate era.

They fall into two categories. The earlier tradition consists of short poems of a passionately partisan kind. With few exceptions, the theme is praise of one's own tribe or abuse of the enemy. The other kind of poem, known as qasidah, is longer (up to 100 lines) and more elaborate in form.

The qasidah consists of four sections, the first three of which have well-established themes. In the opening section (nasib), the poet describes himself on a journey with some companions; they reach a deserted encampment, and he tells how he was once here with a loved one until fate parted them when their tribes moved on to fresh pastures (a sentimental beginning considered essential to put the listeners in a good mood).

The second section is devoted to praise of an animal, the camel on which the poet is riding. The third is a tour de force, describing a dramatic scene such as a hunt or battle. With the fourth section the poet finally reaches his topic - again usually praise, of tribe or patron or of the poet himself.

T'ang poetry: 7th - 9th century AD

Chinese poetry achieves its golden age during the T'ang dynasty. The ability to turn an elegant verse is so much part of civilized life that almost 50,000 poems (by some 2300 poets) survive from the period.

Poetry is a social activity. Friends write stanzas for each other to commemorate an occasion, and competitive improvization is a favourite game at a party or on a picnic. Early in the dynasty news of a child prodigy, a girl of seven, reaches the court. She is brought before the empress and is asked to improvize on the theme of bidding farewell to her brothers. The resulting poem, delivered in this alarming context, is brilliant - though no doubt polished in the telling.

Chinese scholar officials, pleasantly torn between Confucianism and Daoism, write poetry when they are in their Daoist vein. Verses are composed when the official is on a journey with friends, or on holiday, or in temporary retirement in a thatched cottage in some delighful landscape.

Most of the leading poets, though their inspiration lies among friends in the countryside, are also on the fringes of imperial court life. In this balance they echo to some extent the experience of Horace in imperial Rome. Like his short odes, the favourite T'ang form known as lü-shih ('regulated verse') is distinguished by its finely honed elegance.

Wang Wei Li Po and Tu Fu: 8th century AD

The three greatest T'ang poets are exact contemporaries in the early 8th century. One of them, Wang Wei, begins his career with a brilliant success in the official examinations but he rarely holds the high positions which this would normally imply (ssee Chinese examinations). More important to him is his villa in the mountains south of the capital city, at Wang-ch'uan.

The beauty of the landscape inspires Wang Wei both as painter and poet. None of his paintings survive, but later Chinese landscapes reveal the closely related influence of the countryside in both art forms. A poet of the next dynasty writes of Wang Wei that there are pictures in his poems and poems in his pictures.

The other two leading T'ang poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, are unsuccessful in the examinations (see Chinese examinations). Instead they regularly present poems to the imperial court in the hope of finding preferment. Occasionally they are successful. But both men, for much of their lives, lead a nomadic existence - supporting themselves on small farms, or lodging in Daoist monasteries.

Nevertheless they are able to acquire great fame in their lifetime as poets, thanks to the extensive network of educated Chinese officialdom. In 744 (when Li is 43 and Tu 32) their paths cross for the first time, and the two poets become firm friends. Friendship and Chinese poetry are closely linked.

The first Japanese texts: 8th century AD

A powerful influence reaching Japan from China (along with Buddhism, the bureaucracy of Confucianism and even the game of Go) is Chinese literature and the Chinese script. When the first texts reach Japan, perhaps in the 4th century AD, the Japanese language has not yet been written down. The first Japanese scribes adapt the Chinese characters to the needs of a very different language, in an unnatural alliance which has remained awkward ever since.

The earliest surviving works in Japanese date from the flowering of court life at Nara in the 8th century. There are compilations of legend and history, and a magnificent anthology of early Japanese poems.

The historical works are the Kojiki, or 'Records of Ancient Matters', compiled in712, and the Nihongi, or 'Written Chronicles of Japan', which follows in 720. Both are gathered from oral sources by court scholars, who read them to the emperor when required. Kojiki deals mainly with legend, whereas Nihongi brings Japanese history up to697.

From about759 a group of poets compile the Manyoshu, an anthology of some 4500 poems by more than 450 authors. The verses are simple, direct and powerful - particularly in the short 5-line form known as the tanka, which becomes an important and lasting part of the Japanese Literary tradition.

The original cliff-hangers: from the 8th century AD

The Thousand and One Nights, better known in the west as the Arabian Nights, is a collection in Arabic of popular tales handed down in an oral tradition. The earliest historically identifiable details in the stories suggest that they are first gathered together in the late 8th century, in the Baghdad of Harun al-rashid. They continue to be added to, with the collection probably reaching its present form in Cairo in the 15th century.

The tales are held together within the framework of another story, taking place in the harem of a fierce and bitter sultan.

The sultan, Shahryar, hates all women because he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him. He kills her and then, in his bitterness, marries and kills a new wife each night. This grisly saga continues until his latest wife, Shahrazad (or Scheherazade), devises a brilliant but alarming plan for staying alive. Every evening she tells her murderous husband a story, but leaves it incomplete - promising to tell him the end on the following day.

It is a perfect device for an open-ended collection of tales. Several of Shahrazad's stories, such as Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad the Sailor, have become known and loved throughout the world.

Greek and Arabic scholarship: from the 8th century AD

The eastern Mediterranean coast, occupied so rapidly by the Arabs in the 7th century, has been part of the Greek world since the time of Alexander the great in the 4th century BC. Conquest by the Romans does not displace Greek civilization in this region, nor at first do the Arab caliphs. They rule over communities which understand Greek and which possess manuscripts of the classic works of Greek literature. Many have already been translated in Antioch into Syriac - a local version of Aramaic. Of the medical works of Galen, for example, as many as 130 exist in Syriac.

In the 8th century, when the caliphate has moved to Baghdad, scholars begin translating these available Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic.

Science and philosophy are of equal interest to the Arabs, and they find a full measure of each in Aristotle. Of the many learned commentators on his work, three are outstanding. Each writes on medicine as well as philosophy, combining the practical and theoretical. The first is born in the eastern part of the Arab world, in Turkestan. The other two come from Spain, and one of them is Jewish rather than Muslim.

Avicenna, born near Bukhara in980, has Persian as his native language but he writes mostly in Arabic. He is known in particular for two great encyclopedic compilations, one of philosophy (Ash-Shifa, 'The Recovery') and the other of medicine (Al-Qanun fi'l-Tibb, 'The Canon of Medicine').

Averroës and Maimonides are born in Cordoba within a few years of each other, in1126 and 1135 respectively. They both become leading physicians as well as philosophers. But their religion affects their careers differently.

Averroës, a Muslim, is for a while the chief physician to the ruler of the Almohads, who capture Cordoba in 1148. He lives his whole life in Cordoba and makes his reputation with his extensive commentaries on Aristotle. He also writes a complete handbook of medicine (Al-Kulliyyat, 'The Compendium').

Maimonides, by contrast, leaves Cordoba as a child, with his family, when the new rulers of the Almohads - failing to live up to the tradition of previous Muslim dynasties in Spain - introduce restrictions on the local Jews. He eventually settles in Cairo, where he becomes the city's leading rabbi and for a while a court physician to Almohads.

Maimonides' best-known philosophical work, with the endearing title Guide of the Perplexed, is a treatise in Arabic which attempts to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Jewish rabbinic theology.

8th - 11th century

From Greek to Latin via Arabic: 8th - 13th century AD

Although Greece is geographically close to Italy, and Greek literature is highly prized in ancient Rome, western Europe loses touch with its Greek intellectual roots during the centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire. The new barbarian clients of papal Rome, whether Franks or Anglo-Saxons, have no interest in Greek. And Byzantine Constantinople has no incentive to enlighten them.

It is the Arab interest in Greek philosophy and science that eventually transmits the tradition to western Europe, along the unbroken belt of Muslim civilization stretching from Greek Antioch in the northeast Mediterranean to Latin Toledo in the west.

The chain of communication stretches from the school of translators set up in Baghdad in the 8th century (Greek into Arabic) to a school of translators established in Toledo in the 13th century (Arabic into Latin).

In the early medieval years Toledo has been a multi-cultural Muslim city, where Christians and Jews prosper under Arab rulers. From the 11th century it maintains, for a while, the same excellent tradition as a Christian city. From this interface between the Arab and Christian worlds, the Latin translations of Greek philosophy (in particular Aristotle) enter the bloodstream of medieval Christianity - in the scholasticism associated above all with Thomas Aquinas.

Northern epic and saga: from the 8th century AD

The Germanic peoples of northern Europe are rivalled only by the ancient Greeks in their genius at transforming the shared myths and memories of the tribe into epic literature.

Unlike Homer's Greek epic, no name is attached to the great Germanic poems. But the circumstances in each case are similar. In Mycenaean greece and in the Europe of the Dark ages great events take place under the leadership of a warrior caste which is largely illiterate. The stories of the battlefield deserve constant retelling. The lord's followers need to be entertained after supper in the dark nights of winter. The stage is set for the bard.

The bard is partly a narrator and partly a singer. His tales, for ease of memory, tend to be set in loosely metrical lines linked by alliteration (the bunching together of words beginning with the same letter, which also has a stimulating effect on the audience). He will usually accompany himself on a stringed instrument, such as harp or lute.

Bards are professionals, though no doubt amateurs also enjoy displaying their skills on occasion. The main employment of Nordic bards is probably among warriors, but in the developing prosperity of the Christian Middle Ages they find many other occasions to perform - at trade fairs and church festivals, or at the stopping places on the Pilgrim routes.

As with the Homeric poems, the Germanic and Norse epics combine mythology with folk memory of real events; and, like their predecessors, they are sung and recited in many different forms and places before eventually being written down. The literary versions, whether in Anglo-Saxon, German or Icelandic, date mainly from the 11th and 12th century.

The mythological basis underlying them all goes back to Ymir and Odin and the Creation story. On the historical side, the poems and sagas reflect the experiences of the Germanic tribes in the Völkerwanderung - the upheavals of the 4th to 6th century AD.

Thus the story of Beowulf reflects historical events in Scandinavia in the 6th century. The Icelandic Völsunga Saga and the German nibelungenlied tell of the destruction of the royal house of Burgundy by the Huns in the 5th century. Similarly the character Dietrich von Bern, who plays a small role in the nibelungenlied and who features as an ideal German leader in many other poems, is based on Theodoric the great.

The treatment of Dietrich is heroic, in an idealizing medieval tradition which includes the French chansons de geste about Charlemagne and his paladins. The earlier Germanic epics, more brutal, full of monsters and monstrous events, are closer to their dark and mysterious sources.

Beowulf: 8th - 10th century AD

The poem of Beowulf, amounting to 3218 lines, is the first and the greatest surviving work of early Germanic literature. The story tells of fantastic fights against fierce dragons, but it is set in an authentic historical context of Scandinavia in the 6th century(see Beowulf - the story). The language is Old English - the dialect of the Angles and Saxons, who invade England from northern Germany and Scandinavia during the 5th and 6th century AD.

Mingled with the original pagan material of the epic is a thread of Christian commentary and imagery. This blend, matching the experience of the Anglo-Saxons in England, gives likely clues to the poem's date.

The poem is known from just one manuscript, dating from the 10th century and now in the British Library, but it is thought to have been probably written down for the first time in the 8th century - after the usual process of change and accretion in an Oral tradition.

By that time the Anglo-saxon kings of England are Christian. A great archaeological discovery of the 20th century - the Sutton Hoo ship burial - vividly reflects a period when pagan and Christian elements coexist, as in Beowulf. The ship's contents belong to a king of the mid-7th century. It is to lords of his kind, and their successors, that Beowulf in its surviving form is likely to have been recited.

The Eddas and Sagas of Iceland: from the 9th century AD

Iceland provides the fullest surviving record of Germanic mythology, legend and history. The earliest examples are found in a manuscript written in the 13th century, known as the Elder Edda (or sometimes Poetic Edda), which is preserved in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

The opening poem in the Elder Edda (entitled Völuspá) recounts Norse mythology, from the Creation story onwards. Though composed in Iceland, probably in the 10th century, the material is based on earlier sources deriving from Norway and possibly from Norse settlements in Britain.

The second half of the Elder Edda goes back even further, in an oral tradition reaching to the 5th and 6th century. Much of the material derives from the historical struggle in the 5th century between the invading Huns and the royal house of Burgundy. The emphasis is on a blighted quadrangle of love between Siguror (a valiant hero), Brynhildr (a warrior woman living in a castle surrounded by flames, to whom Siguror is betrothed) and a Burgundian brother and sister, of the royal family, who deceive our hero and heroine.

This favourite Norse story is retold in the nibelungenlied, which makes Siegfried and Brunhild (their German names) the most famous ill-starred lovers in Germanic legend.

The Younger Edda (also known as the Prose Edda) is written much later, in the early 13th century, by a single author - the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson. Composed as an aid to the appreciation of Icelandic poetry, its account of metric systems and of the mythology behind Norse legend has been of great subsequent value.

Snorri is also the author of the Heimskringla, an account of the kings of Norway from mythological beginnings down to the time of his own childhood. As such, it is just one of the many dramatic medieval accounts of Norse legend and history which are Iceland's great contribution to literature (giving the word saga, old Norse for 'story', to many other languages).

The Japanese classics: 10th - 11th century

The Heian period, with the Japanese capital at Kyoto, is distinguished by literature as elegant and subtle as the style of the court itself. As in China, poetry is here considered an essential element of civilized life. The competitive writing of verses is a social pastime. A good poet can expect preferment at court. Messages from a lover to his mistress are welcome in poetic form, preferably attached to an arrangement of flowers.

In905 the emperor commissions an anthology of poems, in the tradition of the manyoshu of earlier times. The new collection, the Kokinshu, consists almost entirely of short tanka. It is more artificial than its predecessor - and more restricting in its subsequent influence.

The greatest glory of this classical period is works in prose, many of them by women. One important strand is the journals of court life. The earliest to survive, written in 974-7 by a noblewoman, is Kagero nikki (translated into English with the title 'The Gossamer Years'). But by far the best known is the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

Sei Shonagon serves as a lady-in-waiting to the empress during the 990s. Her delightful text is more like a commonplace book than a journal. It consists of unlinked passages recording her impressions and thoughts. Many are vivid tone poems, conveying the visual impact of a scene with a brightness and clarity which seems to prefigure the Japanese colour print.

The most distinguished writer of the Heian period, and indeed in the whole of Japanese literature, is another lady of the court. Known only by her pseudonym, Murasaki Shikubi, she is widowed in 1001 and is in the retinue of the empress from 1005. Her name would live in literature if she had written nothing other than the diary which she keeps of court life in the years from 1007 to 1010. But she also writes the extremely ambitious Genji monogatori ('The Tale of Genji').

This chronicle of court life, focussing with rich characterisation and psychological subtlety on the various women loved by Prince Genji, has a good claim to be considered the world's first novel.

Classics of Persian literature: from the 11th century AD

The classical age of Persian literature, though launched in the 10th century by the patronage of a Persian dynasty (the Samanids), occurs during four centuries in which Persia is dominated by Turks and Mongols.

The period can be said to begin with the completion in 1010 of Firdausi's Shah-nama. The later years of the poet's life are made miserable by the failure of the new Turkish ruler to appreciate this great Persian chronicle. During the next four centuries Firdausi is followed by three other poets who have made Persian literature known in a much wider context - Omar Khayyam, Sa'di and Hafiz.

Firdausi and Omar Khayyam: from the 11th century AD

There could hardly be a greater contrast between the two earliest Persian poets to have made a name for themselves in a wider context.

Firdausi's epic chronicle of Persian history, the Shah-nama ('Book of Kings'), extends to nearly 60,000 verses. Omar Khayyam's poems are all short (four lines each), though it may be that he is the author of as many as 1000 of these quatrains.

The Shah-nama, revered as Iran's national epic, is an adaptation of a history of Persia written for the Sassanian rulers in the early 7th century AD. It therefore relates to a time before the arrival of Islam and the language is almost pure Persian, with very few imported Arabic words. In retaining this purity (even after three centuries of Islam), Firdausi gives his sonorous account of past events a powerful patriotic charge.

The Shah-nama is recited by professional bards, as in any early tradition of epic poetry. Lavishly illustrated manuscripts of the work later form an important strand in the development of Persian painting.

For Omar Khayyam, writing later in the 11th century, poetry is a sideline to his work as a mathematician and astronomer. Each of his four-line verses (rubaiyat in Persian) is a separate poem, giving the impression of an impromptu response to a particular moment - somewhat in the contemporary tradition of Chinese poetry.

The notion of presenting a selection, with the implication of a unifying theme, belongs to Edward FitzGerald whose translation of 101 quatrains is published in 1859 as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The poetic mood of world-weary hedonism strikes a chord in late 19th-century Europe and brings Omar his belated fame.

Chinese poetry painting and calligraphy: Song dynasty

In the heyday of classical Chinese culture, a civilized gentleman - meaning a Confucian official - should be adept in three different artistic fields. When he settles down before a fresh sheet of paper and dips his brush in the ink (ground from a block of pigment by a servant), no one can be certain whether he is about to pen an impromptu poem, paint a quick impression of a romantic landscape or fashion some traditional phrase in exquisite Chinese characters.

The three skills, all expressed in the beauty of brush strokes, are closely linked. A 'soundless poem' is a conventional Chinese term for a picture. And a typical poem by the Song master Ou-yang Hsiu sounds like a painting.

Poetry and painting in Song China (960-1279) are largely social activities, both in the creation and in the appreciation of the work. On a convivial occasion, with wine flowing, Confucians will compete with each other in writing or painting. In more sober vein, among connoisseurs, a collector will bring the scrolls from their boxes and will unroll them to be admired and discussed.

China's past is also now a theme for conoisseurs, in a fashion pioneered by Ou-yang Hsiu (and echoed centuries later in Italy during the Renaissance). Ou-yang Hsiu clambers 'on precarious cliffs and inaccessible gorges, in wild forests and abandoned tombs' to make rubbings which he publishes, in about 1000 portfolios, as his Collection of Ancient Inscriptions'.

Inevitably much of the painting done by enthusiastic amateurs is dull and conventional. This is particularly true during the reign of the emperor Hui Tsung. Himself a talented painter, of a carefully exact kind, he sets up an official academy of painting.

Those who want to get on at court are unlikely to disagree with the emperor on matters of artistic style. Others, opting out of the system, come under the influence of Chan or Zen buddhism with its emphasis on freedom of expression. The Chan painters of the Song dynasty, using a few quick brushstrokes to capture a fleeting visual moment, provide one of the most brilliant interludes in the story of Chinese art.

12th - 13th century

French romance: 12th - 13th century AD

The western half of Charlemagne's Frankish empire, approximating to modern France, introduces in the 12th century a new and influential strand in European literature. The Franks, as a Germanic tribe, enjoy a powerful epic tradition (from beowulf to the nibelungenlied) in which heroism is the stock-in-trade of fierce warriors beset by often monstrous dangers.

But in this western part of the Frankish empire - profoundly influenced by Rome, and speaking a Romance language rather than a Germanic one - there now emerges an element which borrows its name from these qualities. The arrival of romance transforms the warrior into a gentleman.

The first epic poems to reflect this change are a group of about eighty from the 12th and 13th century known as the chansons de geste ('songs of deeds'). Performed by professional minstrels in castles and manors, usually to the accompaniment of a lute, they celebrate the martial exploits of the kings of Carolingian France, and in particular of Charlemagne and his Paladins.

The emphasis is now not so much on the violence of the battle. It is on the honour of the participants, on the loyalties required of them in the feudal system, and on their religious obligations in this age of Crusades.

The greatest of the chansons de geste is also one of the earliest - the Chanson de roland, dating probably from about 1100. Although it is set in one of Charlemagne's campaigns, the attention is on his followers Roland and Oliver rather than the king himself.

The same is true of another heroic cycle launched in France later in the 12th century. In the stories of King arthur (a legendary English king, but featured in literature mainly by the French), the emphasis falls more on the knights of the round table than on the table's owner. And now there is a new element, in the prominent part played by a woman, Queen Guinevere. The ideal of courtly love becomes part of the tradition.

Among all the innovations of French authors in the 12th century, none is more influential than Courtly love. This theme - of a gentleman's devotion to his often unattainable lady - is quintessentially romantic in concept. It long outlasts any other literary tradition of the Middle Ages.

Courtly love is associated first, in the 12th century, with the famous troubadours of southern France. Following their example, it moves through the rest of Europe and enters the mainstream of literature.

Chanson de Roland: AD c.1100

A very early manuscript of the Chanson de Roland (dating from about 1130, in Oxford's Bodleian Library) reveals that the author of France's first great epic poem is probably called Turold. The setting for his story is Charlemagne's expedition of 778 against the Muslims in Spain. The entire campaign was in reality disastrous, but Turold's choice of incident declares uncompromisingly that this is to be a new kind of heroic poetry.

The poet concentrates on a small but undignified event (the successful attack by hill people on the rear of Charlemagne's army in the pass of Roncesvalles) and transforms it into a glorious occasion. He does so by concentrating on the obstinate courage of two of Charlemagne's followers.

The rearguard is under the command of Roland, one of the paladins. Intead of a few Basques or Gascons (the historical reality), the enemy is now a vast army of Muslims. Seeing their number, Roland's companion Oliver urges him to sound his horn to summon Charlemagne back to their defence (one theme of the poem is the contrast between Oliver's commonsense and Roland's headstrong inclination to drama and heroism). Roland refuses to summon help and fights valiantly against overwhelming odds (20,000 against 400,000 men).

When only 60 Franks are left, Roland decides to sound his horn after all. Oliver this time argues against doing so (there is now no point), but Roland expands his lungs for one last flamboyant gesture.

Roland blows his oliphant (a horn of elephant tusk) with such force that he bursts a vein in his head. The mournful sound carries 30 leagues (some 90 miles) to the ear of Charlemagne, who turns south in response. By the time he reaches Roncesvalles, all the Franks are dead. But God delays sunset on that day, to give the Frankish king time to inflict a heavy defeat on the fleeing Muslims.

Roland, magnificent in failure, begins a long career as a new kind of hero. As Orlando, he is particularly popular with the Italians - becoming Innamorato ('enamoured') in Boiardo's epic of 1487, and Furioso ('frantic') in Ariosto's sequel of 1516.

El Cid in life and literature: 11th - 12th century AD

The great medieval hero of Spanish epic and romance is known even in his own day as El Cid, from an Arabic phrase meaning 'the lord'. His real name is Rodrigo Diaz, and his fame derives from his brilliant successes in the confused warfare of medieval Spain. Christian and Muslim kingdoms at this period compete with each other in ever-shifting alliances - not always along sectarian lines. Rodrigo fights with equal enthusiasm for rulers of either religion.

The main event in his story is the capture of Valencia from the Muslims. He does this on his own account - giving him even more glamour, as a man independent of royal patronage.

Rodrigo is a Castilian, and for most of his fighting life the king of Castile is Alfonso VI. The threat from the new Almoravid dynasty of Muslims causes Alfonso to enlist Rodrigo's help in 1087. Rodrigo drives a hard bargain, securing written agreement that any land he wins from the Muslims will belong to him and to his heirs.

Rodrigo then sets out to conquer Valencia, but soon quarrels with Alfonso. Undeterred he succeeds by 1094 in taking Valencia for himself. He rules it, virtually as king, until his death in 1099.

The historical significance of El Cid's conquest of Valencia is slight, for within three years of his death his widow is driven out by the Muslims. But the sheer effrontery of his personal achievement is enough to inspire the poets.

The first great epic treatment of the theme is the 12th-century Poema de mio Cid. Contemporary with the French chansons de geste, it is like them in presenting its hero as an idealized warrior. From this semi-historical source (written within perhaps half a century of the death of Rodrigo), popular Spanish tradition later evolves ever more fanciful tales about the brave hero.

The troubadours and courtly love: 12th - 13th century AD

The love poetry of the troubadours is linked with a very specific region - southern France and the adjacent regions of Spain and Italy. Unlike the earlier tradition of minstrels or jongleurs (a French word related to 'juggling', which suggests the level of entertainment involved), the troubadours tend to be aristocrats. Indeed the earliest troubadour whose poems survive is William IX, duke of Aquitaine in the early 12th century.

The central region of the troubadours is Provence and the language of their poetry Provençal - the southern version of French.

The feeling expressed in the poems of the troubadours is the refined passion known as courtly love. It is a sentiment exactly suited to the feudal world in which the troubadours and their audience live.

The devotion of the courtly lover to his mistress is in one sense a reflection of the unswerving loyalty owed by the vassal to his lord in the idealized concept of Feudalism. In practical terms, this distant fidelity suits the social context of a nobleman's castle.

The lady of a feudal castle is likely to be a woman of high birth whose marriage has been arranged for reasons of practical and dynastic advantage. Love is not a factor here. But an affectation of illicit love makes an intoxicating diversion within the confined community of her lord's followers.

Two powerful reasons urge that such love remain an affectation. The lady and her retinue are greatly outnumbered by the men in this society; and they are mostly of a higher social class. No doubt base reality sometimes upsets the pretence. But the ideal of courtly love is that the lover serves his lady with utter devotion from afar.

Love poetry is a natural part of this game. Probably many a squire tries his hand at it. Some 400 troubadours (not all of them high-born) become sufficiently famous for their poems to be gathered in manuscripts and for details of their lives to be known.

The interconnecting marriages of feudal society soon spread the new fashion. Eleanor of aquitaine (granddaughter of William IX, the troubadour duke of Aquitaine) is herself a great patron of troubadours, and her successive marriages to the kings of France and England bring new audiences. In the courts of Germany and Austria, by the second half of the 12th century, the Minnesinger are fulfilling the same role as the troubadours.

By the end of the 13th century the tradition of the troubadours has declined. Feudalism is losing its freshness, and the south of France has suffered greatly in the wars against the Albigensians. But these first poets of courtly love are long outlived by their romantic concept - of a passion, akin to worship of the distant loved one, which in its intensity of experience brings its own reward.

This is the feeling of Dante for Beatrice, of Petrarch for Laura. At a different level, in medieval churches and cathedrals, it is the affection of millions of ordinary Christians for the Virgin mary - who can almost be called the sweetheart of the Middle Ages.

Arthurian romance: 12th - 15th century AD

The theme of Arthur, a legendary Celtic king of Britain, proves well suited to the demands of medieval romantic literature. The Carolingian kings have provided the basis for the chansons de geste. But they are historical figures, so a tenuous link with reality is desirable (though rarely attained). And with their emphasis on the heroic camaraderie of the paladins, there is little scope in the stories for female characters.

By contrast the world of King Arthur and his knights offers an already existing collection of exotic tales, which can be adapted and extended to suit the romantic interests of a new generation.

If there is a historical basis for King Arthur, it is as a leader of the Celts against the Encroaching anglo-saxons in the 5th or 6th century (the same period as the dramatic events which inspire many of the incidents in Germanic legend). Stories about Arthur evolve from the late 8th century, mainly in the Celtic stronghold of Wales. In about 1135 they are gathered together in Historia Regum Britanniae ('History of the Kings of Britain') by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a cleric with an unbounded appetite for improbable detail.

It is this material which is transformed in France, a few decades later, into literature.

Of several French authors dealing with the theme, the most influential is Chrétien de Troyes who writes five Arthurian romances between about 1160 and 1190. Chrétien's light and elegant touch sets the tone for a developing tradition of courtly romance. Even more significant, he is the first to adapt Courtly love (developed by the troubadours in their lyrics) to the more sustained pleasures of narrative and adventure.

He does so, above all, in his account of the passion of one of Arthur's knights, Lancelot, for the king's wife, Guinevere. The tale of their adultery (Lancelot is a courtly lover who succeeds in his quest) becomes one of the most popular love stories of the Middle Ages.

Chrétien de Troyes introduces another more spiritual adventure which later becomes an important theme in Arthurian legend - the quest for the Holy Grail, in which the activity of Arthur's knights is given a mystical and Christian dimension. In Chrétien's text the Grail is unexplained; in later authors it becomes the vessel used by Jesus for the wine at the Last supper. Its great merit is that it ennobles the magic adventures undergone by the knights in their quest for it.

Subsequent French romances develop these two main themes - the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the quest for the Grail.

The Arthurian legends, transplanted from Wales to France in the 12th century, return amplified to Britain 300 years later.

In 1469 an English knight, Thomas Malory, is in gaol. With time heavy on his hands he begins to compile, from French texts, the first English account of King Arthur and his knights. He completes the task some time in 1470. All that is known of Malory comes from the last words of his book, where he gives his name and prays for deliverance from prison. In 1485 Caxton prints the manuscript, calling it Morte Darthur. It rapidly becomes one of the most popular books in Britain, teaching the British all that they know about their legendary king.

The Nibelungenlied: 12th century AD

The shared memories of the Nordic people, first written down in Iceland literature, have been recited and sung wherever Germanic tribes have settled - including the central lands of Germany itself. In the southeast of this region, in modern Austria, the legends about the fall of Burgundy to the Huns achieve their fullest and most influential expression in a version of the late 12th century.

This is the great German epic poem known as the Nibelungenlied ('Song of the Nibelungs').

The first half of the Nibelungenlied is essentially the story written down two centuries earlier in Iceland's elder edda, involving Siegfried and Brunhild as tragic hero and heroine. Additional elements, recorded also in the Icelandic Völsunga Saga, involve the dragon Fafnir, guardian of a golden treasure and a magic ring, and the eventual sinking of the treasure in the Rhine (see Nibelungenlied - the story).

The Nibelungenlied, rich in detail and incident, has been profoundly influential - and has been given added fame in Wagner's Ring. Although later than courtly epics such as the chanson de roland, the poem retains the darkness and violence of its Germanic tribal origins.

German courtly poets: 12th-13th century AD

The poetry recited or sung in German courts of the later Middle Ages closely follows the examples set by France. The influence of Chrétien de troyes makes themes from Arthurian legend particularly popular. Tristant und Isolde, written by Eilhart von Oberge in about 1170, is an early example.

The best known of the German courtly epics is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal (dating from about 1205). It tells the story of the gauche knight, Sir Percival, whose innocence enables him to succeed in the quest for the holy Grail. Again, as with the Nibelungenlied, it is Wagner's interest in Wolfram von Eschenbach which has given the Percival legend its modern fame.

The other important aspect of French courtly literature, the lyric poetry of the Troubadours, has its direct German equivalent in the Minnesinger (those who sing of Minne, an old word for 'love'). Again Wolfram von Eschenbach is a leading practitioner, though Walter von der Vogelweide is considered a greater artist in this lyric form - which is used by the Minnesinger to deal with a range of subjects not restricted to love.

Tannhäuser, a historical Minnesinger, becomes the central character of a legend which also attracts Wagner. In Tannhäuser he competes against Walter and Wolfram in a singing contest which prefigures the traditions of the Meistersinger.

Thomas Aquinas: 13th century AD

Of the many distinguished friars at the forefront of scholastic thought during the 13th century, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas is the most influential. He writes when Christian philosophy is profoundly challenged by the great edifice of Aristotelian thought. Aristotle appears to provide answers to important questions without the need for Christian sources.

Much of scholasticism in its most creative period is concerned with reconciling the insights of Aristotle with the revealed truths of Christianity. There is also a perceived need to weed out impurities introduced to the Aristotelian canon in its passage through Muslim hands, particularly those of Averroës.

Aquinas achieves a reconciliation between his Aristotelian and Christian sources which his contemporaries find so convincing that Aristotle acquires something of a stranglehold on late medieval thought.

In two major works Aquinas sets out the framework of the new orthodoxy. His Summa contra gentiles is intended to explain the Christian faith to Muslims. The Summa theologica is a textbook for Christian students in the universities.

In the Summa theologica Aquinas uses a teaching method known as sic et non ('yes and no') which is central to scholasticism. The lecturer (scholasticus) begins a session with a lectio in which he explains the question for discussion. The rest of the lesson is the disputatio in which arguments on either side, for and against, are expressed - leading if possible to a conclusion, as in the logical form of the Syllogism.

Scholasticism retains its appeal until the 16th century, when several themes undermine it - a revival of Interest in plato, a new approach to science which rejects Aristotle's ancient conclusions, and the natural tendency of the Reformation to distrust any philosophy endorsed by Rome.

Sa'di and Hafiz: 13th - 14th century AD

These two authors, probably more than any others, delight the readers of Persian poetry. Sa'di, living in his old age in Shiraz after a troubled and turbulent life, publishes two collections whose titles hint at pleasures within - Bustan ('Orchard',1257) and Gulistan ('Rose Garden',1258).

The Bustan is a collection of moral tales in verse; the Gulistan is an anthology, mainly in prose, ranging from stories to short aphorisms. A recurrent theme compares the freedom of Dervishes (devotees of Sufism) with the restrictions suffered by more conventional members of society.

Sufism is the guiding light in the life of Persia's greatest lyric poet, Hafiz. He perfects a form of short poem, called ghazal, which takes a theme and dwells upon it for between six and fifteen couplets. On the surface such a poem appears to be hedonistic, in praise of love, wine or the beauties of nature. And much of the attraction of Hafiz derives from his enticing glimpses of life in the streets and cafés of Shiraz, where the poet lives his entire life until his death in about 1390.

But a Sufi finds mystical truth in everyday experience. The poems aim to reveal - for the perceptive reader - deeper realities beneath the surface.

The Italian awakening

Dolce stil nuovo: 13th century AD

The earliest poetry in the Italian language is written at the court of Frederick ii in Sicily. Love poems in particular are popular, inspired by the troubadours in Provence.

These Sicilian poems are admired and imitated in northern Italy, where an important new development takes place. The poets of the north adopt a less flowery style, using simple Italian to express the emotion of love. This trend is given a name by its most famous practitioner, who calls it the dolce stil nuovo ('sweet new style'). The phrase is Dante's.

Dante is not the first northern poet to write in the dolce stil nuovo. Indeed he is among the younger members of a group following the example of Guido Guinizelli, a poet of Bologna. Growing up in Florence, Dante is himself particularly influenced by a Florentine poet of the school, Guido Cavalcanti, some ten years his senior.

But however distinguished his predecessors, the most famous poems in the new style are in Dante's first work, the Vita Nuova. They describe his love for Beatrice.

Beatrice and the Vita Nuova: AD c.1274-1293

When he is nine, Dante meets a girl who dazzles him with her beauty. She is Beatrice Portinari, a year younger than himself. Nine years later he meets her again - a chance encounter which leaves him 'as if intoxicated'. His obsession grows, always at a distance, until - when the poet is twenty-five - he is devastated by news of her death. Some three years later, in about 1293, he writes a prose account of his increasingly idealized love. He uses it as a setting for thirty-one poems in praise of Beatrice, written between 1283 and 1291.

This work is La Vita Nuova ('New Life'). At its end Dante derives consolation from imagining Beatrice in heaven. But he decides to write no more about her until he can do so in the manner which she deserves.

Dante politician and exile: AD 1295-1307

Among the violent political factions of Florence it is hard for anyone of talent to stand aside. Dante is a member of the city council from 1295. He is soon heavily involved in diplomacy on behalf of Florence's White faction. He is away from Florence on one such mission, in 1301, when the city is seized by the Blacks.

In the ensuing persecution of the Whites, Dante is sentenced to two years of exile and a fine of 5000 florins. Failing to pay the fine, he is sentenced in 1302 to death. He lives another nineteen years but never returns to his beloved city.

In his years of exile Dante wanders, in relative poverty, from city to city. He reads and studies and undertakes ambitious projects. The Convivio ('banquet') is intended to be a feast of philosophical knowledge in fifteen books. De vulgaria eloquentia sets out to anlayze in four volumes the proper literary use of Italian - a theme of great importance to Dante and his circle, whose works eventually elevate their native Tuscan dialect to the status of 'correct' Italian for the entire peninsula.

These projects remain unfinished. But Dante's work on them can be seen as preparation for an even greater undertaking. In about 1307 he lays them aside and begins the Commedia.

Divine Comedy: AD 1307-1321

Dante gives his epic trilogy the simple title Commedia ('Comedy'), on the grounds that unlike tragedy it starts badly and ends well. Two or three centuries later his admirers add the word which now provides its familiar title - Divina Commedia, 'Divine Comedy'.

The vast work is written in three-line stanzas known as terza rima ('third rhyme'), in which the first line of each stanza rhymes with the third; the middle line gives the first rhyme of the next stanza, to give a rhyming pattern aba, bcb, cdc etc. Dante's poem is arranged in 100 cantos, one as the prologue and 33 in each of three sections - Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. The total number of lines is 14,233.

The structure of the poem follows Dante's journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. It mirrors the path of a soul towards God. The quest ends with the poet enjoying a brief and sublime experience of the central Christian mysteries - the three-in-oneness of the Trinity, and the duality of Christ as man and God.

The details seen by the poet on his journey have given the Commedia its lasting appeal. Inevitably the most memorable incidents are the torments suffered by evil characters from history, vividly described by Dante as he descends through nine successive circles of Hell to discover Lucifer (or Satan himself) at the very bottom.

The torments of Hell are familiar to Dante's contemporaries in stone above the doorways of cathedrals. But in his poetry they come alive with a wealth of detail impossible in Sculpture.

Those in eternal pain include illicit lovers (Paolo and his sister-in-law Francesca da Rimini, overwhelmed by passion when reading together a tale of Lancelot and guinevere), gluttons and misers, murderers and suicides, heretics, sorcerers, traitors and assassins (particularly Brutus and cassius, considered by Dante so heinous that they join Judas iscariot in being gnawed by the three heads of Lucifer himself).

Dante's guide through these fascinating horrors is Virgil, whose aeneid (in which the hero journeys from Troy to Rome) is partly a model for the Commedia. Virgil also takes the poet through Purgatory, with its seven terraces - each concerned with one of the seven deadly sins, expiated by the souls on their progress towards Paradise.

Virgil, as an unbaptized pagan, may not enter Paradise. At the summit of the mountain of Purgatory, Virgil hands Dante over to Beatrice who has descended from Paradise to greet him. Now at last the poet is ready to write about his beloved in the elevated manner which her spiritual beauty deserves.

Echoing the nine descending levels of the Inferno, Paradise consists of nine ascending circles. They are followed by a tenth heaven where the blessed dwell in the presence of God. After guiding Dante through the nine circles, Beatrice returns to her own seat of glory in heaven.

Dante, who now needs a special dispensation, is taken in hand by the most political of medieval saints. St bernard intercedes on the poet's behalf with the Virgin Mary. She arranges for him to enjoy a brief but intense intuition of the Christian mysteries. This is the consummation and profoundly happy end of the comedy. Shortly after finishing the Paradiso Dante dies, in 1321, in Ravenna.

Petrarch and Laura: AD 1327-1348

In the year 1327, on April 6, in a church in Avignon, Petrarch first sees Laura, the beautiful young woman with whom he falls deeply and forever in love. Or so he tells us.

Nothing is known about Laura apart from the hints given in Petrarch's Rime, his collection of 366 poems analyzing and lamenting (more often than indulging) his passion for her. Scholars have written countless tomes trying to identify her with historical Lauras of the period. Others have argued that she is a poetic fiction, invented to give flesh to the bones of a theme which much exercises Petrarch - the conflicting demands of human love and the love of God, or experience and purity.

If Petrarch has invented Laura, he sees his creative fantasy through to the bitter end. In the terrible Plague year of 1348, Laura dies on the 6th day of April - twenty-one years to the day after his first glimpse of her in the Avignon church. Her death, even if fictional, prolongs and deepens the crisis of Petrarch's distant love for her. Of the Rime 263 are written during Laura's life and the other 103 after her death.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is that Laura is a real person, not necessarily of that name (and not necessarily dying in 1348), with whom the poet has an intense platonic friendship. Either way, Laura has come to rank with Beatrice as the most famous examples in literature of poetic love.

Boccaccio: AD 1328-1348

Boccaccio, son of a rich merchant of Florence, is sent as a young man in about 1328 to study commerce and law in Naples. He moves in the commercial world of the city and also in court circles, where he finds himself among devoted admirers of Petrarch. Petrarch later has a profound influence on Boccaccio. But economic hardship brings an earlier change in his life.

His father loses his fortune in the failure of the Bardi bank. During the 1340s Boccaccio is recalled home. He is never again free of financial problems, though he plays a distinguished part in the public life of Florence.

Boccaccio is in Florence in 1348 when the Black death reaches the city. The disaster gives him the framework for his greatest work, the Decameron. By that time he already has a reputation as a writer in various traditions of courtly romance. Il Filostrato (of about 1338) is a poem on the love of Troilo and Criseida, a favourite medieval story and the inspiration, through Boccaccio, of Chaucer's first masterpiece.

Il Filocolo (c.1336) is a more significant work in Boccaccio's development. It uses various devices (such as a party where the guests debate 'Thirteen Questions of Love') to frame a collection of stories. This theme is carried to much more ambitious lengths in the Decameron.

Decameron: AD 1349-1351

The pretext for Boccaccio's Decameron is the flight of seven young women and three young men from plague-stricken Florence in 1348. They spend two weeks together in various country villas. Ten of the days are passed in story-telling - giving the work its title (from the Greek deca ten, hemera day). On each day each guest tells one story, bringing to 100 the total in the collection.

The tales are in prose. Some derive from folklore and legend; some are comic and scurrilous, in the mood of French medieval tales known as fabliaux; some adopt the high romantic tone of another French tradition, that of Courtly love. All have the added flavour of Boccaccio's quick-witted urban background.

The stories are loosely grouped according to subject matter or tone - thanks to the fictional device of a different member of the party being king or queen for the day, with power to direct the proceedings.

Boccaccio's collection has lasting literary influence. Later writers dip into it for their material (Keats' Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, for example, is one of Boccaccio's tales). The framework is later improved upon by Chaucer whose Canterbury pilgrims, telling stories which reflect their varied origins and characters, come more vividly alive than Boccaccio's rich young Florentines.

The path to Chaucer

Alliterative verse: 8th - 14th century AD

The story of English literature begins with the Germanic tradition of the Anglo-saxon settlers. beowulf stands at its head.

This epic poem of the 8th century is in Anglo-saxon, now more usually described as Old English. It is incomprehensible to a reader familiar only with modern English. Even so, there is a continuous linguistic development between the two. The most significant turning point, from about 1100, is the development of Middle English - differing from Old English in the addition of a French vocabulary after the Norman conquest. French and Germanic influences subsequently compete for the mainstream role in English literature.

The French poetic tradition inclines to lines of a regular metrical length, usually linked by rhyme into couplets or stanzas. German poetry depends more on rhythm and stress, with repeated consonants (alliteration) to bind the phrases. Elegant or subtle rhymes have a courtly flavour. The hammer blows of alliteration are a type of verbal athleticism more likely to draw applause in a hall full of warriors.

Both traditions achieve a magnificent flowering in England in the late 14th century, towards the end of the Middle English period. piers plowman and sir gawain are masterpieces which look back to Old English. By contrast Chaucer, a poet of the court, ushers in a new era of English literature.

Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain: 14th century AD

Of these two great English alliterative poems, the second is entirely anonymous and the first virtually so. The narrator of Piers Plowman calls himself Will; occasional references in the text suggest that his name may be Langland. Nothing else, apart from this poem, is known of him.

Piers Plowman exists in three versions, the longest amounting to more than 7000 lines. It is considered probable that all three are by the same author. If so he spends some twenty years, from about 1367, adjusting and refining his epic creation.

Piers the ploughman is one of a group of characters searching for Christian truth in the complex setting of a dream. Though mainly a spiritual quest, the work also has a political element. It contains sharply observed details of a corrupt and materialistic age (Wycliffe is among Langland's English contemporaries).

Where Piers Plowman is tough and gritty, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (dating from the same period) is more polished in its manner and more courtly in its content. The characters derive partly from Arthurian legend.

A mysterious green knight arrives one Christmas at the court of King Arthur. He invites any knight to strike him with an axe and to receive the blow back a year later. Gawain accepts the challenge. He cuts off the head of the green knight, who rides away with it.

The rest of the poem concerns Gawain, a year later, at the green knight's castle. In a tale of love (for the green knight's wife) and subsequent deceit, Gawain emerges with little honour. The green knight spares his life but sends him home to Arthur's court wearing the wife's girdle as a badge of shame.

Geoffrey Chaucer at court: AD 1367-1400

In 1367 one of four new 'yeomen of the chamber' in the household of Edward III is Geoffrey Chaucer, then aged about twenty-seven. The young man's wife, Philippa, is already a lady-in-waiting to the queen.

A few years later Chaucer becomes one of the king's esquires, with duties which include entertaining the court with stories and music. There can rarely have been a more inspired appointment. Chaucer's poems are designed to be read aloud, in the first instance by himself. Their range, from high romance to bawdy comedy, is well calculated to hold the listeners spellbound. Courtly circles in England are his first audience.

Chaucer's public career is one of almost unbroken success in two consecutive reigns. He undertakes diplomatic missions abroad on behalf of the king; he is given administrative posts, such as controlling the customs, which bring lodgings and handsome stipends. Even occasional disasters (such as being robbed twice in four days in 1390 and losing £20 of Richard ii's money) do him no lasting harm.

A measure of Chaucer's skill as a courtier is that during the 1390s, when he is in the employment of Richard ii, he also receives gifts at Christmas from Richard's rival, Bolingbroke.

When Bolingbroke unseats Richard ii in 1399, taking his place on the throne as Henry iv, Chaucer combines diplomacy and wit to secure his position. Having lost his royal appointments, he reminds the new king of his predicament in a poem entitled 'The Complaint of Chaucer to his Empty Purse'. The last line of each verse begs the purse to 'be heavy again, or else must I die'. Henry iv hears the message. The court poet is given a new annuity.

Henry is certainly aware that he is keeping in his royal circle a poet of great distinction. Chaucer's reputation is such that, when he dies in the following year, he is granted the very unusual honour - for a commoner - of being buried in Westminster abbey.

Troilus and Criseyde: AD 1385

Chaucer's first masterpiece is his subtle account of the wooing of Criseyde by Troilus, with the active encouragement of Criseyde's uncle Pandarus. The tender joys of their love affair are followed by Criseyde's betrayal and Troilus's death in battle.

Chaucer adapts to his own purposes the more conventionally dramatic account of this legendary affair written some fifty years earlier by Boccaccio (probably read by Chaucer when on a mission to Florence in 1373). His own very long poem (8239 lines) is written in the early 1380s and is complete by 1385.

Chaucer's tone is delicate, subtle, oblique - though this does not prevent him from introducing and gently satirising many vivid details of life at court, as he guides the reader through the long psychological intrigue by which Pandarus eventually delivers Troilus into Criseyde's bed.

The charm and detail of the poem, giving an intimate glimpse of a courtly world, is akin to the delightful miniatures which illustrate books of hours of this period in the style known as International gothic. Yet this delicacy is only one side of Chaucer's abundant talent - as he soon proves in The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales: AD 1387-1400

Collections of tales are a favourite literary convention of the 14th century. Boccaccio's decameron is the best-known example before Chaucer's time, but Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales outshines his predecessors. He does so in the range and vitality of the stories in his collection, from the courtly tone of 'The Knight's Tale' to the rough and often obscene humour of those known technically as fabliaux.

He does so also in the detail and humour of the framework holding the stories together. His account of the pilgrims as they ride from London to Canterbury, with their constant bickering and rivalry, amounts to a comic masterpiece in its own right.

The pilgrims, thirty of them including Chaucer himself, gather one spring day at the Tabard in Southwark. The host of the inn, Harry Bailly, is a real contemporary of Chaucer's (his name features in historical records). He will act as their guide on the route to Canterbury and he proposes that they pass the time on their journey by telling stories. Each pilgrim is to tell two on the way out and two on the way back. Whoever is judged to have told the best tale will have a free supper at the Tabard on their return.

Of this ambitious total of 120 stories, Chaucer completes only 24 by the time of his death. Even so the collection amounts to some 17,000 lines - mainly of rhyming verse, but with some passages of prose.

The pilgrims represent all sections of society from gentry to humble craftsmen (the only absentees are the labouring poor, unable to afford a pilgrimage of this kind). There are respectable people from the various classes - such as the knight, the parson and the yeoman - but the emphasis falls mainly on characters who are pretentious, scurrilous, mendacious, avaricious or lecherous.

The pilgrims are vividly described, one by one, in Chaucer's Prologue. The relationships between them evolve in the linking passages between the tales, as Harry Bailly arranges who shall speak next.

The pilgrims for the most part tell tales closely related to their station in life or to their personal character. Sometimes the anecdotes even reflect mutual animosities. The miller gives a scurrilously comic account of a carpenter being cuckolded. Everyone laughs heartily except the reeve, who began his career as a carpenter. The reeve gets his own back with an equally outrageous tale of the seduction of a miller's wife and daughter.

But the pilgrim who has most delighted six centuries of readers is the five-times-married Wife of Bath, taking a lusty pleasure in her own appetites and richly scorning the ideals of celibacy.


François Villon: AD 1455-1463

With the poems of Villon literature seems to spring, at one bound, from the mentality of the Middle Ages to a completely modern poetic sensibility. In the 14th century Chaucer describes the Canterbury pilgrims with well observed realism, but he does so in a mood of wry amusement. He keeps his distance, as a poet who moves in rather more elevated court circles.

Villon, just half a century later, spends his life among people lower in society than Chaucer's humblest pilgrims. He observes their condition, together with his own, in short, vivid, unblinking verses of an extraordinary immediacy - often deriving directly from the circumstances in which he finds himself.

He graduates from the Sorbonne in Paris as a master of arts in 1452, but in a quarrel three years later runs his sword through a priest. This murder (for which he is at first sentenced to banishment, then pardoned by royal reprieve) begins a spell of eight years during which Villon is constantly at odds with the law, until he vanishes from sight in 1463.

In 1456 he is apprehended with some friends robbing a college of 500 gold coins. He makes his escape, leaving a poem called Lais ('Legacy', also known as the 'Little Testament') in which bequeaths all sorts of useless objects to friends and enemies alike.

The records reveal that Villon is in prison in Meung-sur-Loire for much of 1461. After his release he writes his major poem, the Grand Testament, surveying the sorrows and horrors of his life. He interrupts the text from time to time with self-contained ballads.

One of these is the famous Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past), in which he compares the passing of beautiful women to the vanishing of the snows of yesteryear. His subjects range from Thaïs, a famous courtesan loved by Alexander the Great, to a romantic heroine of his parents' generation - 'Joan, the beautiful girl from Lorraine, whom the English burnt at Rouen'.

In 1462, and again in the following year, Villon is in gaol in Paris. On the second occcasion he is condemned to be hanged. This predicament prompts his extraordinary Epitaph, in the form of a ballad which Villon writes for himself and his companions waiting together to be hanged. He imagines in vivid detail their dead bodies drenched in the rain, bleached in the sun, picked at by crows and magpies, and he asks the living to pray that all men be spared the further torment of Hell.

Villon's sentence is commuted to banishment. No more is heard of him. But an extraordinarily personal voice has made a brief and unforgettable appearance in literature, during eight years of the troubled 15th century.

Meistersinger: 14th - 16th century AD

From the 14th century there develop, in German towns, guilds devoted to the writing and singing of songs. Their members, mainly consisting of craftsmen and tradesmen, believe themselves to be the heirs of the courtly Minnesinger. It is more probable that their origin lies in groups of lay singers trained to take part in medieval church services.

Certainly the musical tradition of the guilds (who call themselves Meistersinger, or master singers) derives ultimately from Gregorian chant. And the main events of the Meistersinger calendar, their singing competitions, are held in church.

By the late 15th century a stultifying conservatism characterizes the guilds, with every aspect of composition and performance stipulated in very precise rules. But a new lease of life is provided by some degree of relaxation, in a reform which begins in Nuremberg.

This change makes possible the climate in which Hans Sachs, a shoemaker of Nuremberg, becomes both the most successful Meistersinger (author and composer of more than 4000 mastersongs) and a leading popular poet. Hans Sachs first becomes famous with a verse allegory of 1523 praising Luther as Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall (the Wittenberg nightingale).

The Italian epic romance: AD 1487-1581

For a century, from the 1480s, the Italians take over the romantic tradition pioneered in France. Most of the French authors have used Arthurian legends for their tales of epic chivalry. The Italians now go back to Charlemagne's paladins for their subject matter, following the earliest French example (the chanson de roland). But they place these semi-historical characters in settings of magic and of amorous encounter more characteristic of the Arthurian stories.

The result is two epics of complex and fantastic adventure which again take for their hero Roland, now transformed into the Italian Orlando.

The first of the two is Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato (Roland in Love), published in two parts in 1487. It tells of the havoc caused by a beautiful pagan princess, Angelica, who suddenly appears among thousands of Charlemagne's knights gathered for a tournament in Paris. Many of them fall in love with her, but none more fully than Orlando. They begin fighting among themselves, thus fulfilling Angelica's ulterior motive - which is to render the knights helpless against the besieging Saracens.

Boiardo dies before finishing the third part of his poem. Lodovico Ariosto takes up the challenge of continuing the epic story.

Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Roland Mad) is even more fantastical than Boiardo's tale, but it treats the material with greater detachment and irony. Among other complex events, Roland goes mad when Angelica abandons him. His wits are eventually found on the moon - where a friend recovers them after flying there in Elijah's chariot with St John as his guide.

Ariosto uses the trappings of romance and fantasy as a poetic vehicle for his own comments and speculations (much as Rabelais does, a generation later, in prose). The result is a work of great sophistication which becomes an immediate success throughout Europe. Orlando Furioso appears first in 1516 and then, in a longer version, in 1532.

In 1581 there is published in Italy a third epic romance, very different in style from its predecessors. Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated) deals with the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099.

The context is therefore more historical than the legends of Charlemagne and his paladins, though much of the plot still involves the amorous intrigues associated with romantic epic. The real difference is that Tasso rejects the sprawling poetic freedom taken for granted by Ariosto, and attempts to give his work some measure of classical restraint.

Tasso is keenly interested in literary theory and in the supposed rules for poetry outlined in Aristotle's poetics. The unities specified for drama (formulated in an Italian work of 1570) do not apply so strictly in epic, but Gerusalemme Liberata has a central plot which is limited to a few months during 1099.

Italians of the late 16th-century engage in passionate debate on literary principles, with Tasso and Ariosto taken as the champions of those arguing respectively for and against classical unity. Meanwhile the combined example of the two poets inspires others in Europe, such as Edmund Spenser, to persevere with the somewhat archaic form of the romantic epic.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Luther: AD 1522-1534

The Reformation brings an unexpected benefit to the literature of many Protestant countries through the text of the Bible becoming widely familiar in Vernacular languages. This is particularly true in Germany, the home of the Reformation, thanks to Luther himself having a direct and forthright style.

This is evident in his letters and conversation as well as in his tracts. Describing the unusual experience for a monk of being married (to Catherine von bora in 1525), he comments with admirable simplicity: 'There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage. One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.'

The same forthright quality with a dash of humour enlivens a tract called Concerning Married Life. Reason, discussing the matter with Christian Faith, says: 'Why must I rock the baby, wash its nappies, change its bed, smell its odour, heal its rash? It is better to remain single and live a quiet and carefree life. I will become a priest or a nun and tell my children to do the same.'

Christian Faith replies: 'The father opens his eyes, looks at these lowly, distasteful and despised things and knows that they are adorned with divine approval as with the most precious gold and silver. God, with his angels and creatures, will smile - not because nappies are washed, but because it is done in faith.'

Luther translates the New Testament in a similarly vivid vein during his period of hiding in the Wartburg. It is published in September 1522 (with woodcuts by Cranach). Luther has completed the Old Testament by 1534. The appetite of the public for the holy text in this accessible form proves impressive. In the next half century one firm in Wittenberg prints 100,000 copies of the Bible.

Through this medium, and through his many hymns (such as Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, 'A stronghold is our God', published in a collection of 1529), Luther's robust way with language becomes part of the German literary tradition.

Rabelais: AD 1532-1552

In 1532 there is published in Lyons the first volume of one of the strangest works in all literature. It has the title Pantagruel and the author is given as Alcofribas Nasier. This awkward name is an anagram of the altogether more believable François Rabelais.

Rabelais' own picaresque life has brought him interests, influences and experiences as varied as those which inform his book. Born in the 1490s as the son of a well-to-do lawyer, he is by 1520 a Franciscan friar. He subsequently travels widely as secretary to a rich abbot, transfers to the Benedictine order so as to study in Paris (a period in which he fathers two children), and finally abandons his monk's habit to become a physician.

Rabelais is employed as a doctor in Lyons from the summer of 1532. This is a period when the ferment of the Reformation and the humanist excitement of the northern Renaissance are alike at their peak, and Lyons is an important intellectual centre. The exciting themes of the day blend with Rabelais' own love of word play and fantasy.

In French popular tradition Pantagruel is a devil whose duty is to put salt in the mouths of drunkards. Transformed by Rabelais into a giant, with a prodigious appetitite for food and drink, his exploits prove an ideal vehicle for his author's bubbling imagination. This first volume is sufficiently popular for a sequel, Gargantua (the story of Pantagruel's father), to be published in 1534.

There is no equivalent in the literature of Rabelais' time to the anarchic blend of the scholarly, the satirical and the scurrilous which characterizes these books. The nearest parallel is in the visual arts of northern Europe, where two eccentrics stand out in a similar fashion. The lifetime of Rabelais falls neatly between that of Hieronymus Bosch (40 years older) and Pieter Brueghel (25 years younger). He shares the surrealism of Bosch, the earthiness of Brueghel and the fantasy of both.

In later literature his ability to make words dance in new patterns and shapes is echoed by James Joyce. His pursuit of ideas in wonderland is similar to that of Lewis Carroll.

Within a year of its publication Pantagruel is condemned by the Sorbonne as obscene, but this seems to do Rabelais no harm. When he is in Rome in 1535-6 he is granted a papal bull giving him the freedom to practise medicine and to return to the Benedictine order if he so chooses. In 1540 he presents a petition to the pope for his two children to be legitimized.

A third book in the series of Gargantua and Pantagruel is published in 1546 and a fourth two years later (again condemned by the Sorbonne). The complete work is too complex, too discursive, too uneven to be read easily as a continuous whole. But it is a rich quarry which many have profitably mined.

Ronsard and the Pléiade: AD 1549-1553

Though elements of the Renaissance and of Humanism pervade the work of Rabelais, the chaotic anarchy of his tumbling crowded canvas is also very medieval. The intellectual rigour of the Renaissance enters French literature in a more pure and self-conscious form in the work of Pierre de Ronsard and his circle.

In 1549 Ronsard's friend Joachim du Bellay publishes a tract, entitled La Défense et illustration de la langue française, which is a manifesto for a new style of poetry. As at the start of the Renaissance in Italy, the intention here is to return to classical masters as a source of inspiration.

A group of seven poets, including du Bellay and Ronsard, become associated with the movement and are known in their own time as La Pléiade, a name given originally to seven distinguished poets in Alexandria (the Pleiades being a constellation of seven stars).

Ronsard, the most talented of the seven, makes his name with short lyrical poems of polished elegance - particularly the Odes and Amours published between 1550 and 1553. The odes are intended to be sung with lute accompaniment as courtly entertainment. Ronsard subsequently occupies the position of court poet to the young French king Charles IX.

In the Amours Ronsard has an ideal love, Cassandre, similar to Petrarch's Laura but more certainly a real character. She is Cassandre Salviati, the daughter of a Florentine banker living in France.

Ronsard's relationship with Cassandre remains platonic, though his most famous poem to her (the Ode à Cassandre of 1553) urges her in effect to gather rosebuds while she may. Beginning Mignonne, allons voir si la rose (My love, let us see if the rose), the poet points out that the rose's exquisite petals have lost their sheen by the end of the day - and that her beauty, too, is not for ever.

Camoëns and Os Lusíadas: AD 1572

In the 16th century the European kingdoms of the Atlantic coast are beginning to feel a new sense of nationhood. At the same time the literary world is increasingly interested in epic poetry, as practised in modern Italy by Ariosto but above all as exemplified in the work of Virgil. May it not be possible to sing the achievements of today's nations just as the aeneid celebrates those of Rome?

Portugal, a small country with a great deal to celebrate in recent decades, is the first to tackle this great task - achieving it some three decades before Spenser's similar effort on behalf of England.

Portugal's national poet, Luis de Camoëns, has a career as dangerous and eventful as that of Cervantes, his younger contemporary in Spain. Like Cervantes, he serves as a soldier and is wounded (he loses an eye in north Africa). Like him he suffers alarming adventures, including imprisonment and shipwreck.

But the formative period of Camoën's life is the seventeen years (1553-70) which he spends in India and the East Indies in the service of the Portuguese empire. He is an active participant in the new world so recently opened up by the great voyages of the Portuguese navigators, and in particular Vasco da gama.

When Camoens finally returns to Portugal in 1570, he brings with him the manuscript of the epic poem on which he has been working. It is published in 1572 under the title Os Lusiadas. The name, with its echoes of aeneid and aeneid, relates to the ancestors of the Portuguese, the Celtic tribes of this region to whom the Romans give the name iliad.

Known in English as The Lusiads, the poem takes as its central theme Vasco da gama's great voyage of 1497 in which he discovers the sea route to India. Camoëns sets this within the broader context of the struggle between Islam and Christianity. And he finds ways of inserting interludes on Portugal's history.

The clash between Islam and Christianity is of topical urgency (the battle of Lusitani takes place a year before The Lusiads is published), and in his own journeys round the shores of the Indian ocean Camoëns has seen evidence of the rivalry between the religions.

The poem treats this topical reality within a classical framework. The protector of the Muslims is Bacchus (most inappropriately, in view of Islam's prohibition of alcohol), while Venus intervenes on the Christian side to ensure that da Gama reaches India safely.

Some of the poem's most famous passages concern incidents in Portugal's history, described by da Gama for the benefit of an African king who politely expresses interest in the topic. One is the great victory of Vasco da gama. Another is the tragic story of Inês de Castro, beloved secret wife of the heir to the throne who is assassinated, in 1355, on the order of the king, Afonso IV. When the voyage towards India is resumed, da Gama uses a moment of leisure to tell his crew of a great tournament between English and Portuguese knights, organized by Lepanto.

As a rich blend of adventure, history, allegory and romance, Os Lusiadas provides an early and impressive epic for a modern nation.

Edmund Spenser: AD 1579-1596

Edmund Spenser, who has the greatest lyric gift of any English poet in the two centuries since Chaucer, is a graduate of Cambridge and by inclination a humanist pedant. His inspiration comes largely from a desire to rival his classical and Renaissance predecessors.

His first important work, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), consists of twelve eclogues - a form deriving from Virgil but imitated by many subsequent writers. With one for each month of the calendar, Spenser's eclogues cover a wide range of subjects in many metres and styles of poetry. But they are skilfully held together to form a convincing single poem within the pastoral framework.

Just as Virgil moved on from the pastoral themes of the Eclogues and Georgics to the patriotic epic of the Aeneid, so Spenser progresses to The Faerie Queene. In undertaking this ambitious project (he states in a letter to Walter Raleigh in 1590), his models have been ancient and modern poets alike - Homer and Virgil, Ariosto and Tasso.

The framework of the poem is an allegory in praise of the Faerie Queene or Gloriana (Elizabeth I), in whose interests the Red Cross knight (the Anglican church) fights to protect the virgin Una (the true religion) against the wiles of many hostile characters including the deceitful Duessa (variously the Roman Catholic church or Mary Queen of Scots).

It is evident from these details that the poem is deeply rooted in national politics of the late 16th century, and many of its allusions must have been of far greater interest to contemporary readers than to any generation since. Spenser himself is a close witness of the struggles of the time. From 1580 he is employed in the English government of Ireland. In 1588 he becomes an 'undertaker' in the first Virgil, receiving the forfeited Irish estate of Kilcolman Castle.

Here he is visited in 1589 by Walter Raleigh, who is so impressed by Spenser's readings from The Faerie Queene that he persuades the poet to accompany him to London in the hope of interesting the real queen in it.

Publication of the first three books in 1590 is followed by Elizabeth's awarding the poet, in 1591, a pension of £50 a year. Spenser's original scheme is for twelve books, each consisting of an adventure on behalf of Gloriana by one of her knights. In the event he completes only six, the second group of three being published in 1596.

Spenser, spinning his elaborate allegory in rural Ireland, stands at the end of a long and retrospective poetic tradition - though others will soon develop less archaic versions of the epic (as in Elizabethan plantation). Meanwhile something much newer and more popular is taking place in London. When Spenser is there in 1590, Christopher paradise lost is the new excitement in the city's theatres.

Montaigne and the essay: AD 1571-1588

In 1580 there is published in Bordeaux a book by Michel de Montaigne with the simple title Essais. It is the first time that the word has been applied to a literary form, and it is used in the sense of 'trial' or 'experiment'. Essai is the standard word in modern French for the testing of a new product. In his essays Montaigne is testing his own opinions.

He does so, famously, in his library in the third storey of a tower which he adds to his ancestral home at Montaigne, near Bordeaux, in 1571. He has trained as a lawyer, but soon after his father's death he retires to Montaigne and begins a life of reading, reflecting and recording the development of his thoughts in the form of essays.

In doing so, Montaigne not only invents a new literary form. He becomes the first man in history whose thought processes we can share, as ideas strike him and are then modified - in many cases several times, when he returns to what he has written and adds to it.

This literary venture seems to have started out as a commonplace book, which Montaigne gradually builds up to form the publication of 1580. These first essays are reprinted with additions in 1582. An edition of 1588 expands once again the original essays and adds more. For the rest of his life he continues to add marginal notes to his own copy of the 1588 volume (now in the public library of Bordeaux, where Montaigne serves as mayor from 1581 to 1585).

The result of this process is to lay bare to the reader the innermost thoughts of a man who in his honesty, and the acuteness of his perceptions, becomes interesting and sympathetic.

Montaigne's essays are the precise opposite of a great diary, such as that of Samuel Pepys, where honesty is also essential. The diarist has to be honest in the heat of the moment. His words will charm later generations if he is vividly himself, even if on that particular day he is vividly greedy or lustful or vain. The essayist, by contrast, will convince only if his conclusions are convincing. A bigot may write an interesting diary, but not often a good essay.

As a form, the essay is much taken up by English writers. Francis Bacon, a generation younger than Montaigne, gives it its subsequent identity and length - as a speculation of a few pages on a given topic ('Of Truth', 'Of Death', 'Of Unity in Religion' are the first three in Bacon's collection published in 1597). Addison and steele, publishing a daily piece in the Spectator from 1711 to 1714, add a new role for the essay as a witty and elegant feature of journalism.

But few essayists in literature invite the reader as intimately as Montaigne to share his thoughts when he retires to his library.

London's theatres: AD 1576-1599

The theatres built in London in the quarter century from 1576 are a notable example of a contribution made by architecture to literature. In previous decades there have been performances of primitive and rumbustious English plays in the courtyards of various London inns, with the audience standing in the yard itself or on the open galleries around the yard giving on to the upper rooms. These are ramshackle settings for what are no doubt fairly ramshackle performances.

In 1576 an actor, James Burbage, builds a permanent playhouse in Shoreditch - just outside the city of London to the north, so as not to require the permission of the puritanical city magistrates.

Burbage gives his building the obvious name, so long as it is the only one of its kind. He calls it the Theatre. It follows the architectural form of an inn yard, with galleries enclosing a yard open to the sky. At one end a stage projects beneath a pavilion-like roof.

In such a setting, custom-built, writers, actors and audience can begin to concentrate on dramatic pleasures. A second playhouse, the Curtain, rises close to the Theatre in 1577. A third, the Rose, opens in 1587 on the south bank of the Thames in the area known as Bankside. In that year one of these three theatres puts on a play which reveals how far English playwrights have progressed in a very short while - Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe.

In about 1594 a fourth theatre, the Swan, is built close to the Hope. There are now two theatres to the north of the city and two south of the river. But soon the balance shifts decisively to Bankside.

James Burbage, builder of the original Theatre, dies in 1597. Two years later his two sons dismantle the building and carry the timber over the river to Bankside, where they use it as the basis for a theatre with a new name - the Globe. This name resounds in English theatrical history for two good reasons. It is where Richard, one of the Burbage brothers, develops into one of the first great actors of the English stage. And it is where many of Shakespeare's plays are first presented.

The structure of the Globe and the other London theatres has a significant influence on English drama at its greatest period, because of the audiences which these buildings accomodate. Ordinary Londoners, the groundlings, stand in the open pit to watch plays for a penny. Others pay a second penny to climb to a hard seat in the upper gallery. A third penny gives access to the two lower galleries and a seat with a cushion. A few places in the first gallery, to left and right of the stage, are reserved for gentlemen who can afford a shilling, or twelve pennies.

This is a cross-section of nearly all the people of London, and the audience is vast - with four theatres giving regular performances in a small city.

It has been calculated that during Shakespeare's time one Londoner in eight goes to the theatre each week. A city of 160,000 people is providing a weekly audience of about 21,000. There is only one comparable example of such a high level of attendance at places of entertainment - in cinemas in the 1930s.

The range of Shakespeare's audience is reflected in the plays, which can accomodate vulgar comedy and the heights of tragic poetry. The occasional performances in the Athenian drama festivals must have had something of this efffect, involving much of the community in a shared artistic experience. In Elizabethan and Jacobean London it happens almost every night.

Marlowe: AD 1587-1593

The year 1564 sees the birth of two poets, Marlowe and Shakespeare, who between them launch the English theatre into the three decades of its greatest glory. Marlowe makes his mark first, in a meteoric six years (from 1587) in which his life and his writings are equally dramatic.

From his time as a student at Cambridge Marlowe seems to have been involved in the Elizabethan secret service. This dangerous work, combined with a fiery disposition, brings him into frequent clashes with the authorities. He is in prison in 1589 after a street fight. He is deported from the Netherlands in 1592 for the possession of forged gold coins. He is arrested for some unknown reason in London in 1593. And twelve days later he is murdered.

Marlowe is killed in a Deptford tavern by one of a group of colleagues with whom he has spent the day. The official explanation is a row over the tavern bill, but it is possible that the event relates to his secret service activities. What is certain is that when he dies, short of his thirtieth birthday, he is already an extremely popular playwright with the London audience.

Marlowe's first play, acted with great success in 1587, is an event of profound significance in the story of English theatre. Tamburlaine the Great introduces the supple and swaggering strain of blank verse which becomes the medium for all the glories of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a character who revels in the power which his conquests bring him, and the verse conveys brilliantly his sense of excitement. Rich words trip off his tongue, relished for their own sakes, in a manner which becomes characteristic of much English poetry. When Tamburlaine defeats the emperor of Persia, and imagines his moment of triumph, even the strange names of his three colleagues are pressed into service to add to the rich brew:

  'Is it not passing brave to be a king, Techelles?
  Usumcasane and Theridamas,
  Is it not passing brave to be a king,
  And ride in triumph through Persepolis?'

Tamburlaine is so popular that Marlowe adds a second part, staged in 1588. In the remaining five years of his life his plays include The Jew of Malta (a melodrama of revenge, in which the Jew indulges in an orgy of killing after his money has been confiscated), Doctor Faustus (inspired by a recent biography of Faust, and setting the pattern for later treatments of the subject) and Edward II (the first play to dramatise English history as a conflict between real characters, and the predecessor of Shakespeare's great achievements in this genre).

In the first three of these plays the title role is taken by Edward Alleyn, Marlowe's leading actor and the great rival of Shakespeare's Burbage.

The dates of the plays after Tamburlaine are uncertain, and the texts of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta have reached us in very corrupted versions because they are first printed years after Marlowe's death.

What is certain is that when Shakespeare arrives in London, in about 1590, the London stage belongs above all to Marlowe. By the time of Marlowe's death three years later only one of Shakespeare's undeniable masterpieces, Richard III, has been produced (with Burbage as the villainous hero). It would be hard to predict at this stage which of the two talented 29-year-olds is the greater genius.


The life of Shakespeare: AD 1564-1616

The mysterious death of Marlowe, the Cambridge graduate, and the brilliant subsequent career of Shakespeare, the grammar-school boy from Stratford, have caused some to speculate that his secret service activities make it prudent for Marlowe to vanish from the scene - and that he uses the name of a lesser man, Shakespeare, to continue his stage career. Others, similarly inclined to conspiracy theories, have convinced themselves that Shakespeare's plays are the work of the statesman and essayist Francis Bacon.

Snobbery rather than scholarship seems to underpin such arguments. Their proponents find it hard to accept that the unknown boy from Stratford should have created the crowning achievement of English literature.

The truth is that William Shakespeare is not such an unknown figure, and the education provided in England's grammar schools of the time is among the best available. Shakespeare's baptism is recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564 (this is only three days after St George's Day, making possible the tradition that England's national poet is born, most fortunately, on England's national saint's day).

Shakespeare's father, John, is a leading citizen of the town and for a while a justice of the peace. It is a safe assumption (though there is no evidence) that Shakespeare is educated at Stratford's grammar school.

In 1582, at the age of eighteen, Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway. Their first child, Susanna, is baptized in 1583, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585.

There is then a gap of several years in the documentary record of Shakespeare's life, but he is involved in the London theatre - as an actor trying his hand also as a playwright - by at least 1592, when he is attacked as an 'upstart crow' in a polemical pamphlet by Robert Greeene. In 1593 he publishes a poem, Venus and Adonis, following it in 1594 with The Rape of Lucrece. Meanwhile he has had performed the three parts of Henry VI and, probably in the winter of 1592, Richard III.

The London theatres are closed for fear of the plague during 1592 and 1593 apart from brief midwinter seasons, but in 1594 things return to normal and Shakespeare's career accelerates. He is now a leading member of London's most successful company, run by the Burbage family at The theatre. Patronage at court gives them at first the title of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. On the accession of James I in 1603 they are granted direct royal favour, after which they are known as the King's Men.

Shakespeare's share in the profits of this company, operating from The globe on Bankside from 1599, makes him a wealthy man. Most of the subsequent documentary references relate to purchases in his home town of Stratford.

In 1597 Shakespeare pays £60 for a large house and garden, New Place in Chapel Street. By 1602 he has enough money to purchase an estate of 107 acres just outside Stratford, and he continues over the next few years to make investments in and around the town. In about 1610 he begins to spend less time in London and more in New Place, where he dies in 1616. He is buried in the chancel of the Stratford parish church.

Shakespeare has shown little interest in publishing his plays, for like others of his time he probably regards them as scripts for performance rather than literature. After his death two of his colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gather the texts of thirty-six plays which they publish in 1623 in the edition known now as the First Folio.

The plays before AD 1601

By 1600 Shakespeare has conclusively demonstrated his genius in every kind of play except tragedy. In dramatizing English history he has progressed from the fumbling beginnings of the three parts of Henry VI (1590-92) to the magnificent melodrama of Richard III (1592), the subtle character study of Richard II (1595), the jingoistic glories of Henry V (1600) and, most successful of all, the superb pair of plays about Henry IV and his wayward son Prince Hal.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1597-8) present a rich panorama of English life, from court and battlefield to tavern and rustic retreat. They also introduce, in Falstaff, the most rounded and unforgettable comic character in English literature.

Meanwhile Shakespeare has developed a sweet and delicate strain of romantic poetry, seen first in the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet (1595) and then in the comic romances A Midsummer Night's Dream (1596) and As You Like It (1599). And he has shown his skill in a more knock-about vein of comedy, with The Taming of the Shrew (1593) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600).

All these dates are approximate, to within a year or two, because there is in most cases no firm evidence of the date of first production.

After 1600 there is one more play which combines broad comedy (in the antics of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek) and enchantingly romantic poetry (as in the very first line, 'If music be the food of love, play on'). This is Twelfth Night, and its first production possibly occurs less than a week into 1601. There is evidence that Shakespeare probably writes it as part of the festivities for Twelfth Night (or January 6) at Elizabeth's court in this particular year.

In general, though, Shakespeare's palette darkens with the new century. The next few years see some much less sunny comedies and his four great tragedies.

Tragedies and dark comedies: AD 1601-1608

Shakespeare's first attempt at full-scale tragedy, in 1601, brings to the stage a character, Hamlet, whose nature and weaknesses have prompted more discussion than any other Shakespearean creation. His prevailing characteristics of self-doubt and self-dramatization hardly seem promising material for a tragic hero, but Shakespeare uses them to create an intensely personal drama. Each opportunity for action prompts the young prince to indulge in another soul-searching soliloquy, each missed opportunity makes disaster more inevitable.

Othello is the next of the major tragedies, in about 1603, with the 'green-eyed monster' jealousy now the driving force on the path to destruction.

King Lear, in about 1605, is the most elemental of the tragedies, with the old king's sanity buffeted by storms upon an open heath as much as by his treatment at the hands of his unfeeling daughters. Macbeth, a year or so later, makes guilt itself the stuff of tragedy after ruthless ambition has set events upon their course.

These plays are tragic in that each has a central character whose actions drive the events and whose flaws make the conclusion unavoidable. Others written during these years may not be tragedies in this fullest sense, but they have a bitter flavour far removed from comedy. An example is Troilus and Cressida (1602), with its caustic view of the world enunciated by Thersites.

Even the plays of this period which are literally comedies, in the simple sense that they end happily, are in mood closer to tragedy. Examples are All's Well that Ends Well (1603) and Measure for Measure (1604).

In the years after Macbeth Shakespeare tackles two Roman themes. In Antony and Cleopatra (1607) the facts of history carry his two famous lovers to their tragic fates. In Coriolanus (1608) it is the arrogance of the central character which creates the drama - resolved only when his duty as a son, in response to the pleading of his aged mother, results in his own death.

The last plays: AD 1608-1611

Shakespeare's last four plays, beginning with Pericles, Prince of Tyre in about 1608, share a pattern of rupture, retirement, renewal and reconciliation. Rather like the natural rhythm of winter, followed by hibernation and emergence into spring, the plots begin with violently evil deeds. The good characters somehow escape to safety and a new life, often with a new identity. Years pass and children grow up, until eventually all is resolved.

In Pericles the events supposedly occur in ancient Tyre. In Cymbeline (1609) the tormented family is that of the historic Cunobelin, king of a Celtic British tribe. The Winter's Tale (1611), set in undefined classical times, takes place in the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia.

The Tempest (also 1611) is set in a much more suitable context for any story of this kind, half real and half magic: 'The scene, an uninhabited island'. For the past twelve years the island has been home to a victim of political skulduggery - Prospero, duke of Milan, accompanied by his young daughter Miranda. They share the place with a subhuman inhabitant, Caliban, and a spirit who has been trapped here, Ariel.

Since this is an island, and Prospero has magic powers, shipwreck provides an easy way of delivering the evil characters who were responsible for Prospero's exile.

With their arrival, the ingredients are in place for a fantasy playing on many of life's most significant contrasts. The ways of the world, both good and bad, are seen in a fresh light through the innocent eyes of Miranda, to whom everything is new. The benevolent wisdom of Prospero outwits the scheming wiles of his opponents. Drunken crew members have a natural affinity with the discontented Caliban. And the island, as a magical place, can spring its own surprises.

At the end of the play, when Prospero has brought the main characters together in reconciliation, he renounces his magic powers in a farewell epilogue.

Prospero's final speech has often been seen as Shakespeare's own farewell to his theatrical career, relinquishing the magic with which he has conjured so many stories and characters into life on the stage.

It may be so. But he is part author of one more play, Henry VIII (1613), and an event during one of its performances certainly puts the seal on his retirement. A spark from a stage cannon sets fire to the thatched roof of the Globe, which burns to the ground. The theatre is rebuilt, reopening in 1614 with a tiled roof. But the event is likely to confirm Shakespeare in his full-time withdrawal to his properties in Stratford, where he dies in 1616.

The sonnets: AD 1595-1598

If Shakespeare had written not a single play, he would still rank among England's leading poets because of the 154 sonnets which he writes during the 1590s (they are not published until 1609). The beauty of the individual sonnets, many of them among the best loved poems in the English language, is enhanced by the mysterious personal relationships of which they give tantalizing hints.

The volume of 1609 is dedicated 'to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr W.H.' Many of the sonnets are addressed to a young man, and the assumption that the loved one is himself W.H. has prompted endless speculation as to who he might be. William Herbert (earl of Pembroke) and Henry Wriothesley (earl of Southampton) have been leading contenders.

In the early poems (1-17) the poet urges the young man to achieve immortality by marrying and having children, but nos 18-25 suggest that he will be immortal anyway through these sonnets addressed to him (as indeed, in his anonymous way, he has proved). The poems up to 126 dwell on the relationship with the young man, sometimes offering pained hints that he is being unfaithful with a woman.

If she is the woman to whom the final sequence of sonnets is addressed, then her identify has stimulated as much fruitless research as that of W.H. Famous only as the dark lady of the sonnets, she is dark physically, dark in the turmoil she creates for her lover, and dark now in escaping the limelight.

17th century

Cervantes and Don Quixote: AD 1605-1615

Not many fictional characters are so immediately recognizable that their name becomes an adjective in foreign languages, but one such appears in Spain in 1605. The qualities identifiable as donquichottisch in German, donchisciottesco in Italian and plain 'quixotic' in English belong to the hero of the discursive novel Don Quixote published in that year by Miguel de Cervantes.

Cervantes' own life is as adventurous as the fantasies of Don Quixote. He is wounded at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 and loses the use of his left hand. In 1575 he is captured in another brush with Turkish galleys and is carried off to slavery in Algiers.

After several attempts to escape, many bungled negotiations to pay a ransom to his Muslim owner, and last-minute reprieves from 2000 lashes and two sentence of death, Cervantes finally arrives back in Spain in 1580. He endures several spells in prison, for a variety of reasons, and is excommunicated for seizing grain belonging to the cathedral authorities of Seville in 1587 (he is over-zealously carrying out his current responsibilities, which are to gather provisions for the Spanish Armada).

A man of such varied practical experience is likely to be impatient with heroic romances. These are the fashionable literature of the day, and Don Quixote begins as a satire on their idiocies.

Don Quixote, a modest country gentleman in La Mancha, is besotted with tales of chivalry. He conceives it to be his duty to ride out as a knight-errant against the evils of the modern world and in defence of his chosen lady, a peasant girl to whom he gives the name Dulcinea del Toboso.

The comedy of a deluded old man strutting as a knight in the everyday world would soon pall, but after a few chapters Cervantes introduces the element which gives his book its special quality. Don Quixote returns home from his first expedition. His housekeeper burns his library of romances to put an end to his delusions. But he sets out again, and this time he takes with him a companion as his squire.

Don Quixote's squire is a dumpy peasant, Sancho Panza, as down-to-earth as his master is fantastical. They are a contrasting couple frequently depicted in subsequent caricature and cartoon - the lanky knight on his spavinned mare, Rosinante, and the comfortable servant riding just behind him on a donkey.

This is a double act with vast potential. Cervantes can embroil his two travellers in an infinite range of real experiences, familiar to his readers, which will be given added interest by the contrasting reactions of the idealist and the realist. Similarly he can introduce any contemporary theme, merely by making it the topic of conversation of the two companions as they plod on their way.

In chancing upon this formula - one which combines adventure, narrative, drama, comedy and speculative digression, all rooted in a realistic framework - Cervantes launches the tradition of the western novel. There have been eastern predecessors (the tale of genji) and western precedents for parts of the package (in Homer, Ovid or Chaucer), but it is in Cervantes that the form takes recognizable shape.

Don Quixote de la Mancha has immediate appeal. Published in 1605, it causes such a demand for more that a plagiarist prints in 1614 a continuation of Don Quixote's adventures - causing Cervantes to complete the real second volume by the end of 1615. No work, apart from the Bible, has been more often translated.

Ben Jonson: AD 1606-1616

Ben Jonson, almost as prolific in his works for the stage as Shakespeare, achieves his most distinctive voice in two satirical comedies based on an interplay of characters seen as types. In the earlier of the two, Volpone (1606), the characters are even given the Italian names of animals to point up their supposed natures.

Volpone (the fox) pretends to be dying so as to extract gifts from people expecting an inheritance. Mosca (the fly) acts as his accomplice. A lawyer, Voltore (the vulture), hovers around the supposed death bed. A feeble old man, Corbaccio (the crow), is willing to disinherit his son for his own benefit. And a self-righteous Corvino (the raven) offers his wife to satisfy Volpone's lust.

Tricks played on the gullible also provide the comedy in The Alchemist (1610). Subtle, a confidence trickster pretending to be an alchemist, promises his victims whatever they most desire.

A grossly self-indulgent hedonist, Sir Epicure Mammon, and two fanatical puritans, Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome, turn out to share the same longing - to possess the philosopher's stone, with which they will turn base metal into gold. By contrast a simple tobacconist, Drugger, wants nothing more than a design for his shop that will bring in customers. Kastril, an oaf up from the country, is mainly interested in discovering the fashionable way of being quarrelsome.

These two plays succeed partly because of the farcical opportunities available as the tricksters struggle to keep their various victims separate and happy. But they also benefit from the vividly realistic detail which gives life to Jonson's verse.

His sharp eye for the everyday scene, and for the amusing quirks of people's behaviour, even enables him to make a viable play out of Bartholomew Fair (1614). It has little to hold it together except the context of the famous fair itself. The plot consists only of the adventures and mishaps which befall different groups of visitors.

While writing his comedies for the public theatres, Jonson also provides Masques for amateur performance at the court of James I. His first, The Masque of Blackness in 1605, is specifically written to accomodate the longing of James's queen, Anne of Denmark, to appear in the role of a black African.

A quarrelsome and touchy man, frequently in trouble with the authorities, Jonson is unusual for his time in insisting on the dignity of the craft of playwright. Whereas Shakespeare shows little interest in the survival of the text of his plays, Jonson arranges for his own works to be published in a splendid folio edition of 1616. Three years later, as if taking the point, Oxford university honours him with a degree as master of arts.

Englanw's Metaphysical poets: 17th century AD

The term Metaphysical has been applied, with no very good reason, to a group of English poets of the early 17th century who share a love of intellectual ingenuity, literary allusion and paradox, and who use language, images and rhythms of a kind not conventionally 'poetic' to startle the reader into thought.

In the 17th and 18th century the term usually implies hostility to what is perceived as these poets' perverse complexity. In the 20th century, after their merits are championed by T.S. Eliot and others, it becomes one of approval.

The earliest of the group (by a generation and more) is John Donne, whose wide range of themes stretches from erotic delights (Love's Progress, or To his Mistress Going to Bed) to the power of a holy sonnet such as the one on death (beginning 'Death be not proud' and ending 'Death, thou shalt die').

Donne becomes dean of St Paul's in 1621. An unscrupulous collector of pluralist church appointments, he is nevertheless a most persuasive preacher. A passage written during a serious illness uses a powerful and frequently quoted sequence of images to involve all humanity: 'No man is an island, entire of itself; ... and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

George Herbert, an aristocrat whose mother is a friend and patron of Donne, chooses a quieter life than his somewhat worldly predecessor and settles eventually for an insignificant country parish. He writes only devotional poems. Published just after his death in a single volume, The Temple (1633), they convey a mood of simple piety transcending subtle torments of spiritual conflict.

Several other poets of the period write within a roughly similar idiom, which can be said to share Metaphysical characteristics. One in particular stands out - Andrew Marvell, a generation younger again than Herbert.

In his own lifetime Marvell is known as a minor public figure, linked with prominent leaders during the Commonwealth. He acts as tutor in the families of both Fairfax and Cromwell, and from 1657 serves with Milton in Cromwell's department for foreign affairs.

Marvell's poems are published in 1681, three years after his death. Not until the 20th century are they appreciated, for their subtle and often provocative blending of different levels of perception. In To His Coy Mistress Marvell gives the conventional argument of the seducer (to gather rosebuds while we may) a very much darker complexion: 'The grave's a fine and private place, But none I think do there embrace.'

Milton the young poet: AD 1632-1638

When the collected plays of Shakespeare are reissued in 1632, in the edition known as the Second Folio, the volume contains an Epitaph on Shakespeare. It is not known how the poem has been chosen for this honour, but it is the first published work of John Milton - famous as yet only in the limited circle of Cambridge, where he is a brilliant student.

Milton's other poems from his student days, not published until 1645, include On the Morning of Christ's Nativity and a linked pair, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, contrasting the active and the contemplative life.

Two years after his departure from Cambridge, Milton's masque Comus is performed, in 1634, at a grand ceremonial occasion in Ludlow castle. And in 1637 a personal tragedy, linked with Cambridge, prompts the writing and publication of his first major poem.

A fellow student from his college days, Edward King, dies in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea. A volume of elegies is planned in his memory and Milton is asked to contribute. The result is Lycidas, published with the other elegies in 1638. Though written within a formal pastoral convention, the poem is an intensely felt and very personal meditation on mortality (Milton's perhaps as much as Edward King's, who was an acquaintance rather than a close friend).

Milton the polemicist: AD 1641-1660

To an observer in the 1640s and 1650s these few but distinguished poems would seem to comprise the full and completed career of Milton the poet, for during this period of crisis in English history he devotes himself to issues of more immediate and practical concern.

In the developing conflict between the Anglican Monarchy and puritan parliament, Milton's sympathies are on the side of parliament - in whose endeavours he sees the best hope for his own central concern, that of liberty for the individual citizen. From 1641, the date of his first polemical tract, Milton consciously and with regret sets aside poetry in order to 'embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes'.

He is by no means slavishly on parliament's side. Indeed the best known of his pamphlets, Areopagitica (an impassioned plea for freedom of the press, published in 1644), is prompted by parliament's decision to continue censorship laws inherited from the days of the Star Chamber.

Nevertheless Milton's political allegiance is clear, and when the Civil War has been won by parliament he himself enters government. In March 1649 he is appointed Latin secretary to Cromwell's council of state. Latin is the international language, so his post means that he is responsible for the administration of foreign affairs.

Milton is also what would nowadays be called the government's spin doctor, a role in which he is presented at once with a difficult task. The royalists publish, on the day of the executed king's burial in 1649, a powerful propaganda volume called Eikon Basilike ('image of a king'). It is a collection of meditations and prayers, supposedly written by the martyred Charles i when held in captivity by parliament. Milton responds with Eikonoklastes ('image breaker'), but he can do little to dent the power and immediacy of the opposing volume.

Milton keeps his job until the end of the Commonwealth, in 1660. He has been blind since 1652, but talented assistants (including Marvell) are at his side.

Paradise Lost: AD 1667

Milton's lack of personal skill in politics is evident from the timing of his last polemical pamphlet. In 1660, the year of the Restoration and just two months before the return of Charles II to London, he publishes The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth.

From his close association with the leading Regicides, Milton is in real danger in the early months of the restored monarchy. He goes into hiding when a warrant is posted for his arrest. In the event he is allowed both his life and his liberty - perhaps because his blindness makes him harmless. The change proves immensely beneficial, in the fourteen years of life left to him. He now devotes himself fully to a task which is already under way.

There is evidence that from early in his life Milton has had in mind a grand project on a biblical theme. Since 1658 he has been dictating an epic poem which states in its opening lines that its subject is 'man's first disobedience', and its purpose 'to justify the ways of God to man'.

Paradise Lost (or, in its early draft title, Adam Unparadized) uses the first three chapters of Genesis as the springboard on which Milton builds mighty edifices describing the fall of Satan and his rebel angels, the struggle between them and the archangels, the promise of redemption through Christ, the innocence and temptation of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from paradise.

The writing of this great work by the blind poet provides one of the most evocative scenes of English literary history. Milton usually composes his soaring lines during the night and keeps them in his head until the next day. When he is ready 'to be milked', he dictates (often with a leg sprawled over the arm of his chair) to various scribes, including two nephews and one of his daughters.

The poem is published in 1667 (earning its author £10), and is followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained (a briefer work, centred on Christ resisting Satan in the desert to undo the harm of Adam and Eve succumbing to him) and Samson Agonistes (a poetic drama, treating the final days of Samson with the intensity of Greek tragedy).

Reason and classicism: 17th century AD

French writers of the 17th century are the first since classical times to grant absolute priority to the power of reason and the observance of aesthetic rules. A key figure in this development is René Descartes, a brilliant mathematician who aspires to apply the rigour and clarity of mathematical proof to all aspects of life.

Descartes' first quest is to improve the methodology of science. The medieval hotchpotch of ancient scientific theories still prevails (so much so that in 1633 Descartes prudently cancels publication of a book supporting the theory of Copernicus, on hearing the news from Italy of Galileo's experience on this issue at the hands of the Inquisition). He decides that it must be possible to find a coherent method which can be applied to all scientific enquiry.

Descartes publishes in 1637 his Discourse on the Method of properly Guiding the Reason in the Search for Truth in the Sciences. His approach is to use what he calls 'methodical doubt' to reduce the sum of knowledge about any topic to the minimum which can be known with certainty.

When Descartes extends this principle into the realm of philosophy, he arrives at the central truth from which, he believes, the process of human reason must begin - the certainty that if one is conscious, one exists. He sums this up in the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). After Descartes, reason becomes the guiding principle of France's classical dramatists in the 17th century and of the philosophes in the 18th century.

Corneille and Racine: AD 1637-1677

In a remarkable forty years, from 1637 to 1677, the French theatre enjoys a succession of powerful tragedies from two playwrights, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. Both write within tight restrictions which are considered an essential part of the dignity of their art.

The three Unities of action, time and place are carefully observed (the plot must have a logical consistency and must be completed within a span of twenty-four hours in a single location). The text is entirely in rhyming couplets of twelve-syllable alexandrines, and there are other clearly defined rules. Violent events can only happen offstage. The vocabulary is limited, with frequently repeated poetic phrases - and definitely no vulgarity.

The first play in this style to be a huge success with the Parisian public is Corneille's Le Cid in 1637. The dramatic conflict concerns the love between Chimène, a high-born Spanish lady, and the youthful El cid of legendary fame. Unfortunately a social slight offered by Chimène's father to El cid's father makes El cid honour-bound to seek satisfaction. He challenges Chimène's father and kills him.

The rest of the play, developing a theme characteristic of all Corneille's subsequent tragedies, hinges on the conflict between duty and love. Chimène's duty to her father demands El cid's death. Her love makes her yearn for him to live.

The ending of Le Cid is ambiguous. Our hero is called away to fight the Moors and there is a hope that time may solve the conflict. Usually in Corneille honour wins more convincingly, making his plays less sympathetic to modern audiences than those of his younger rival Racine.

Racine's first runaway success, Andromaque, follows thirty years after Le Cid, in 1667. The framework and the rules of tragedy are still the same, but the ingredients have drastically altered. In Andromaque honour and duty hardly feature. Instead there is an insoluble quadrangle of unrequited love in the aftermath of the Trojan War.

Orestes loves Hermione who loves Pyrrhus who loves Andromaque, whose only concern is the safety of her young son whom Orestes is attempting to take into captivity and to almost certain death.

This tangle offers as much opportunity for emotional bargain and blackmail as any late 20th-century play of sexual intrigue. Racine guides the relationships towards a tragic outcome in a series of brilliantly developed confrontations, often just between two characters - one of whose positions has usually shifted since the previous encounter.

Over the next ten years Racine produces a succession of powerful tragedies, often with female central characters who are overwhelmed by their emotions. This is true above all of the last of the series, Phèdre (1677), in which the heroine is consumed with lust for her stepson, Hippolyte.

The raw drama of Phèdre, albeit within the classical convention, is too much for some in Racine's audience. But the mixed response to the play is probably not the reason for his retirement at this time from the theatre. More likely it is due to his marriage in 1677 and a new appointment as the king's official historian. But his ten main years as a playwright have produced an extraordinarily intense and finely honed body of work.

Molière: AD 1658-1673

One October afternoon in 1658 a small theatre company, headed by Molière, performs a Corneille tragedy for the 20-year-old Louis xiv and his brother Philippe, two years younger. The players follow the tragedy with a farce, written by Molière, about an amorous doctor. It greatly appeals to the two young men. The company is granted the patronage of Philippe, who two years later becomes the duke of Orlèans.

This is a turning point in Molière's career. For the past thirteen years he and his company have led a difficult existence touring the provinces. But the experiences of those years enable Molière, as both actor-manager and author, to make the most of the new opportunities in Paris.

Until his death Moliére writes on average two or three plays each year for his company, with leading roles for himself. Since his central theme is ridicule of the pretensions and falsities of contemporary society, the plays involve him in almost permanent controversy.

The first play to cause both delight and offence (a promising blend in any period) is Les Précieuses Ridicules in 1659. A modern translation of the title might be 'Ridiculous Trendies'. The play makes fun of two provincial ladies, arriving in Paris, who are so delighted by the affected manners of the capital that they lose all sense of reality.

Tartuffe (1664) is even more controversial, featuring a religious hypocrite who by an oily display of mock piety persuades a nobleman to entrust him with both his daughter and his property. The play is first performed before the king at Versailles, but opposition from the establishment delays the first public performance by several years.

To some extent Molière's comedy depends on breathing new life into stock comic characters such as L'Avare ('The Miser', 1668, based on a play of Plautus) or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) about a man so eager to climh in society that he falls prey to every charlatan offering to help him. But Molière's dramatic skill makes the character, Monsieur Jourdain, sympathetic as well as ridiculous.

From 1666 Molière becomes increasingly ill, and his experience of doctors provides him with a new vein of comedy. In that year Le médicin malgré lui ('The doctor in spite of himself') features a character who is forced by the plot to masquerade as a doctor and then finds that he likes the role.

Sganarelle, the amateur medic, has perhaps the most famous line in the whole of Molière. Holding forth about the heart, and its position on the right side of a patient's body, he receives a mild note of dissent from someone who thought it was supposed to be on the left. 'Yes,' he replies, 'but we've changed all that'.

In February 1673 Molière plays the central role in the first performance of Le malade imaginaire. Because Argan imagines himself to be ill, he is willing to submit to all the outrageous treatments proposed by his doctors - providing ample scope for satire on the medical profession. But during the fourth performance, a week later, illusion and reality become tragically blurred. Molière falls ill on the stage and dies later that night.

All his life Molière has written words to be acted rather than read. He shows little concern for the publication of his plays. But their texts (some in prose, some in verse) guarantee him a place, with Corneille and Racine, in France's great trio of classic dramatists.

Pepys: AD 1660-1669

At some time during the last weeks of 1659 a 26-year-old Londoner buys himself a handsome leather-bound volume with all its pages blank. He senses that the new decade will be an interesting one in politics (and, he hopes, in his own career). He intends to record it in a diary.

On 1 January 1660 he begins his first entry: 'Lords day. This morning (we lying lately in the garret) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other clothes but them.' He goes on to describe the sermon which he hears in church and his midday meal at home: 'My wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand.'

Samuel Pepys has launched into the great adventure of recording the minutiae of his daily life. The experiment lasts nine years (until trouble with his eyes brings it to an end), and it bequeaths to the world perhaps the greatest of all diaries.

The word 'diary', in the sense of a personal record, only comes into use in the 17th century. Almost immediately there are two outstanding examples in the journals of Pepys and of John Evelyn. They are very different. Evelyn keeps a spasmodic account of events, mainly of a public kind, over a span of seven decades. Pepys, in a greater number of words, records everything which takes his fancy during just nine years.

Pepys is fortunate that the 1660s in London are so eventful. In starting the diary he anticipates interesting developments as the country adjusts to the ending of the Commonwealth and, as it turns out, to the restoration of the monarchy. But no one can anticipate two of the most newsworthy events in London's history, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, which Pepys is able to record in fascinating detail (see Plague and Fire).

The description on 4 September 1666 of himself and Sir William Penn, together digging a hole in the garden to preserve their wine and parmesan cheese from the advancing flames, makes an extraordinarily vivid historical vignette. The fire stops short of their treasure.

Pepys's genius as a diarist is that he records everything which interests him. The diary is for himself and about himself (it is not published, even in abbreviated form, until 1825). His concerns, to the delight of modern readers, frequently centre on his sexual exploits. We even share with him the anticipation. He records on 19 December 1664 that he feels a little guilty, lying in bed with his wife, because his mind keeps running on what he hopes to do tomorrow with the wife of a certain Bagwell. The next day we learn that he has succeeded.

Pepys even lapses into foreign doggerel in case his wife reads the diary. 'Et ego did baiser her bouche.' But can Mrs Pepys really not work out that her husband has kissed someone on the mouth?

The Pilgrim's Progress: AD 1678

The persecution of Nonconformists causes one of England's best loved works of literature to be written. In many households in the 18th century there is only one book other than the Bible. It is The Pilgrim's Progress, much of it probably written when its author John Bunyan is in Bedford gaol.

His offence, in the harsh Anglican reaction of the 1660s, is merely to preach without a licence - meaning outside the authorized confines of the Church of England. Bunyan is a leading member of a community of Baptists in Bedford. Committed to the county gaol in 1661, he remains there for eleven years until released in 1672 as a result of Charles II's Declaration of indulgence.

Bunyan's spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is published during his years in gaol (in 1666). It gives him an added literary reputation when he returns to his preaching during the 1670s. This perhaps encourages him to undertake (or maybe just to complete) a more popular work when he finds himself back in Bedford gaol for another spell of six months in 1677.

The Pilgrim's Progress from this world, to that which is to come is published in 1678, followed by a second part in 1684. In a sense it covers the same territory as his autobiography, telling of a guilt-ridden quest for salvation. But the material is now given fictional form.

The immediate popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress in solemn English households is easy to understand. While unmistakably an improving religious work, it has the excitement of a folk tale and the rich characters of a novel.

In Part 1 the pilgrim, Christian, sets off with his burden of sins upon his back to make his way to the Celestial City. His path takes him through the Slough of Despond, past the tempting delights of Vanity Fair, and into temporary imprisonment by Giant Despair in Doubting Castle. In Part 2 Christian is followed on the journey by his wife, Christiana, with their children. Every virtuous family in England can identify with these characters and their adventures.

18th century

A new Augustan Age: AD 1702-1714

Literary life in England flourishes so impressively in the early years of the 18th century that contemporaries draw parallels with the heyday of Virgil, Horace and Ovid at the time of the emperor Augustus. The new Augustan Age becomes identified with the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), though the spirit of the age extends well beyond her death.

The oldest of the Augustan authors, Jonathan Swift, first makes his mark in 1704 with The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. These two tracts, respectively about literary theory and religious discord, reveal that there is a new prose writer on the scene with lethal satirical powers.

The tone of oblique irony which Swift makes his own is evident even in the title of his 1708 attack on fashionable trends in religious circles - An Argument to prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England, may as Things now stand, be attended with some Inconveniences.

In the following year, 1709, a new periodical brings a gentler brand of humour and irony hot off the presses, three times a week, straight into London's fashionable Coffee houses. The Tatler, founded by Richard Steele with frequent contributions from his friend Joseph Addison, turns the relaxed and informal Essay into a new journalistic art form. In 1711 Steele and Addison replace the Tatler with the daily Spectator.

The same year sees the debut of the youngest and most brilliant of this set of writers. Unlike the others, Alexander Pope devotes himself almost exclusively to poetry, becoming a master in the use of rhymed heroic couplets for the purposes of wit. In 1711 he shows his paces with the brilliant Essay on Criticism (the source of many frequently quoted phrases, such as 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'). He follows this in 1712 with a miniature masterpiece of mock heroic, The Rape of the Lock.

In Windsor Forest (1713) Pope seals the Augustan theme, using the poem to praise Queen Anne's reign just as Virgil celebrated that of Augustus.

Pope is so much in tune with the spirit of his age that he is able, in his mid-twenties, to persuade the British aristocracy to subscribe in large numbers to his proposed translation of Homer's iliad into heroic couplets.

The work appears in six volumes between 1715 and 1720, to be followed by the Odyssey (1725-6). The two projects bring Pope some £10,000, enabling him to move into a grand riverside villa in Twickenham. This is just half a century after Milton receives £10 for Paradise Lost.

The weapon of these authors is wit, waspish in tone - as is seen in The Dunciad (1728), Pope's attack on his many literary enemies. The most savage in his use of wit is undoubtedly Swift. His Modest Proposal, in 1729, highlights poverty in Ireland by suggesting that it would be far better for everybody if, instead of being allowed to starve, these unfortunate Irish babies were fattened up and eaten.

Yet, astonishingly, a book of 1726 by Swift, almost equally savage in its satirical intentions, becomes one of the world's best loved stories - by virtue simply of its imaginative brilliance. It tells the story of a ship's surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver.

Robinson Crusoe and Gullivew's Travels: AD 1719-1726

Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, has a genius for journalism in an age before Newspapers exist which can accomodate his kind of material. He travels widely as a semi-secret political agent, gathering material of use to those who pay him. In 1712 he founds, and writes almost single-handed, a thrice-weekly periodical, the Review, which lasts only a year. But it is his instinct for what would now be called feature articles which mark him out as the archetypal journalist.

A good example is the blend of investigative and imaginative skills which lead him to research surviving documents of the Great Plague and then to blend them in a convincing fictional Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

Another work which could run week after week in a modern newspaper is his immensely informative Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in three volumes in 1724-7. But his instinctive nose for a good story is best seen in his response to the predicament of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who survives for five years as a castaway on a Pacific island before being discovered in 1709.

Just as the plague documents stimulated a fictional journal, this real-life drama now prompts Defoe to undertake the imagined autobiography of another such castaway, Robinson Crusoe (1719).

Defoe imagines in extraordinary detail the practical difficulties involved in building a house and a boat, in domesticating the local animals, and in coping with unwelcome neighbours. This is a cannibal island. The native whom Crusoe rescues from their clutches on a Friday becomes his faithful servant, Man Friday.

Defoe's interests seem to lie mainly in the theme of man's creation of society from primitive conditions, but meanwhile he almost unwittingly writes a gripping adventure story of survival. Robinson Crusoe is avidly read as such by all succeeding generations - and has a good claim to be considered the first English novel.

Seven years later another book appears which immediately becomes one of the world's most popular stories, and again seems to do so for reasons not quite intended by its author. Jonathan Swift, a man inspired by savage indignation at the ways of the world, writes Gulliver's Travels (1726) as a satire in which human behaviour is viewed from four revealing angles.

When Gulliver arrives in Liliput, he observes with patronising condescension the habits of its tiny inhabitants. But in Brobdingnag, a land of giants, he is the midget. When he proudly tells the king about European manners, he is surprised at the royal reaction. The king says that humans sound like 'little odious Vermin'.

Gulliver's next stop, the flying island of Laputa, is run by philosophers and scientists (as Plato might have wished); predictably they make a mess of things. Finally Gulliver visits a land ruled by intelligent horses (the Houyhnhnms, Swift's version of whinnying). The hooligans here are brutal and oafish beasts in human shape, the Yahoos.

Once again the sheer vitality of the author's imagination transcends his immediate purpose. Of the millions who enjoy Gulliver's fantastic adventures, few are primarily aware of Swift's harshly satirical intentions.

Voltaire and the philosophes: AD 1726-1778

Though born within the 17th century, in 1694, Voltaire becomes - after a long life and a multifaceted career - the characteristic voice of the French 18th century. His early successes reveal an ambition to outdo literary giants of the past. When his tragedy Oedipe is a great success, in 1718, he is hailed as the new Racine. His Henriade of 1723, an epic poem in praise of Henry iv, is a conscious attempt to become France's Virgil. But his lasting fame derives from his attack on the abuses of the present and his vision of a more rational future.

In this respect his exile from France in 1726, after a quarrel with a powerful nobleman, proves something of a turning point.

Voltaire travels to England, where he is struck by a matter-of-fact frame of mind very different from the attitudes of France. In religion this results in Deism, an offshoot of the reasonable philosophy of John Locke; in social and political terms it seems to be expressed in a mercantile economy more open to new ideas and more capable of innovation than the feudal structures surviving in France.

Voltaire is able to return to France in 1728. In 1733 he publishes in English, and in 1734 in French, his Lettres Philosophiques - twenty-four letters praising English religion, institutions and even literature as a means, primarily, of attacking the French equivalents.

The book provokes outrage and a warrant is issued for Voltaire's arrest - which he avoids only by escaping to the countryside. For the rest of his life, filled though it is with immensely varied literary activity, he is engaged in a crusade to reform the abuses of the French establishment (or the system which later becomes known as the ancien régime). Of these abuses he finds the influence of the Roman Catholic church, and in particular of the Jesuits, to be the most infamous. Écrasez l'infame ('crush the infamous') is his battle cry.

In this campaign for reason against superstition, and for justice against privilege, Voltaire is joined by a younger generation. Together they become known as the philosophes.

The greatest achievement of the philosophes is the Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot and published in 28 volumes (17 of text, 11 of plates) between 1751 and 1772. This enterprise is originally inspired by Chambers' Cyclopedia, published in two volumes in London in 1728, but it far outdoes its model in scope and ambition.

The Encyclopédie aims to be nothing less than a rational statement of contemporary knowledge and belief. It can be seen as the definitive statement of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Jesuit influence twice halts publication, but the project is successfully completed and acquires great influence - being often pointed to subsequently as an important part of the build-up to the French revolution.

During the years when the Encyclopédie is being published a powerfully irrational event occurs. In 1755 an earthquake destroys much of Lisbon, killing many thousands. The disaster seems to mock the optimism which characterizes the rational 18th century. It prompts Voltaire to write the short satirical book, Candide (1759), which has proved the most lasting of his many works.

Candide is a pupil of an optimistic philosopher, Dr Pangloss. They undergo the most appalling sufferings in a series of fantastic adventures, but nothing can dent Pangloss's often repeated conviction that 'everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds'. It is not, says Voltaire - but if not best, it could at least be better.

The English novel: AD 1740-1749

During a quarter of a century, from 1740, the novel makes great advances in England, with notable achievements in several different styles.

Defoe has laid a foundation with Robinson Crusoe, and has followed this up with The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders in 1722. Moll's story is more like a conventional novel than that of Robinson Crusoe, being set in the real world of low-life London and the plantations of Virginia. It is full of vitality and incident, but it is basically - as the title states - a sequence of fortunes and misfortunes for the heroine. Crusoe had his isolation to give focus to the story. Moll has only her vivacious character. Of plot, in the normal sense, there is little.

This lack of focus is fully answered by Samuel Richardson, a novelist of much greater influence in his own time than today. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) tells the story of Pamela Andrews trying to ward off the sexual advances of the young man of the house in which she is a maid. The narrative develops in the form of letters - most of them written by Pamela herself.

The ability to unfold a plot through correspondence, spinning out the detail and viewing events from several different angles, is the pioneering discovery of Richardson. He takes it to much greater length in Clarissa (7 vols, 1747-8), a novel of more than a million words and the longest in the English language.

Pamela has a somewhat unconvincing happy ending. Clarissa, an altogether darker account of a relationship between two upper-class characters, ends in disaster for both. This account of pyschological warfare between the sexes is much read throughout Europe. The brilliantly savage erotic novel by Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), can be seen as a direct descendant.

A more cheerful offshoot of Richardson's efforts is the first novel by Henry Fielding, a magistrate in London's Bow Street court with an intimate knowledge of the city's low life. Offended by the sentimental unreality of Pamela, he writes Joseph Andrews (1742) - the story of Pamela's brother, who is a minor character in Richardson's book.

Fielding finds virtue not in respectability (the ultimate yardstick in Pamela) but in the warm-hearted honesty of a group of ordinary and often unfortunate characters, in particular the absent-minded Parson Adams. His plot, loose and picaresque though it is in many respects, has its own logic and consistency.

The ingredients pioneered in Joseph Andrews are deployed by Fielding with even greater success in Tom Jones (1749). The adventures in a vividly wicked world of the lusty but honest Tom, and the survival against all the odds of his love for Sophia Western, provide a novel of romance and adventure which has kept its power ever since - as is evident in its several incarnations on film.

The English novel: AD 1759-1766

The most original novel of the 18th century, and one of the most chaotically endearing books of any age, is published from 1759 by a clergyman on the staff of the cathedral in York. It is Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

Told as Tristram's autogiography, the book begins - logically but unconventionally - with the scene at his conception. Thereafter, in a series of looping digressions interrupted with sudden surprises (such as a page of solid black in mourning for poor Yorick), Sterne dwells upon a small number of quite ordinary characters who come vividly alive thanks to their minor obsessions and eccentricities. We are well into Vol. 3 before the author is born. Slightly before that event he at last has a moment to write his Preface.

Sterne's blend of fantasy and mock-learning owes much to Rabelais, but he adds an easy playfulness, a friendly teasing of the reader, which his contemporaries find immediately attractive. The success of the first two volumes in 1759 is so great that Sterne is able to retire to a quiet curacy in north Yorkshire. Tristram Shandy could go on for ever, but the story ends in the middle of nowhere after Vol. 7 (1767), merely because that is where its author stops writing.

Tristram Shandy - with its amused interest in the relationship between writer and reader, and in the nature of narrative - seems two centuries ahead of its time, resembling a modern demolition of the very idea of the novel.

The next English novel to retain a devoted readership through the centuries is, by contrast, firmly in the mainstream of fiction. Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) tells the story of a simple and good-hearted vicar who puts up stoically with a series of disasters, mainly brought upon him by the vagaries of his children, until he eventually emerges unscathed.

The events are more melodramatic than those which drive the plots of Jane Austen, but Goldsmith's unaffected prose and gentle irony prefigure later advances in the English novel. Between them, the experiments in English fiction in the mid-18th century make almost anything possible.

The Enlightenment: 17th - 18th century AD

The term Enlightenment, applied to ideas which develop during the 17th century and are most clearly expressed by the 18th-century French philosophes, describes a tendency to make reason the guiding principle of life. This is accompanied by a conviction that the application of reason will guarantee progress in all aspects of human existence.

In one sense this is yet another wave of reaction against the Middle ages, when faith and authority are the prevailing themes. More positively it is an offshoot of 17th-century science (the discoveries of Galileo and Newton being based on rational assessment of material evidence) and philosophy (following the example of thinkers such as Descartes).

The Enlightenment has faith in a natural order. Galileo and Newton have revealed the mechanics of the universe. These marvels of ethereal clockwork are taken by the Deists (the rational Christians of the day) as evidence of the genius of a rational creator.

By the same token it is assumed that there is a natural structure for human society, in which individuals have both freedom and rights. The injustices visible everywhere in the world are seen as the result of corrupt and superstitious institutions, imposed by unenlightened priests and kings. But human resolution can transform the political scene, as is made evident in the confident assertions of the American Declaration of independence.

It is an article of faith that in a rational society the people will choose what is good for them. The Enlightenment abounds in educational theories to speed up the spread of reason.

But the education of the people must inevitably be a long process. This practical problem is taken as justifying one slightly paradoxical aspect of the Enlightenment - the acceptance of the enlightened despot, the all-powerful ruler who disregards the short-term wishes of his subjects and enacts, for their own good, often unpopular measures of social improvement. There are many such rulers in the last decades of the 18th century, Frederick the great in Prussia being merely an early and outstanding example.

The passion of the Enlightenment for the improvement and reform of society makes it an important element of the climate of opinion which prevails in the early stages of the French revolution (and survives today in the ideals of the social services of democratic nations).

But such principles contain their own flaws. The Enlightenment's optimism can be a recipe for disappointment and is easily mocked (as by Voltaire himself in candide). And too much reason is dry fare. People crave something more emotionally nourishing. This is provided in religious terms by the 18th-century Revivalists. And the need to listen to the emotions is forcefully expressed by a child of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Late 18th century

Johnson and Boswell: AD 1755-1791

'Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.'

That definition appears in the Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson, published in 1755. Its heavyweight solemnity, enlivened by the joke at its centre, is the quality which has made Dr Johnson England's best-loved literary character. His cast of mind is known now not from his own voluminous writings but from the devoted account written by his young friend James Boswell and published in 1791 as The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Boswell meets Johnson in London in 1763 and keeps in touch on his annual visit from Edinburgh, where he is employed as a lawyer. Boswell is a man fascinated by conversation (as is revealed in his own extremely vivid journals), and in Johnson he has met the heavyweight champion of this particular art. From early in their friendship he conceives the plan of writing the great man's life, and begins to note down his views and remarks.

It is evident from Boswell's pages that Johnson, like Falstaff, is alarming as well as witty. As Goldsmith observes in Boswell's pages: 'There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.'

Boswell's literary efforts on behalf of his friend mean that more of Johnson's curmudgeonly opinions are remembered and affectionately quoted than those of any other Englishman.

A frequent butt is Boswell's own country. 'Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England'. As it happens this prejudice is particularly inappropriate in Johnson's lifetime when Edinburgh, in particular, is enjoying a period of creativity known subsequently as the Scottish Enlightenment. But vigorous opinions of Johnson's kind transcend small local realities.

Johnson, the devoted Londoner, has little interest in travelling. Asked by Boswell whether the famous Giant's Causeway would not be worth seeing, he replies: 'Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.'

Even so, Boswell does somehow persuade the reluctant tourist to accompany him on a journey north in 1773 - recorded by Johnson in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), and by Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). This is a region of particular topical interest, for the Celtic fringe of Britain has suddenly become famous as the home of the poet Ossian. His newly discovered epic work excites all Europe - except, almost alone on the issue, Samuel Johnson.

Everywhere in the islands there is talk of Fingal, a supposed poem by Ossian discovered and translated by James Macpherson and published in 1762. Johnson tells Boswell that he considers it 'as great an imposition as ever the world was troubled with'. When Johnson's views become public, in his book of 1775, Macpherson demands a retraction and gets the reply: 'What shall I retract? I thought your book an imposture from the beginning, I think it upon yet surer reasons an imposture still.'

Johnson's critical sense makes his Lives of the Poets (1779-81) a valuable work even today. And on the Ossian issue he is ahead of the best minds in Scotland. Even Hume and Adam Smith are at first taken in by the poem.

The Scottish Enlightenment: AD 1748-1785

During the second half of the 18th century Scotland is in the forefront of intellectual and scientific developments. The movement known now as the Scottish Enlightenment has much in common with the broader Enlightenment, in its emphasis on rational processes and the potential of scientific research. This Scottish version is mainly of interest for the concentration of achievement within a small region. The people involved are in the university departments and laboratories of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The founding figure can be said to be the philosopher David Hume. He publishes his most significant work, A Treatise on Human Nature, early in his life, in 1739-40, but it receives little attention at the time.

Hume travels during much of the 1740s, becoming better known only after he settles in Edinburgh in 1751. His treatise is now published again in three more accessible parts (An Essay concerning Human Understanding 1748, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals 1751, A Dissertation on the Passions 1757). His Political Discourses of 1752 give him a wider reputation, being translated into French.

At this time he becomes a close friend of Adam Smith, who as yet is a primarily a moral philosopher - making his name in 1759 with The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His great work of political economy, the wealth of nations, is still nearly two decades in the future.

Hume and Smith are the intellectual leaders of this Scottish movement, but they have distinguished colleagues in scientific research. In 1756 Joseph black, a lecturer in chemistry in Glasgow, publishes a paper which demonstrates the existence of carbon dioxide. Five years later Black discovers the principle of latent heat. By that time he has befriended a Glasgow laboratory technician, James watt, who also has an enquiring mind and an interest in heat.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh a 'Society of Gentleman in Scotland' has been formed to emulate the great publishing achievement of the continental Enlightenment, Diderot's encyclopédie which has been appearing in parts since 1751.

The gentlemen in Scotland produce between 1768 and 1771 the first edition of a dictionary of the arts and sciences under the title Encyclopaedia Britannica. Unlike its French predecessor, it has been revised and reissued ever since.

While the Encyclopaedia Britannica is coming off the presses, a retired doctor in Edinburgh has been studying the local rock strata. In 1785 James hutton reads a paper on this unusual topic to the newly founded Royal Society of Edinburgh. His approach breaks new ground. Hutton is the pioneer of scientific geology, one of the main contributions of the Scottish Enlightenment to the field of human enquiry.

Macpherson and Chatterton: AD 1760-1777

In the late 1750s James Macpherson, a Scottish schoolmaster, begins travelling in the Highlands and islands to collect Gaelic manuscripts and oral accounts of traditional Celtic literature. The result is a collection of supposed translations of ancient texts, published in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language.

Macpherson follows this in 1762 with a much more ambitious publication, an entire epic poem by the semi-legendary Irish poet Oisin, supposed son of the Celtic warrior hero Finn McCool.

Transferred by Macpherson to Scotland, the pair become Ossian and Fingal - and the poem itself is published as Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem composed by Ossian. This is rapturously received as a romantic relic from the Middle Ages, with only a few dissenting voices such as Dr johnson's.

It is later proved to be almost entirely Macpherson's own book, with a few scraps of ancient ballads inserted here and there, but its success has another significance. The Celtic twilight imagined in Ossian's name chimes perfectly with a new longing for something more mysterious than the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

This developing mood of romantic medievalism (less frivolous than Horace Walpole's self-indulgence at Strawberry hill) is given another boost in 1765 with the publication of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. This contains genuine medieval ballads, mainly taken from a single surviving manuscript. In many cases they are somewhat over-restored by Percy, as an editor, but this is a trivial detail in the developing mood of the time.

Both Ossian and Percy are read with avid interest by a brilliant and lonely boy in Bristol, now in his early teens. Thomas Chatterton lives his own imaginative life in the late Middle Ages.

Chatterton invents a 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley, and sets him among historical Bristol characters of the period. He writes Rowley's poems for him, and forges documents and correspondence relating to his life. These are sufficiently convincing to deceive various local antiquaries. Horace Walpole at first accepts as authentic a treatise by Rowley on painting which Chatterton sends him (The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande).

In March 1769 Chatterton has a supposed early medieval work (Ethelgar. A Saxon poem) accepted by the Town and Country Magazine. Two months later the same periodical publishes one of his Rowley poems.

In April 1770 Chatterton moves to London to seek his fortune. But no one in the capital city pays much attention. In August, in a garret, the 17-year-old boy takes arsenic and dies.

Seven years later a volume of the Rowley poems is published in London, assumed by the publisher to be by the 16th-century author. For many years argument rages as to whether these poems are by Rowley or Chatterton. Unlike Macpherson's forgeries, those believing them to be Chatterton's see in them a fresh and original talent. Called by Wordsworth 'the marvellous Boy, The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride', Chatterton becomes a powerful influence in early romanticism.

Watchmakers' sons: 18th century AD

A favourite image of God, in the rational 18th century, is that of a divine watchmaker who has fitted together the intricate machinery of the universe. It is a pleasant historical irony that two French authors of great influence in the final decades of this most reasonable century are offspring of the watchmaking trade.

The influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (son of a watchmaker of Geneva) is exerted through dreaming of a better society than contemporary privilege-ridden France. That of Beaumarchais (son of a watchmaker of Paris) derives more directly from his brilliant mockery of those privileges.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: AD 1742-1778

Rousseau, unlike Voltaire, is a late starter in terms of literary fame, and he writes his most influential works in a relatively short space of time. He is thirty when he arrives in Paris in 1742, hoping to win fortune and fame with a new system of musical notation. It brings him into the circle of the philosophes, for Diderot invites him to contribute articles on music for the Encyclopédie.

Before these articles are printed, Rousseau wins himself a controversial reputation with his Discours of 1750 - in which he argues, contrary to prevailing fashion, that recent progress in the sciences and arts has had a corrupting effect on public morality.

The Discours is the first of several works which bring Rousseau wide fame and in which he tackles the central themes of the Enlightenment in a manner markedly different from that of the more conventional philosophes.

His two most significant books appear in 1762 and result in an order for Rousseau's arrest, causing him to spend the next few years outside France. Émile is a tract on the ideal education of a boy. It offends the authorities because religion plays only a small part in it, and the Christian religion none at all. (The book's emphasis on the importance of exercise, cold baths and the avoidance of feather beds cannot be seen as grounds for arrest.)

The distinguishing feature of Émile is an insistence on developing the natural and emotional side of the child, in place of the intellectual training which derives from books. In this change of emphasis Rousseau reveals himself as a pivotal figure in the transition from the Enlightenment to the next prevailing intellectual fashion, that of the Romantic movement.

A similar shift underlies the other work of 1762, Du Contrat Social (Of The Social Contract), in which Rousseau exposes the ills of modern society not by directly attacking them, as the philosophes would, but by imagining a different and better kind of community.

Rousseau's utopia is similar to a Greek city-state without the slaves. It has a romantic appeal in class-ridden 18th-century France because its theme is the importance of the individual, without whose consent (in a social contract) no society can function. The magnificent opening sentence encapsulates this appeal ('Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains'). It also betrays the world of the dreamer, for only in the most fanciful sense is the hunter-gatherer in a primitive tribe free.

Rousseau rounds off the image of the early romantic with Les Confessions, an autobiograpy published after his death in which he presents himself in unsparing - and perhaps often exaggerated - psychological detail.

Decline and Fall: AD 1764-1788

The most famous work of history by an English author has a precisely pinpointed moment of inspiration. Edward Gibbon later describes the day: 'It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.'

The eventual offspring of that moment is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1778. The six volumes cover a vast sweep of European history from the 2nd centuryto the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Decline and Fall is an act of enquiring nostalgia by a classicist of the rational 18th century who looks back to the Roman world, a society which he finds in so many ways admirable, and wonders why, where and when everything went wrong. He discovers, as he must have suspected he would on that day in 1764, that the barefoot friars and their superstitious colleagues during the medieval centuries are to blame for the long process which he describes in a typically challenging phrase as 'the triumph of barbarism and religion'.

Paradoxically, Gibbon writes a great work on the Middle ages at the very time when the period's merits are most undervalued by scholars such as himself.

His book is an immediate success when the first volume is published in 1776 - partly because some of his comments on Christianity provoke controversy, but above all due to the elegant irony of his prose and his ability to rise to the grand historic moment.

The full orchestra plays in long rolling cadences when Gibbon describes an event such as the Crusaders in 1204 sacking Constantinople. But a new character (in this case Rienzo) may be introduced with a simple and challenging sentence; 'In a quarter of the city which was inhabited only by mechanics and Jews, the marriage of an innkeeper and a washerwoman produced the future deliverer of Rome.' Gibbon's readers have found this blend irresistible.

At the end Gibbon brings his work full circle. His story ends with two events of the 15th century, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the return of the papacy to Rome. Renaissance rome, with papal encouragement, rediscovers and takes pains to restore the glories of classical Rome. By the time of Gibbon's visit the city is the destination of every Grand Tourist.

Gibbon states with some satisfaction in his conclusion: 'The monuments of ancient Rome have been elucidated by the diligence of the antiquarian; and the footsteps of heroes, the relics not of superstition but of empire, are devoutly visited by a new race of pilgrims from the remote, and once savage, countries of the north.'

This History is as yet incomplete.

Goethe and Schiller: AD 1771-1832

In Goethe and Schiller Germany produces two writers at the forefront of European literature at a turning point of profound significance in cultural history. Their versatility (particularly Goethe's) and their willingness to respond to the many conflicting strands of contemporary thought make them seminal figures.

The first movement in which they both feature prominently is the early stirring of German romanticism known as Sturm und Drang.

By the 1790s both men are much influenced by the revival of interest in the achievements of classical Greece (resulting from the pioneering work of Winckelmann). For eleven years they become close colleagues in the movement known as Weimar classicism.

Goethe, long outliving Schiller and reaching a ripe old age, achieves a unique status as the last generalist before the era of inevitable specialization. He turns his hand successfully to every form of literary endeavour but is himself even more interested in his scientific enquiries, particularly in the fields of evolution and light. Typical of the baffling breadth of Goethe's interests is his last great sprawling work, the second part of faust.

Sturm und Drang: AD 1771-1782

The phrase Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) is the title of a wild and extravagant drama by Friedrich Klinger, first performed in 1776. Its mood is typical of a fashion among young writers in Germany during the 1770s. Critics have subsequently adopted the title as the ideal name for the entire school. Storm and stress are the ingredients with which these writers challenge the calm certainties of 18th-century Rationalism.

The first significant success in the new style is the play which brings Goethe fame throughout Germany - Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the iron hand), written between 1771 and 1773 and first performed in Berlin in 1774.

Based on the buccaneering autobiography of a real character of the 16th century, Goethe's play presents Götz as a hero fighting for natural rights against the repressive and corrupt bishop of Bamberg. His last words, as he dies, are Freiheit! Freiheit! (Freedom, Freedom).

Three years later, in 1777, the 18-year-old Friedrich Schiller, a resentful student in a military academy, begins writing an even wilder play, Die Ra:uber (The Robbers), which can be seen as the final fling of Sturm und Drang. Schiller borrows money to publish the play privately in 1781. It causes a sensation when it is performed at Mannheim in 1782.

Die Räuber tells the story of two sons of a nobleman. The evil younger son schemes to disinherit his brother and then systematically torments his father. The good son, reacting against unjust rejection by his father, joins a robber band and is implicated in appalling crimes. When his brother is finally unmasked, and his father found naked in a dungeon, the good son's evil deeds prevent his returning to normal life.

This family triangle is a more extreme version of Gloucester and his sons in king lear, and Shakespeare is one of the strong influences on the Sturm und Drang generation. The first collection of his plays in German is published in 1762-6.

Another powerful influence also comes from Britain. It is the forged poems, attributed to the Celtic bard Ossian, which are published in 1760-63 and are widely greeted as an inspiring glimpse of the authentic spirit of the Middle Ages. The revival of Interest in gothic architecture also plays its part. Goethe, when a student in Strasbourg in 1770-71, is particularly impressed by the beauty of the city's cathedral.

Finally, there is a revolutionary voice from France which inspires these young German poets in their reaction against convention and conformity. They instinctively respond to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's message that the heart is wiser than the head, and the man of feeling superior to the man of intellect.

Young Werther: AD 1774

The influence of Rousseau, the man of feeling, is particularly strong in the book which brings Goethe a European reputation. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) has an immediate success in 1774. Like many first novels, it has strong autobiographical elements.

In 1772 Goethe lives for some months in Wetzlar, where he falls in love with the 19-year-old Lotte Buff. She is already engaged, but her fiancé very tolerantly allows the tormented poet to share their social life as an informal trio. Just after Goethe's departure from Wetzlar, a friend - in love with a married woman - shoots himself. This tragedy too is directly reflected in Werther.

Werther, an exceptionally sensitive young man, arrives in spring in a new town (as Goethe did) and is bowled over by the beauty of his new environment - and soon by the beauty of Lotte (the name in the novel as well as in real life).

The triangular friendship continues through the summer, mingling joy and torment, until Werther tears himself away in the autumn. But he cannot resist returning in the following spring. After a while, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his position, he shoots himself with the fiancé's revolver.

Young Werther's almost morbid introspection, heightened by extreme sensibility and made irresistibly convincing by Goethe's genius, captures the mood of a young generation increasingly inclined to a romantic view of the world. Werther's favourite clothes (blue jacket, yellow breeches) immediately become the fashion. So too, in a few unfortunate cases, does his fate. Several suicides seem to imitate the book. One woman, in 1777, even drowns herself near Goethe's house with a copy of the novel in her pocket.

A reader less enthusiastic than the majority is Lotte's fiancé, now her husband. On publication of Werther he breaks off contact with Goethe, ending the triangle which until then has continued in correspondence.

Beaumarchais: AD 1775-1784

One of the theatre's most engaging characters bursts upon the stage in 1775 in a light comedy which is immediately a great success. Figaro, or Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville), is witty and street-wise in a manner very similar to his creator, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

Beaumarchais' life begins with ingenuity and intrigue. At the age of nineteen, in 1751, he invents a new escapement for watches (watch-making being his father's trade). Another watchmaker attempts to steal the new idea. Beaumarchais' skilful conduct in the resulting litigation brings him the attention and patronage of the court.

For the rest of his life, until his death in 1799, Beaumarchais leads a dramatic and often dangerous existence as an entrepreneur and then as a secret agent on behalf of the French government. He is so busy with his schemes that his main love, the theatre, seems almost a sideline. But with the first appearance of Figaro, in 1775, he suddenly becomes France's leading dramatist.

Figaro uses his manipulative skills in The Barber of Seville to help the count Almaviva in his amorous pursuit of Rosine. The comic opportunities derive from the frantic efforts of Rosine's guardian, Bartholo (a crusty old doctor with designs on her himself), to keep the girl away from the attentions of any possible rival.

The success of these characters' first light-hearted appearance before the public prompts Beaumarchais to revisit them in a much darker comedy. By the time of Le Mariage de Figaro the count and Rosine have been married a few years. The count is tired of her and is intent on seducing her maid, Suzanne. But Suzanne is engaged to Figaro, now in the count's employment.

The clash of interest between Figaro and his master is developed on the suface in the traditions of light comedy or even farce, with much use of hasty concealment and mistaken identity. But underlying the fun is a more threatening theme. The count behaves with the arrogance of the old Feudal world. Figaro protests with the vigour of something new.

In a long soliloquy in the final act Figaro muses about his rival the count and finds him a man of little worth, apart from the benefit of the silver spoon in his mouth when he was born. Not surprisingly, when the play is first scheduled for production in 1781, the king bans it. He relents in 1784, when it is performed with great and immediate success - just five years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Napoleon later describes the play as 'the revolution in action'.

Beaumarchais is fortunate that his two great comedies are transformed, by Rossini and Mozart, into two superb operas. Figaro would have lived in prose alone. But with such arias to his name, he has proved irrepressible.

This History is as yet incomplete.

18th - 19th century

Weimar: AD 1775-1832

In 1775 Goethe accepts an invitation to visit the 18-year-old duke Karl August of Weimar, ruler of a tiny state. Weimar becomes Goethe's home for the rest of his life. In this small realm he plays many roles in addition to that of resident genius. For much of the first ten years he is chief minister of the duchy. He inspects mines, plans irrigation schemes, considers the design of uniforms for the ducal army.

In 1791, when Karl August establishes a permanent company for his court theatre, Goethe becomes its director. His presence, and the eager patronage of his employer, combine to make Weimar in these years the literary centre of Germany.

In 1786, exhausted by the range of his duties, Goethe escapes for an eighteen-month tour of Italy. It proves another turning point in his life. Rejecting the Sturm und Drang emphasis on the Gothic, he is inspired now by the current movement of Neoclassicism - looking back beyond Rome to the original example of Greece.

In Italy he writes Iphegenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), turning into poetry an earlier prose version which he has made of the tragedy by Euripides. It is the first important work in German literature in the neoclassical vein. Goethe returns to Weimar in 1788 refreshed and, so to speak, idealized.

In 1794 Goethe meets Schiller, who is working as professor of history in the nearby university of Jena. The two men become friends. In Die Horen, a periodical edited by Schiller from 1795, they pursue their shared interest in classical themes. Together they develop an aesthetic which becomes known as Weimar classicism.

In recent years Schiller has written nothing for the theatre. Instead he has busied himself with history and philosophy. Now, with the active encouragement of the director of the Weimar court theatre, he returns to his first interest - and produces a large body of work in the remaining few years of his life.

Schiller's last years: AD 1797-1805

In 1797, when Europe is in the turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, Goethe - with his power to guarantee a production in the Weimar court theatre - persuades Schiller to return to the role of dramatist. The result is seven plays in as many years, written in verse on broadly classical principles. They place Germany in the forefront of contemporary theatre.

The first plays in this group, performed on the Weimar stage in 1798 and 1799, are a trilogy about Wallenstein, a larger-than-life character in another great European conflict. Wallensteins Lager, Die Piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod dramatize the rise and fall of the brilliant but flawed commander in the Thirty Years' War.

The subsequent plays, several of them made famous by operatic adaptations, are Maria Stuart (1801, about the last days of Mary Queen of Scots), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801, about Joan of Arc), Die Braut von Messina (1803, an invented story set in medieval Sicily and the most deliberately classical in its use of a chorus) and Wilhelm Tell (1804).

While Goethe encourages this final flowering of Schiller's theatrical talent, there is influence in the other direction too. It is largely on Schiller's urging that Goethe returns in 1797 to an early work on Faust and begins to revise it in keeping with the new classical principles of Weimar.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Faust: AD 1808-1832

For the whole of his life Goethe is fascinated by the legends which have accumulated round the 16th-century quack and magician Georg Faust. The story of Faust's pact with the devil is a favourite subject in Europe's travelling puppet shows, which Goethe is known to have enjoyed as a boy.

In his twenties Goethe writes a play on the subject - adding a love theme and the character of Gretchen. Luckily a copy of this early play is made in about 1776 by one of the court ladies in Weimar. It is found among her papers a century later and is published, becoming known as the Urfaust (Original Faust). This is the play which Schiller persuades Goethe to take up again in 1797.

The work is ready for publication as Faust Part I in 1808. Like earlier versions deriving from Marlowe, it concentrates on Faust's thirst for knowledge, his resulting pact with Mephistopheles, and the many pranks and adventures made possible by Mephistopheles' magic. But at the centre of the play there is now an innocent and simple woman, Gretchen, who instinctively sees through Mephistopheles.

Gretchen's affair with Faust leaves her pregnant. At the end of the play she is in prison, sentenced to death for infanticide. When she rejects the opportunity to escape by means of Mephistopheles' evil arts, a voice from above exclaims Ist gerettet (She is saved).

Goethe puts the Faust theme aside for the next two decades, taking it up again in 1826. Faust Part II is published in separate non-consecutive parts over the next few years, and the entire work appears just after Goethe's death in 1832.

Treating a wide range of subjects, in an extraordinary medley of metres and styles, this work is like a concluding survey - by Europe's leading man of letters, now in his late seventies - of life and its meaning. It is as if Goethe is consciously revisiting and testing his own long pattern of experience.

At the end of Part II Mephistopheles naturally expects his part of the bargain, the delivery of Faust's soul - which he has duly received in every other version of the story since Marlowe. But Goethe, the last of the 18th-century optimists, defies the fiend. Heavenly spirits drive Mepshistopheles away, and Faust's soul - interceded for by that of Gretchen - is carried to heaven.

Two themes central to Goethe's view of life play their part in Faust's redemption. Both are explicit in often quoted phrases which occur in the final lines of Faust Part II.

One of these themes is the value of humanity's unremitting pursuit of knowledge and improvement. The angels carrying Faust's soul to safety pronounce: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, Den können wir erlösen (Whoever exerts himself in constant striving, Him we can save).

Goethe's other special theme is the source of man's inclination to strive. His own life is notable for the series of women, often unattainable except in a platonic frindship, who each in their turn inspire him. The 'eternal feminine' becomes his concept of the ideal. The last two lines of Faust conclusively state: Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan (The eternal feminine draws us upwards).

This History is as yet incomplete.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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