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An Analysis Of British Literature Essay, Research Paper

An Analysis of British Literature

Death is inevitable and what happens after death will always be a

mystery to the living. For this reason, the afterlife has always been a topic

which artists have chosen to explore in their works. Throughout the chronology

of British literature, artists have used society’s views as a basis to examine

the afterlife, and look at it in new ways. The afterlife has been a theme in

British Literature from the Anglo-Saxon period of Beowulf to the twentieth

century writings of Dylan Thomas. The mysteriousness of the afterlife makes it

a topic which artists will always be eager to analyze.

During the Anglo-Saxon Period which lasted from 449 AD to 1066 AD, the

popular belief of the times was that a person’s life was predetermined by Wyrd,

the Old English word for fate, and there was nothing which the individual could

do to change his destiny. The most famous writing from this epoch is the epic

poem Beowulf. Beowulf, the main character, had no fear of the evil monster

Grendel because he believed “Grendel and I are called/ Together,” by fate. He

also displayed his faith in the beliefs of society when he told Hrogthgar “Fate

will unwind as it must.” When Grendel died, the soldiers “had no semse of

sorrow, felt no regret for his sufferings,” because they believed Grendel was

destined to die, and there was no way to defy destiny. They also did not pity

Grendel because they considered him to be entirely evil because it was his fate.

The Anglo-Saxon’s strong belief in fate led to them not fearing death as much as

during other times periods in British Literature. Beowulf’s strong belief in

fate was a reflection in the society’s pagan belief in fate. Due to the fact

that the society at the time of Beowulf was pagan, they did not believe in the


The Christian revision to Beowulf illustrated a different outlook on

death and the afterlife. When monks were copying the story, they realized it

dealt with pagan ideals, and they incorporated Christian ideals into the text.

The monks included the concept God was the ultimate one who controls fate. This

was shown when Beowulf told Hrogthgar “God must decide/ Who will be given to

death’s cold grip.” The monks also inserted the idea that there is an afterlife.

When Grendel died, “hell opened up to receive him.” They thought the pagan

beliefs about death and the afterlife in Beowulf were unacceptable, so they

included their Christian views of death and the afterlife into the poem. The

society’s values greatly influenced the monks revision of the poems.

“The Seafarer” is another Anglo-Saxon poem which deals with the

afterlife. The poem was written by Bede, who was a monk, so it contains the

Christian views of the afterlife which are very similar to the one’s included in

the Christian revision to Beowulf. The speaker believed “Death leaps at the

fools who forgot their God./ He who lives humbly has angles from Heaven/ To

carry him courage and strength and belief.” This showed the belief that God

must be worshipped to get to Heaven, and if you do not follow God, like Grendel

in Beowulf, you will not go to Heaven. In the poem, the persona expressed that

riches can not buy entrance into heaven in the afterlife because, “nothing/

Golden shakes the wrath of God/ For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing/

Hidden on earth rises to Heaven.” This poem reflected an Anglo-Saxon monk’s

views of the afterlife, which were centered around his strong faith in


During the Medieval Period, the Catholic church played a dominant role

in society. In England, the church’s abbeys and monasteries were the main

centers of learning and the arts before the founding of Oxford and Cambridge

universities during the thirteenth century. The church preached that following

their faith would led a person to the afterlife. A piece of literature which

displayed the belief in the afterlife was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The

story starts at a Christmas party at Camelot when the Green Knight enters and

offers to let a knight hit him with an ax if he can return the blow a year and a

day later. Sir Gawain, the most brave knight of the round table, accepted the

challenge, and he chopped off the knight’s head. The Green Kngiht then picked

up his head, and rode away. A year and a day later, Gawain went to the Green

Knight. He kneeled before the Green Knight, ready to take the blow. However as

the Green Knight is about to lower his ax, Gawain “pulled his shoulders back,

just a bit.” The Green Knight noticed this and was shocked. He said, “Gawaina?

You can’t be Gawain, his name/ Is too noble, he’s never afraid, nowhere/ On

earth – and you, you flinch in advance!” The Green Knight then swung again, but

he only nicked Gawain. Later, the Green Knight and Gawain talked about what

happened. The Green Knight told Gawain he was testing him, and that Gawain was

very great, ” ?but you failed a little, lost good faith/ -Not a beautiful belt,

or in lust,/ But for love of your life.’ ” Gawain was completely ashamed

because he had flinched, and he declared, ” ?A curse on cowardice and a curse on

greed!/ They shatter chivalry, their vice destroys/ Virtue.’ ” Gawain

considered his fear of death to be a “sin.” This was because the society

believed knights should not be afraid of death because they will be rewarded in

the afterlife for having chivalry. The society’s view of the afterlife affected

the standards of conduct, and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is an excellent

example of this.

In the Elizabethan Age, the character of Macbeth, in the play Macbeth,

denied the Christian belief in the afterlife, and he reverted to the pagan idea

of there being no afterlife. After Macbeth discovered the witches had deceived

him, he realized he did not defeat the fate which the witches had predicted,

and now he was trapped with no way to return to the good man which he once was.

This led to him developing a morbid view of life and death. At the end of the

play, when reflecting upon the death of his wife, he stated, “Life’s but a

walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/

And then is heard no more; it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and

fury,/ Signifying nothing.” Macbeth thought life had no purpose and there was

no afterlife. He compared life to being on “the banks and shoal of time,”

because he life as an insignificant sand bank which would be covered over by the

vast sea of time and eternity. Shakespeare used the character of Macbeth to

show that if a person sacrifices his integrity and morals, religion is

meaningless and the person’s life has no purpose. Macbeth’s lack of belief in

the afterlife was a sign of just how far he had fallen from the pious man he

once was.

The Jacobean Age of the Renaissance was a time of great religious

turmoil in England. The first group of English Protestants who desired to

“purify” the Church of England, came to America to practice their religion.

Scientists like Galileo and Copernicus disputed that the center of the universe

was the sun, not the earth, and there may be multiple world. This research was a

challenge to the basis of the divine ordered, hierarchical universe which the

church stated was truth. This caused some people to start to question many

parts of the church, including the church’s view of the afterlife. Andrew

Marvell was one artist who challenged the church’s view of the afterlife. In

“To His Coy Mistress,” he told his lover if they had time be would love her “ten

years before the flood,/ And you should, if you please, refuse/ Till the

conversion of the Jews.” However, they were not able to do this because they

did not have “world enough, and time.” Marvell saw life as a battle against

time and death. He also stated, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But

none, I think, do there embrace.” In order to defeat time and death, he offered

the idea of Carpe Diem, and living life to the fullest. This concept was shown

in the poem when he told his lover, “We cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we

will make him run.” Marvell did not believe in the afterlife, so he advocating

a Carpe Diem philosophy because he thought life was all a person has.

John Donne’s writings during the Jacobean Age expressed a very different

view than that of Marvell. He strongly supported the church’s view of the

afterlife. In “Holy Sonnet 16″ Donne belittled death. He told death it should

“be not proud,” because it is not a terrible thing. Donne challenged the belief

that death was powerful in the line, “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and

desperate men.” The sonnet also challenged the mystique of death because it

stated that death is not unique because it is like sleep and, “poppy or charms

can make us sleep as well/ And better than thy stroke.” Donne even suggested

death may bring pleasure because sleep and rest bring pleasure, and they are

images of death. “Holly Sonnet 16″ also stated that death should not be feared

because it is only a short phase which leads into the afterlife, and one we are

in the afterlife death is no longer a concern. This idea was expressed in line

13, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more.”This

concept was also in “Corinthians I” which this sonnet was based on. Paul wrote

to the Corinthians, “Listen to this secret: we shall not all die, but in an

instant we shall be changed as quickly as the blinking of an eye.” Another

parallel between the two writings was Donne told Death, “thou shalt die,” and in

“Corinthians I,” Paul wrote “Christ must rule until God defeats all enemies and

puts them under his feet. The last enemy to be defeated shall be death.” Both

writings expressed that death is not to be feared because in the afterlife we go

to a better place where death will not be a concern.

Donne also mentioned that the afterlife is a better place in his

“Meditation 17.” He believed “When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of

the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so

translated.” Donne also described the afterlife as a “library where every book

shall lie open to one another.” In this meditation, Donne not only created a

metaphor for the afterlife, but he also expressed that “tribulation” and

“affliction” are what make people ready to go to Heaven in the afterlife. He

stated, “Tribulation is treasure in that nature of it, but it is not current

money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer to our home, heaven, by

it.” Donne’s great faith in the Catholic religion was what shaped his view of

the afterlife.

During the Romantic Age, Percy Bysshe Shelley offered another

perspective of the afterlife. In “Ozymandias,” he described a monument which

was built to Ozymandias during the 13th century BC. The monument was broken

apart, and only its head and legs remained alone in the barren desert. On the

base of the statue, was inscribed the words, “My name is Ozymandias, king of

kings:/ look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” This statue which was once a

symbol of the power of Rameses II is now in complete ruin. The poem shows how

pride and glory are only temporary earthly things. It also mentions that we are

all equal in death. “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

the lone and level sands of time stretch far away.” This line means we area all

on “level sands,” when we enter the afterlife and it is time to be judged.

According to the poem, glory during life does not mean the person will have the

same glory in the afterlife. It doesn’t matter how many monuments a person


to attest to his glory, he must face the same judge as the slave sculptor which

created the monument.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson expressed the idea held by Marvell that death is

an enemy which a person should fight. In “Ulysses,” a Victorian Age poem,

Ulysses was past his prime yet he still struggled to the most of his life, and

did not wait for death to come for him. He felt “‘Tis not too late to seek a

newer world,” and he believed “Death closes on us all; but something ere the

end,/ Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” Ulysses believed a person

should take advantage of the life they are given, and live life to the fullest.

He thought when death was approaching, a person should continue “to strive, to

seek, to find, and not to yield.” The poem expresses the need to look ahead,

and continue on with life, even though death may be approaching. “Ulysses” and

“To His Coy Mistress” both advocated a Carpe Diem philosophy, but in “Ulysses,”

the persona had a belief in the afterlife. He believed that he may reach the

“Happy Isles” which is the place heroes went after death. It is interesting how

both encourage Carpe Diem, yet they have contrasting views of the afterlife.

The Victorian age poetry of A.E. Housman, brought forth another idea

about afterlife. In “To An Athlete Dying Young,” the poet contradicted the idea

in “Ozymandias” that having glory during life does not mean a person will have

glory in the afterlife. Instead, he suggested a person is immortalized the way

he is when he dies, and in the afterlife he has the honor and prestige he had

during life. Housman told the athlete, “silence sounds no worse than cheers/

After earth has stopped the ears:/ Now you will not swell the rout/ Of lads that

wore their honors out.” The athlete will live his afterlife in glory which he

had on earth, and according to this thought, Ozymandias will live in the

afterlife as “king of kings.”

In the 20th century, Dylan Thomas offered advice about how to live the

time before the afterlife. In “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” he

advised people to “rage against the dying of the light.” He is telling people

to continue to make life meaningful and live it to the fullest before they go

“into that good night,” which symbolized the afterlife. This concept is very

similar to the ideas in “Ulysses.” Both poems suggested that people should

struggle to make the most of their lives, and they each expressed a belief in

the afterlife.

Throughout the chronology of British literature, artists have presented

many different perspectives on the afterlife. There are views which I agree

with, and there are views which I don’t agree with. One of the ones which I

support is John Donne’s idea of death not being a terrible thing because it

leads to the afterlife which is a better place. I support this idea because I

have been raised in a rather religious family, and it has been instilled in me

that death is not bad, and there is an afterlife to go to. I also agree with

the ideas in “Ulysses” and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” that one

should struggle to make the most out of his life and to make it meaningful.

This idea is very appealing to me because I believe a person should always

attempt to make the most out of what he/she is given, and it is important to

never give up. While I don’t agree with the poems which state that there isn’t

an afterlife, analyzing and thinking about them has been valuable for me because

it has forced me to consider my views, and to build up a stronger support of my

views to counter the ideas presented in these poems.


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