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English Literature: Essay Topic Ideas

When it comes to selecting a topic for the English literature essay, don't be afraid to go beyond the realm of William Shakespeare. English literature, in the broad sense, could mean any literature composed in any of the English dialects of the world - not just British literature. From the Old English literature (starting in about 450 A.D.) through the ages to present day, there is a huge volume of work to consider. Needless to say, narrowing down your paper's focus to a topic that can be thoroughly covered within the length of an essay can be the first (possibly the most) daunting task.

Below you will find a selection of topics for English literature courses appropriate for the essay-length paper (and, yes, we have even included one on William Shakespeare). These topics are mainly concerned with English literature that is from Britain; however, you could tailor the topic to suit your specific needs for other types of English literature as well.

Select two authors indicative of the Romantic Period (1785-1830) and compare/contrast a particular element of their style.

This period in English history was marked by repression and revolution, yet also economic and social change, and the literature often reflected that. You may choose to discuss the works of English authors such as William Blake, Robert Burns, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, or John Keats. You may choose two authors from similar genres, for example, gothic novelists or purpose writers, and discuss their contributions to the field. The essay was also a popular style of the Romantic Period. You might choose several similar essays and compare the two.

Describe some common themes present during the Victorian Age (1830-1901) of English literature.

The Victorian was known as the "Age of Expansion," and a great deal of change took place during this time, including social and economic wealth, as well as problems, as a result of industrialization. You may discuss some of the writers who had a positive reaction, such as the works of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Or you could discuss how commerce took a toll on human happiness, a theme commonly visited in the works of Tennyson. The mixture of satisfaction and anxiety was a common element, and you may consider the works of writers such as Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Browning, Lord Tennyson, Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Browning, Emily Bronte, or Thomas Huxley. Other themes to consider could be evolution or the treatment of women.

Illustrate how the authors during the end of the 19th century differed from those both before and after them.

Sometimes known as the "Late Victorians" or "the first of the Moderns," the English writers of the last decade of the 1800s stood out from those of the Victorian Age as well as those of the 20th century. Some of them wrote in an "art for the sake of art" style, writing for pleasure and not for controversy. Others wrote with message of love. Some of the authors who exemplify these types of writing of the 1890s would be Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Francis Thompson, William Ernest Henley, and Rudyard Kipling.

Illustrate how Blake's early poems were a departure from the traditional poetry of the time.

You should refer to Blake's first book of poetry, Poetical Sketches, and compare it to the styles of Elizabethan and early 17th century poets (Blake modeled some of this poetry after them), and you may also discuss the way his partial rhymes and rhythms were symbolic and bold. Some of the poems to be considered would include "To Spring," "To Autumn," "To the Evening Star," "Song," "Mad Song," "To the Muses," "All Religions Are One," and/or "There Is No Natural Religion." This early period of poetry was when Blake was critical of English society, and that should be discussed as well.

Compare Shakespeare's plays of a certain category to other plays within that category.

While interludes and morality plays remained popular, drama evolved into a more sophisticated art form during this time. Different genres began to emerge, especially varieties of comedy, such as romantic, domestic, city, and classical intrigue comedy. Tragedy was also an important form of drama. Many of Shakespeare's plays were chronicle history plays, such as Richard II, Henry IV, and King John, romantic comedies, such as As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Much Ado About Nothing, or tragedies, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Select these or other plays within the same genre and compare/contrast their themes, plots, characters, or some other element of style. Be sure to use specific examples in your essay.

Discuss some of the poetry of the poetic revolution known as the "Imagist Movement" in English literature during the early part of the 20th century.

Clear and precise images and deeper emotions in poetry were characteristic of the poetry of the Imagist Movement. Amy Lowell, Richard Aldington, H.D. Doolittle, John Gould Fletcher, and F.S. Flint were the developers of the revolution. What were some of the ways that these poets accomplished their goals of presenting hard and real poetry? You should discuss freer meter and avoidance of words that didn't really contribute to the poem. You may also discuss the English Metaphysical poets, who added new complexity to the movement with their colloquial language.

Compare and/or contrast several fiction writers of 20th century English literature.

This period of time was known as the "Heroic Age" of the novel, and major contributors included, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and others. Novelists used their own sensibilities and values on their works. Stream-of-consciousness writing, such as that in Joyce's Ulysses, was another departure from typical styles of the past. Writers were now delving into the internal thoughts of their characters. The emergence of documentary type novelists also became more prominent. Seemingly casual incidents of life that served to show deeper meaning were featured in short stories by authors like Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Lawrence, Forster, Doris Lessing, and Susan Hill.

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