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Essay/Term paper: An analysis of british literature

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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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