Periodicity: The idea that there are distinct periods or ages within the literature of a nation or culture; the traditional framework for literary studies in English. Scholars and critics who adhere to the concept of periodicity maintain that writers within a given historical era, including those working in different genres, have more in common in terms of form, style, and themes than writers from other eras, even those that are chronologically adjacent.
Recently, critics of periodicity have pointed out that the parameters of literary periods are arbitrarily drawn and have little, if anything, to do with literature. For instance, the Victorian Period is said to span the years 1837—1901 because those are the years of Queen Victoria’s reign in England, but why should we assume that Victoria’s reign made Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Poems (1830) less like the poems of John Keats (1795—1821) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792—1822) than like Thomas Hardy’s fin de siècle novel Jude the Obscure (1895)? Critics of periodicity also point out that many writers span periods; Hardy (1840—1928), for instance, wrote during the Victorian Period and the Modern Period, and William Shakespeare wrote plays during the Elizabethan Age and the Jacobean Age. To the extent that the works of writers such as Hardy and Shakespeare are aesthetically and thematically consistent, such consistency undermines the claims of scholars and critics who would differentiate the periods during which they were written.
Few scholars and critics today explicitly advocate periodicity. Somewhere between those who do and those who don’t are more traditional literary historians who argue that it is useful to think of works as falling within chronological periods loosely defined, insofar as texts are inevitably rooted in historical contexts, however broadly those roots may or may not extend and however questionable our definitions of those contexts may be. Other defenders argue that periodicity promotes interdisciplinarity and intertextuality, providing a flexible framework for examining relationships among texts, whether literary or nonliterary, or for linking texts to the real world. Such scholars and critics thus might defend preservation of a university literature curriculum consisting of courses that group literary works under traditional chronological rubrics (e.g., “Restoration Age Drama”). And they undoubtedly would defend the inclusion in this glossary of entries defining the various Periods in English literature and Periods in American literature. Those most radically opposed to periodicity, on the other hand, would argue that it is misleading to organize a literary curriculum around periods. They might even argue that this glossary, in defining those periods traditionally, perpetuates and preserves a set of distinctions leading readers to see textual similarities — and differences — that are highly suspect and easily contradicted.