Who are the best English writers of all time? Such a list is inevitably subjective given the huge number of great English writers, but we’ve given it a go none-the-less. We’ve made our decisions for inclusion on this list based on:
- 1. The writers’ impact on the world of literature;
- 2. Her/his relevance to the current age;
- 3. Commercial success (number of books sold).
- 4. Excluding Shakespeare*
So, here we go with our pick of the ten best English authors of all time, by order of birth:
Geoffrey, Chaucer 1343 – 1400
Geoffrey Chaucer is a giant of English poetry and often called “the father of English poetry.” His verse is still read and enjoyed today, still taught in schools. and often adapted for theatre performances. His poems are full of memorable characters, still recognisable as types we encounter in our daily life in spite of having been inspired by people Chaucer observed more than seven hundred years ago. His masterpiece is The Canterbury Tales, a long poem, full of colourful characters and stories,. The language is what we call Middle English and although, fairly recognisable to us today, as it was that particular dialect that formed the basis of the Modern English that we speak, the stories are also very enjoyable in translation to Modern English. Chaucer was a university-educated man and had a long career as a diplomat, in which role he travelled widely.
William Blake, 1757-1827
William Blake achieved fame as both a painter and a poet, although not in his lifetime. He would also be in a list of the top ten English painters. His recognition came only after his death because he was so far ahead of his time in both of those arts. His thinking, and views, as well as his poetic style, were more like those we find in our own time than in his. His concerns were very much to do with things like the environment, social injustice, the ills of war, and the other things that bring protestors out in droves today. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he was regarded as eccentric, particularly as he and his wife were also nudists, who particularly enjoyed nude sunbathing in their garden.
Jane Austen, 1775 -1813
The Jane Austen Centre’s website states: ‘Jane Austen is perhaps the best known and best loved of Bath’s many famous residents and visitors.’
Jane Austen was also one of England’s greatest authors, certainly the greatest English novelist and, as some readers say, second only to Shakespeare as the top English writer. She was also, probably, the most famous woman who has ever lived. She has to be classified with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Chaucer as having written the best English comic or humorous literature anywhere. She died very young, after having published five of the finest novels written in the English language.
John Milton, 1608-1674
We sometimes describe English as ‘the language of Shakespeare and Milton.’ Milton’s poetry has been wondered at for four centuries and his Paradise Lost has taken its place as one of the most accomplished and beautiful epic poems ever written. Its influence in Western thought and culture is almost unprecedented in that its detail fills out our ideas of heaven and hell, Adam and Eve, and the story of the Garden of Eden.
Harold Pinter, 1930-2008
Harold Pinter had a long career as an actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright. It is as a playwright that he will be remembered for. His plays changed 20th century drama: it was an entirely new kind of drama that can hardly be described other than in the way it struck the audience. The plays reveal and expose the stark isolation of individuals in what we think of as a social environment where human beings are regarded as social animals. Pinter won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005.
Charles Dickens, 1812 – 1870
Charles Dickens was a man of many parts. He was an actor, philanthropist, social reformer, and above all, what he is best known for – a novelist and short story writer. He was as prominent in those other pursuits but he did not achieve lasting fame in those areas.
He was the author of such classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, and many others, including one of the most famous short stories in the English language, A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens novels are universally well-known and his characters like Oliver Twist, Mr Scrooge, Fagin, the Artful Dodger, are among the most familiar in all English literature. There are so many more that it would be impossible to list them.
John Donne, 1572-1631
John Donne’s life was colourful and varied. He was well travelled and held several jobs, mainly administrative, until he took holy orders and eventually became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. He falls into the category of “Jacobean” poet and is usually described as a “metaphysical” poet. He was, indeed, the pre-eminent metaphysical poet.
He was a contemporary of Shakespeare, but unlike so many of Shakespeare’s famous contemporaries, like Fletcher and Webster, he had nothing to do with the theatre. There is no evidence that he knew those playwrights, although they all lived and worked in London. His religious sonnets are unparalleled as regards religious poetry.
George Elliot, 1819-1880
Mary Ann Evans wrote under the name George Eliot. She wrote some of the major novels of the Victorian era, including Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Romola, Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda and the two masterpieces, The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. Those were hugely influential in that they tapped into the small-town politics that characterised English society in the 19th century.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was best known as a literary critic and philosopher during his lifetime. He was one of the founders of the English Romantic Movement and, together with Wordsworth, a leading romantic poet. His two most famous poems are The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan.
George Orwell, 1903-1950
Eric Blair wrote under the name George Orwell. He was a 20th century man of letters. He was a critic, essayist, journalist, and social commentator. He was above all a novelist, author of two of the most famous English novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, both among the most significant and influential 20th century novels.
- And that’s our pick of the very best English writers ever. What’s you take – any obvious candidates missing? Join the conversation in the comments sections below.
- * We have not included William Shakespeare because he is such an obvious choice, and he would deprive one of the other authors of his or her place. Shakespeare is so far out of the league of the authors on any list we could come up with, given his influence on the English language, on global philosophy, and the fame and familiarity of all his stories and characters, not to mention his relevance to modern life. Moreover, the number of copies of his texts sold is probably more than those sold of all the others put together.