It is better to begin with direct question, what is literature? And there we find different types of associations with the word ‘literature’. In dictionaries, we find meanings of the word ‘literature’, but are they really help us to understand the concept of literature in its broader sense? In mundane life, the word ‘literature’ is used to show different things, e.g. when we purchase a new mobile phone, we get user manual along with it. This user manual is a literature provided with mobile phone. Or a sport kit includes a literature, and in the same way a first aid medicine kit also contains some literature. Do all these examples comprise the concept of literature we are talking about? Of course not. Then what comprises of literature? You have dictionary meanings of the word and I will not state all those meanings here, because you can consult and compare all those meanings on your own. Here, my concern is to familiarize you and make you able to identify the works or passages or lines which belong to the notion of literature. Do the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Ancient Mariner, or One Thousand Dollar comprise of literature? The answer to this question is yes. Now the question is what qualities make these works literature? Let us list some general qualities of literature: 

1. Literature consists of a particular use of language. It exploits all the means of language. Language charged with figures and ornaments form a beautiful literature. 

2. Literature gives us pleasure, since it is beautiful and “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”. It is a thing of beauty which gives joy to the readers. 

3. Literature remains for all the time as literature and becomes everlasting. It is permanent fountain of joy and knowledge.  

4. Literature is a source of knowledge; it is past, present and future.

5. Literature does not create in vacuum or space; it has its creator(s).

6. Literature directs and reflects human life and society. History and culture has a major role in literature. 

7. Literature expresses an ideology or thought of an individual or nation. 

8. Literature is an identity of an individual, a group, a society, a community or a nation.

9. Every literary creation has particular reasons behind its creation.

10. Literature basically is meant for entertainment, pleasure and imparts knowledge, but this order and preference has been changing over the years.

11. Literature can exploit any theme or subject from earth to sky; no limit to the subject.

12. Literature is the most effective means of expression of emotions and feelings of human beings.

13. Literature, from ancient times has been considered one of the significant arts. It has artistic qualities expressing truth and beauty of human life. Following lines are an instance of truth and beauty in the form of an art of poetry:

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, out life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar;

Not in entire forgetfulness

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home.”

(Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807), William Wordsworth).

14. Every literature is a kind of revelation. As a painter whose work on canvas makes the imprint on our mind, a poet or an author also forms the same effect on the mind of reader. 

“My breath is sweet as children’s prattle is;

I drunk in all the whole earth’s fruitfulness,

To make of it the fragrance of my soul

That shall outlive my death.”

(From The Bard of the Dinibovitza, First Series). 

15. Literature is marked by special kind of tests; e.g. its universal interest and personal style. A literature can be of universal interest like Homer’s Iliad. 

Literature is any oral or written body of work which consists of particular use of language, gives pleasure and reflects human life in it, e.g. epic, poetry, novel, short story, drama, essay, biography and autobiography. 

Literature has various types of branches of study from the ancient times. Poetry being the most ancient form practiced since the evolution of literature and later the other forms of literature developed in the course of time. Poetry and drama were the most celebrated forms of literature. From the time of Plato and Aristotle or before them, verse and drama were only forms practiced for moral preaching and entertainment. The above qualities are enough to understand the notion of literature at its primary level. Here are some of the famous statements on literature made by literary scholars: 

1. “Literature and Butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.” (Vladimir Nobokov)

2. “Great literature is simply charged with meaning to the utmost degree.” (Ezra Pound)

3. “Literature gives us a picture of life—not the picture that is actually (historically) true, but a picture that has its own kind of truth—a “truth” that includes important elements that science, from its very nature, is forced to leave out. The truth of literature takes the form, not of abstract statement, but of a concrete and dramatic presentation, which may allow us to experience imaginatively the “lived” meanings of a piece of life.” (Cleanth Brooks, John T. Purser and Robert Penn Warren)

4. “Writing is not literature unless it gives to the reader a pleasure which arises not only from the things said, but from the way they are said; and that pleasure is only given when the words are carefully or curiously or beautifully put together into sentences.” (Stopford Brooke)

5. “Literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and unity.” (Lionel Trilling)

6. “Literature is the art of saying something that will be read twice. (Cyril Connolly)

7. “Literature is the language well used.” (Laurence Learner)

The statements express a comprehensive idea of the literature. With human quest and curiosity, literature has been evolved in different forms which in the later period became separate study genres. The meaning of literature in the ancient time was confined only to one or two forms or kinds, e.g. poetry and drama. Poetry is to be considered the most ancient and fundamental form of literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest known literary works. This Babylonian epic poem arises from stories in the Sumerian language. Although the Sumerian stories are older (probably dating to at least 2100 B.C.), it was probably composed around 1900 BC. The epic deals with themes of heroism, friendship, loss, and the quest for eternal life. Different historical periods are reflected in literature. National and tribal sagas, accounts of the origin of the world and of customs, and myths which sometimes carry moral or spiritual messages predominate in the pre-urban eras. The epics of Homer, dating from the early to middle Iron Age, and the great Indian epics of a slightly later period, have more evidence of deliberate literary authorship, surviving like the older myths through oral tradition for long periods before being written down. In the Medieval period any writing in general and with some purpose was accepted as literature. It is at the end of the medieval period, the line of distinction was drawn among various forms and sub-forms of literature. Consider the following works and try to place them in particular form or kind: 

1. The Ramayana (Valmiki)

2. The Mahabharata (Vyasa)

3. Iliad (Homer)

4. Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)

5. Absalom and Achitophel (John Dryden)

6. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Edmund Burke) 

7. Hamlet (Shakespeare)

8. As You Like It (Shakespeare)

9. The Duchess of Malfi (John Webster) 

10. On His Blindness (John Milton)

11. Essay on Criticism (Alexander Pope)

12. Life of Jonson (Boswell) 

13. Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe)

14. Animal Farm (George Orwell)

15. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)

16. The Refugees (Pearl Buck)

17. The Axe (R. K. Narayan)

18. One Thousand Dollars (O’Henry)

19. My Experiments with Truth (Mahatma Gandhi)

20. My Story (Kamala Das) 

These texts are the examples of literature as whole. But we need to distinguish them in different forms or kinds for the sake of study. Let us divide them into proper forms: first three are the great epics or epic poetry which provided the path to later literatures. 4, 5 and 10 are simply poems. Again in poems, we have distinction like sonnet (On His Blindness). No. 6 is a literary essay. No. 7, 8 and 9 are the examples of drama. Though 11 is called essay, it is a poem in couplets. 12 is a biography. 13, 14 and 15 are novels; 14 is a fable and political satire, a novella. 16, 17 and 18 are short stories. And 19 and 20 are the examples of autobiography the most direct form of literature. All these forms and kinds contribute to the development of literature. Each and every form has its own history of origin and development. 

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Author: Datta G Sawant