Literature is the art which imitates life in words with the twin objectives of entertaining and edifying. There has always been the yet unresolved argument as to whether literature inheres in the matter, subject or object that it concerns itself with or in its manner or style of expressing this matter of focus. While these arguments are valid in locating literature in a particular space in the array of other written forms produced by man, it is the major characteristics of the art that defines it most precisely.
In this regard, literature is best seen as the body of work (written or oral) in which man’s record of his experiences is given artistic form. Accordingly, literature embodies the most basic issues of life which the American poet, Ezra Pound, has seen as “the news that remains news” because of its perennial currency. It is in this vision that lies the quality of universality of the art. Besides, the literary cosmos is best marked by its qualities of imagination, creativity and suggestiveness. These qualities are most explicitly discernible in Poetry, our focus in this course, which is the oldest of the major forms or genres of literature.
In this article, you will learn about literature as the art form that mirrors life in deliberately chosen words or diction with the purpose of pleasing, teaching and developing the readers’ or listeners’ faculty of reasoning or thinking. You will also learn, as a means of preparing the ground for your proper understanding of the study of poetry, the major forms or genres of literature. The study of works of literature broadens our horizon, refines our sensibilities as well as deepens our understanding of man and human nature generally.
What is Literature
Literature is writing in which ideas of permanent and universal values or interests are expressed in a deliberately embellished language the purpose of which is to please (both sensually and intellectually) and teach by indirection.
Compare this definition that gives us a clear idea of literature as both content (what is said) and medium (how content is expressed) to the following definition by Ezra Pound: “Literature is language charged with meaning”. “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” (ABC 28).
The polarity of opinion regarding the exact nature of literature captures the ageold debate on whether literature or literariness should be judged merely by the subject or content of a work or by the style of its expression. We shall leave this question for now because you will have to form your own opinion as you get to understand the workings of literature and be able to defend it with facts or illustrations.
However, some of the foremost things that a reader needs to know about literature are its constitutive elements or characteristics, viz: imagination, creativity, suggestion or indirection.
Literature thrives essentially on imaginative constructs which means that it is a form of composition that relies heavily on the composer’s or writer’s mental journeys that take him beyond the realms of the given to a world of fantasy or of the mind. Hence, the literary artist is not always bound by the ordinary daily experiences of man. For example, a raconteur or story teller almost always takes his audience to improbable and indeterminable lands and times which are products of his imagination. Writers have led their readers through lands of giants, one-eyed monsters, flying humans, speaking animal and forests; all these are emanations from their imagination.
Some have presented environments that could best be described as replicas of heaven or hell in a bid to show the readers or audience the two poles of bliss/desire and repugnance/suffering and pain. Franz Kafka in his story “Metamorphosis” has given to written literature the unforgettable image of a young insurance executive who woke up in the morning to find that he had metamorphosed into a cockroach. All the extraordinary events and characters are products of literary invention or imagination. Imagination also comes into play in the literary artist’s use of events and experiences in his social environment but imbuing them with imagined aspects or qualities which raise them above the ordinary.
The imagination of the literary artist is also clearly visible in his use of language to express his experiences, be they real or imagined. A good artist always find or imagines a fresh way of expressing ordinary experiences thereby raising them to a level that appears to be out of the ordinary. For example in the simple but extraordinary expression “He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls”, the Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, establishes a similarity between the speed of a thunderbolt and that of an eagle descending from a height to catch its prey.
The poet has used his imagination to create this scene and the reader’s imagination is similarly excited. It is this collaboration that James Reeves so aptly describes in the statement/ that “most good poetry demands study and interpretation; it costs its maker much effort of thought, imagination and feeling, and it is worthy of corresponding efforts by its readers” (The Poet’s World xxi).
Aristotle’s opinion, in his comparison of history and poetry, is instructive in this discussion of literary imagination; he asserted that poetry (the poet) is superior to history (the historian) because the former is philosophical expressing the probable while the latter is factual thriving on what has been.
There is a very thin line that separates creativity that constitutes the bedrock of literature from imagination that we have discussed above. For one, they are both essential qualities and products of the artist; it is the competent artist that imagines the best forms that his matter and manner would take. Similarly, it is the artist who creates a fictive world in which his imagination plays among symbols to produce his work. So, in essence, the two qualities overlap to give us a rounded or full understanding of the true nature of literature. The literary artist at the moment of creation is, in the words of Andrew Lang (Blakeney xv qtd by Brooke), “a born visionary and mystic, beholding things unapparent, believing in experiences that were never actual”.
For example, British poets like William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William B Yeats who believed/claimed that some of their major works were handed to them by some supernatural mediums or agencies are of this mould. Some of their poems at times had their origins in historical and legendary materials which were then imbued with the extraordinary poetic touch. It is this faculty that gave to English literature, among many others, such great poems of the extraordinary and supernatural as Blake’s “Jerusalem” and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”; Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”; and Yeats’ poems that incorporated the occult and mythology of Irish folklore.
There is no other quality of literature that distinguishes it more succinctly from other forms of writing than this quality of suggestiveness. While other forms of writing could claim to be both imaginative and creative in their own ways, they are definitely not marked by the quality of indirection or suggestiveness which is the exclusive domain of literary language.
In fact, most factual writings such as works on the sciences, history, geography, etc cannot afford to be purely suggestive in the manner that literature, especially poetry, is. Acclaimed literary critics, such as William Empson, have recommended a certain degree of ambiguity for a work of literature worth the label. Empson, in his discussion of what he identified as the seven types of ambiguity, has stated the virtue of indirection in literary language.
The French Symbolist poet, Mallarme, also averred that the essence of an object is destroyed by direct naming when he said that “poetry lies in the contemplation of things in the image emanating from the reveries which things arouse in us…. To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object” (Adams 168).
The effect of suggestion is achieved through figurative language in poetry and generally through language that is plurisignative or has multiple meanings. In the view of I. A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks, indirection or suggestiveness is best achieved through the use of irony and paradox. The latter critic has commented in his The Well-Wrought Urn that “paradox is the language that is appropriate and inevitable to poetry.
It is the scientist whose truth requires a language purged of every trace of paradox; apparently the truth which the poet utters can be approached only in terms of paradox” (3). In its commonest / barest extreme, suggestiveness or indirection could be achieved by a writer by deliberately restraining himself from calling an object by its name while using words and expressions that suggest the object. The following is a very good example of a poet’s description of an object (a …..) by indirection:
I like to see it lap the miles
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks
And then prodigious step
Around a pile of mountains,
And supercilious peer
In shanties by the sides of the roads,
And then a quarry pare
To fit its sides
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanzas
He then chase itself downhill
And neigh like Boanergesf
Then prompter than a star,
Stop, docile and omnipotent,
At its own stable door.