What is Literature? Definition of Literature | English Literature

What is Literature?

What is Literature? The word ‘Literature’ is a modified form of a Latin word (literra, litteratura or litteratus) that means ‘writing formed with letters’. Let us look at what is literature in definition.

Literature can be any written work, but it especially is an artistic or intellectual work of writing. It is one of the Fine Arts, like Painting, Dance, Music, etc which provides aesthetic pleasure to the readers. It differs from other written works by only its one additional trait: that is aesthetic beauty. If a written work lacks aesthetic beauty and serves only utilitarian purpose it is not literature. The entire genre like poetry, drama, or prose is a blend of intellectual work and aesthetic beauty of that work. When there is no any aesthetic beauty in any written work that is not literature.

Definition of Literature according to different Writers

 Throughout the history of Literature, many of the great writers have defined it and expressed its meaning in their own way. Here are the few famous definitions by timeless celebrated authors.

Virginia Woolf: “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.”

Ezra Pound: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

Alfred North Whitehead: “It is in literature that the concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression.”

Salman Rushdie: “Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”

Henry James: “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.”

S. Lewis: “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

Oscar Wilde: “Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it but moulds it to its purpose. The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.”

K. Chesterton: “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”

M. Forster: “What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote.”

These definitions of literature by great writers present different aspects of it, and shows that in how many ways it can be effective.

Aristotle’s role in Literature

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist. World know him as one of the great intellectuals in history. His contributions are numerous in almost every aspect of science; his contributions in literature are also notable. Aristotle was a student of Plato, but his point of view was differed from that of Plato’s. Aristotle almost wrote 200 treatises and many other things including all fields of science and philosophy. From those works, at least 80% has not survived in proper form. There are roughly 30 writings consisting of lecture notes and rough copies of scripts. Some ancient scholars, particularly the last head of the Lyceum, Andronicus of Rhodes edited the manuscript left. He did all the work of arranging, editing, and publishing the writings of Aristotle. Because of the large number of abbreviations, the writings were difficult to read, even for other philosophers,

The most widely known work of Aristotle in English Literature is his book named The Poetics. In his book, he mostly gives responses to Plato’s ideas of poetry and talks about different genres of poetry. He has touched all the genres of poetry like comedy, tragic, epic, etc. The part of his work that dealt with comedic poetry is lost and the one about tragedy is available. The poetic genre of tragedy is the most developed among his works. (2)

Horace’s contributions

 Horace was a Roman poet. The Art of Poetry is his book in which he points out the factors for writing good poetry and drama. Horace’s approach to poetry is from a practical standpoint. He takes it as a craft instead of taking the theoretical approach of Plato or Aristotle. (3) Horace wrote only one important critical document in verse, that is, Epistle to the Pisos, later named Ars Poetica by Quintilian. It is another Poetics in Latin and brings to Horace the same reputation as to Aristotle in Greek. He followed Aristotle in his works.

Literature: A depiction of Society

It might sound strange that what is literature’s relation with a society could be. However, literature is an integral part of any society and has a profound effect on ways and thinking of people of that society. Actually, society is the only subject matter of literature. It literally shapes a society and its beliefs. Students, who study literature, grow up to be the future of a country. Hence, it has an impact on a society and it moulds it.

 Literature literally does the depiction of society; therefore, we call it ‘mirror of society’. Writers use it effectively to point out the ill aspects of society that improve them. They also use it to highlight the positive aspects of a society to promote more goodwill in society.

The essays in literature often call out on the problems in a country and suggest solutions for it. Producers make Films and write Novels to touch subjects like morals, mental illnesses, patriotism, etc. Through such writings, they relate all matters to society. Other genre can also present the picture of society. We should keep in mind that the picture illustrated by literature is not always true. Writers can present it to change the society in their own ways.

The effects on society

 The effects of literature on a society can be both positive and negative. Because of this, the famous philosophers Aristotle and Plato have different opinions about its effect on society.

Plato was the one who started the idea of written dialogue. He was a moralist, and he did not approve of poetry because he deemed it immoral. He considered poetry as based on false ideas whereas the basis of philosophy came from reality and truth. (4) Plato claims that, “poetry inspires undesirable emotions in society. According to him, poetry should be censored from adults and children for fear of lasting detrimental consequences,” (Leitch & McGowan). He further explains it by saying, “Children have no ability to know what emotions should be tempered and which should be expressed as certain expressed emotions can have lasting consequences later in life”. He says, “Strong emotions of every kind must be avoided, in fear of them spiralling out of control and creating irreparable damage” (Leitch & McGowan). However, he did not agree with the type of poetry and wanted that to be changed.

Now Aristotle considers literature of all kinds to be an important part of children’s upbringing. Aristotle claims that, “poetry takes us closer to reality. He also mentioned in his writings that it teaches, warns, and shows us the consequences of bad deeds”. (5) He was of the view that it is not necessary that poetry will arouse negative feelings.

Therefore, the relation of literature with society is of utter importance. It might have a few negative impacts, through guided studying which we can avoid. Overall, it is the best way of passing information to the next generation and integral to learning.