A Literary Guide to Life: On the Meaning and Nature of Great Literature

Adventures in Wizard-Land image
‘Adventures in Wizard-Land’, illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). Image from ‘The Rainbow Book: Tales of Fun and Fancy’ by Mabel Henrietta Spielmann (1862-1938), published by Frederick Warne & Co. (1909)

“What a strange thing a mirror is! and what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man’s imagination! For this room of mine, as I behold it in the glass, is the same, and yet not the same. It is not the mere representation of the room I live in, but it looks just as if I were reading about it in a story I like. All its commonness has disappeared. The mirror has lifted it out of the region of fact into the realm of art [… ]. But is it not rather that art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious every-day life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him, and rejoices therein without questioning? […] I should like to live in that room if I could only get into it.”

– George MacDonald, ‘The Tale of Cosmo’¹ in ‘Phantastes: A Fairie Romance’

I’ve a confession to make …

Whilst, like many of my peers, I might have been ‘havin a laf wiv me m8s’ … or watching some ostentatious pop TV spectacle, and celebrity this and that, I was instead furtively searching for more … and engaged, at times, in rarer pursuits. Whilst many then were following fashion, or some modish ‘kick-arse’ guru … or snake-oil demagogue, whilst frantically shopping for stuff, and a branded identity, I was, I confess, sort of out and about elsewhere.

Indeed, I travelled far and wide … and ventured too through time and space – and even voyaged to other, or otherworldly, worlds. I had some fantastic adventures then … and ventured through the lives and minds, or mental worlds, of some remarkable people – immortals – chiefly men, I have to say, but not exclusively. And thus, I’ve seen, heard, and felt some extraordinary things.

Amongst other places then, I voyaged to ancient (or mythical) Greece, Troy, and Rome, and even ascended then to the heights of Olympus, where I conversed and consorted, at times, with the gods. And, amongst more worldly places, I’ve even been to Fairyland … and have lived with the Centaurs too.

And so, I wondered at Achilles in battle, but fought with the Trojans, beheld the exquisite vision of Venus, loved Helen with Paris, suffered and loved with silver-tongued Ulysses, and marvelled then at his oft ingenious wit.

What’s more, I once even saw Apollo, with the Muses, out and about in a pound shop (would you believe it?) and checking out the energy drinks I’d told them about.

Meanwhile, Ovid, no less, was my wingman … and graciously coached me then in his amorous art.

It’s taught me a lot. And now, I’m not quite the ordinary sort of mortal I was before. It has, I believe, enlarged and refined my imaginative, intellectual, social, and creative faculties – and my capacity then to imagine, understand, relate, and create.

And, whilst you’d need a substantial amount of money for a prosaic cruise or tour, my extraordinary travels didn’t cost much money at all. For I did this all through literature!

And so, in this nascent series of posts that I’ve entitled A Literary Guide to Life, I’ll be sharing some of the principal lessons I’ve learnt.

In this opening post then, we’re going to mark the literary scope of our theme here and first consider the meaning and nature of great literature.

So, let’s begin with the dictionary.

Stanzas image
‘Stanzas’, decoration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

What is literature?

First of all then, the dictionary definitions of literature together include pretty much all written works. The scope of the term is wide then and includes written works irrespective of their content, form, and style. Hence marketing communications are often called marketing literature … and scientific writings – or, at least, those considered as such – are frequently referred to as scientific literature.

My purpose here at Cupid’s School, though, is to publish practical and accessible help for exploring our human nature, experience, and potential. My aim then is to share soul-enriching and life-enhancing literary-inspired ideas, insight, and inspiration for living a (qualitatively) richer and (intrinsically) more satisfying life. So chiefly then, I’ve a more specific and intrinsically inspiring, or enlightening, type of literature in mind.

More specifically then, the first of the Collins English Dictionary definitions of literature, for example, is more indicative of the sort of literature I have in mind. This definition then encompasses written works – especially imaginative, or fictional, ones – such as novels, poems, and essays that deal with timeless, or universal, themes in a distinguished style.

That’ll do for starters then as a basic definition that, I think, roughly marks the literary scope of, or literary inspiration for, our Cupid’s School theme.

But, let’s not stop at that.

Instead, let’s take a closer look. The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for literature is a little more elaborate:

Literature consists of written productions, often restricting to those deemed to have artistic or intellectual value. Its Latin root ‘literatura/litteratura’ (derived itself from ‘littera’, letter or handwriting) was used to refer to all written accounts, but intertwined with the roman concept of ‘cultura’: learning or cultivation. Literature often uses language differently than ordinary language (see literariness). Literature can be classified according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction and whether it is poetry or prose; it can be further distinguished according to major forms such as the novel, short story or drama; and works are often categorised according to historical periods or their adherence to certain aesthetic features or expectations (genre).

“literature.” Wikipedia.org. 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literature (15 December 2015).

These two definitions then more or less mark the literary scope of our Cupid’s School theme. They are, however, focused mostly on literary forms, style, and historical and thematic classifications, beyond which they are, I think, a little too vague. They’re helpful definitions then to some extent but give little indication of what might give this sort of literature any practical soul-enriching and life-enhancing value or potential.

From here on then, I’m going to dig a bit deeper and consider literature’s essential nature, or underlying subject matter, to highlight the essentially practical (yes, practical) nature of the literary aspect of our Cupid’s School theme.

Literature’s essential nature

So then, whilst the term ‘literature’ includes various forms (such as poetry, novels, plays, and essays) and genres (such as tragedy, satire, and comedy), what’s its fundamental character? Forms, genres, and other classifications aside then, what’s it, essentially, all about?

Whilst considering this, I found a helpful definition of the essential nature of literature in a timeless essay on the art, the benefits, and, indeed, the crucial significance of teaching through literature. The essay’s entitled Literature As Educational Means and was written by the California education pioneer Alexis F. Lange.

Lange defines literature’s essential nature then as ‘a record and interpretation of human experience in an art form’ – or, more accurately, in a linguistic, or written, art form:

The bed-rock fact — the Alpha and Omega of the teacher — is that literature is a record and interpretation of human experience, the medium being language and the method that of all art. Moreover, no experience is excluded, provided it can be shown to be meaningful and can be adequately symbolized by words.

Now, we’re getting there, I think. I like this definition. It’s one, I think, that hits the mark, gets to the heart of the matter, and points then to the practical, soul-enriching and life-enhancing, value of literature.

Likewise, and thanks to one of my once frequently wondrous second-hand bookshop excursions, I unearthed a similar description of fiction’s essential nature in a book entitled Faces of the Future: The Lessons of Science Fiction by Brian Ash:

In essence, all fiction is a dream of life. Throughout history the contemporary author, attempting to record his personal interpretation of human existence in a conventional form, has drawn upon the images and schemes of the world as it appears to him to be. This is the measure of his own experience as he apprehends it – and he colours his palette accordingly. He concentrates on accepted realities, making free with them as his particular brand of creativity demands. Alongside him, however, since the beginning, an adjacent space has been filled by another species of writer – one who has sought to extend the framework of his canvas and to set his action against a portrayed reality which patently does not exist. To him we owe the great fantasies and allegorical flights of imagination which range in time from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ to Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’; and to him also we can attribute the particular form of literary endeavour which, with some difference, can be described as ‘science fiction’.

Essentially then, the inspiration for the literary aspect of our Cupid’s School theme is literature that’s characterised by it having human experience as its chief subject matter. This type of literature then comprises the gamut of human experience. And as an interpretation of such, it frequently presents experiences and ways of seeing and thinking beyond our own.

The field of adventurous exploration

Literature then is the true field, I think, of (imaginative, intellectual, social, and creative) adventurous exploration. Consider, for example, hardy George Orwell‘s pioneering tramping adventures, and humble expeditions, amongst the ‘down and outs’ … or tender Ovid‘s audacious, yet amorous, ventures and famed affair with his imperious mistress Corinna … or, indeed, the visionary poets’ oft extravagant flights of fancy – lending mystical or, otherwise, illuminating form then (as, I think, nature does) to the world or worlds within us.

Thus, literature can be a sort of gateway then to other worlds and the otherwise unknown – or, at least, to new experiences and viewpoints. In poems, plays, and stories, these are generally portrayed through the particulars of human experience. Other forms of literature, meanwhile, like, for example, philosophical or psychological literature, tend to treat human experience in more general or abstract terms. Needless to say, though, these distinctions are not absolute or mutually exclusive.

Song image
‘Song’, decoration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

What then is great literature?

In Literature As Educational Means, Lange, attributes the ‘value or worth’ of an art work, and by extension the value or worth of a piece of literature, to two things: the degree of ‘technical perfection’ with which the artist has expressed his ‘inner vision’ and ‘the degree of significance or truth’ in his interpretation of his subject.

Ernest Raymond, meanwhile, whose book Through Literature to Life largely inspired the literary aspect of our Cupid’s School theme, describes the basis of great literature, or the ‘protoplasm from which great literature is evolved’, as of the cry of the heart or ‘the cry of a great soul’:

Let us be perfectly clear that a work of literature is not an idle tale to entertain and relieve the reader in his lazy hours but, rather, the cry of a great soul at the spectacle of life he sees before him. (And remember, a soul is great exactly in proportion as it sees more than other men.) Why do I call it a “cry”? Because a cry is the expressed reaction of a soul to something external.

He goes on then to distinguish three types of cry, each of which more or less corresponds with the respective genres of tragedy and satire, comedy, and epic:

Roughly, there are three cries: a moan, the cry of pain [tragedy and satire]; a laugh, the cry of amusement [comedy]; and a cheer, the cry of excited approval [epic]. So a cry may be called literature in its infancy; I like to call it the protoplasm from which great literature is evolved.

The greatest literature then, say Raymond, combines all three of these cries:

It is my conviction that, as the greatest literary artists must be the best balanced, so all these three cries – the moan, the laugh, and the cheer – must sound in their work; and that we, if we would draw from literature a complete, full life, must taste all three fountains in them, and coming to the lesser men, correct the bitter taste of one with the sweet taste of another, and after a draught of the morbid vintage of a Strindberg, seek the invigorating tonic of a Browning. Life is, I believe, almost equally a matter for tears and laughter and applause; which is to say, in school-girl’s tongue, that it is too perfectly thrilling for anything.

Needless to say, though, the mere inclusion of these three cries won’t make a literary work great.

So, what then makes a literary work great?

The poetic principle image
‘The Poetic Principle’, decoration by William Heath Robinson (1872–1944). Image from ‘The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe’, published by George Bell & Sons (1900)

The mark of great literature

Raymond says, and I agree with him, that it’s a literary work’s capacity to move us and awaken or enlarge our latent, or ordinarily repressed, capacity to consciously feel:

I suppose that if there is any one question by which we can test the greatness of a piece of literature it is this: “Has it made us feel more deeply about something which disturbed us but little before?” Every novel, drama or poem must submit itself to this trial if it claims admission into the ranks of “great” literature.

Likewise then, in his distinguished essay The Defence of Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney asserts that ‘moving is of a higher degree than teaching’. Raymond, meanwhile, defines great literature simply as ‘great emotion couched in great words’.

What’s more, Raymond also correlates the greatness of a work of literature with the relative capacity of the mind that conceived it:

We cannot remind ourselves too often that every type of literature has a perfect right to present itself as a candidate for greatness, and this attribution of greatness will depend, not on any label we can attach to it, but simply on the strength, the vitality, the vision, and the dynamic drive of the mind which puts it forth. A great man will write “as he jolly well likes”; in any form, be it outdated, or unheard-of, or even theoretically impossible; in any mixture of irreconcilable styles, though all the world assert that such a mixture is critically insufferable; and in any prose, verse, or structural method, how heretical soever, so long as it satisfies himself as the one perfect vehicle for what he has to say. All that matters is that he should succeed in that which he has attempted; and this he is bound to do if his “drive” is strong enough. All that matters is that we should feel, as we read, that we are in communion with the mind of a man who is “above par”; and that this is the medium, whether we like it or not, which the vigorous, exciting, irrepressible creature has elected, in his sovereign independence, to employ. If the mind is by no means “above par,” and the surge of creation is not really in it, then it will make an appalling hash of its unorthodox dishes, and will quickly be forgotten.

The upshot then, for Raymond, is that the greatness of a literary work is measured more by substance than by style:

real literature has not necessarily a great deal to do with correct prose and good “style” – so it be the outpouring of a fine mind, deeply moved.

Deep feeling and profound thought

There’s an implicit correlation here between our capacity to truly feel and truly think – a sort of marriage of feeling and thinking. ‘My opinion is this’, the Romantic poet, literary critic, and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes to his friend Thomas Poole, ‘that deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling’.

In his Biographia Literaria, meanwhile, Coleridge recalls what is was about William Wordsworth‘s recitation of a poem that, he says, ‘made so unusual an impression on my feelings immediately, and subsequently on my judgement’:

It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty of modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.

Coleridge goes on then to associate this capacity for deep feeling with genius and works of genius then with their ability to awaken it:

To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar; [. . .] this is the character and privilege of genius, and one of the marks which distinguish genius from talents. And therefore is it the prime merit of genius and its most unequivocal mode of manifestation, so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them and that freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily, convalescence.

Literature is great then to the extent to which its marked, or inspired, by this harmonious marriage of deep feeling and profound thought. Likewise, great literature then is also marked by its capacity to evoke or educe this sort of congruous union of feeling and thought.

Great literature endures

In his book Through Literature to Life, meanwhile, Raymond describes literature as ‘the qualitative measurement of life’. Thus, we might add then that literature is great to the extent it truly presents and measures, or illuminates, human experience in qualitative terms.

And so, Raymond then aptly highlights literature’s importance with a short critique of science masters whose work is ordinarily instigated, directed, and applied – and, indeed, also interpreted – according to dominant ideology and the prevailing, but transient, paradigm of the times and the general spirit then of the age – and without reference then to the timeless truths of human nature and experience found in great literature:

I might have written “Life must be measured not only quantitatively, but qualitatively as well.” I hope that now, with several charged pages behind it, that ugly sentence means something. And it is because Literature is nothing else but the qualitative measurement of life that I insisted in the beginning on its inescapable necessity for every teacher; and especially – oh, especially – for those whose sphere is in the quantitative sciences.

Essentially then, great literature often endures and flourishes beyond the author’s life because it appeals to our essential and enduring, or universal, humanity. Thus then it, more or less or to varying degrees, transcends the mercurial spirit of any particular age – with its fashionable, but transient, mores and socio-politically-driven or socio-economically-inflamed prejudices.

  1. The Tale of Cosmo, a story within a story by George MacDonald (1824–1905)