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Essay on Life and Literature


  • Introduction
  • Literature springs from the soil of life
  • Truth of art as distinguished from the truth of life
  • Literature is a picture of life, at once real and ideal
  • The literary artist is not an escapist
  • Art is life seen through a temperament
  • The impression of time in literature
  • Literature should rise above the local and the contemporary
  • Literature should guide life
  • The permanence of literature
  • Conclusion


More than once it has been said that literature springs from the soil of life, that it is a vital record of what men have seen in life, what they have experienced of it, which have the most immediate and enduring interest for all of us. The true aim of an artist or a literary man ought to be providing in his works, as faithful a replica as may be possible of a human scene which either has actually occurred or has been conceived in such terms as to make it lifelike and the greatest beauty of a work of literature will be its faithfulness to reality.

Truth of art as distinguished from the truth of life

But this should never mean that an artist is merely a recording gramophone. He is a celebrated singer in whose thrilling voice mingles the splendid notes of his own personality. No doubt, literature is a mirror in which nature is reflected, but if this mirror be an ordinary mirror, a flat and polished surface it will provide but a poor image of the objects, without relief – faithful but colourless.

[the_ad id=”17141″]It is well known that colour and light are lost in a simple reflection. Literature, therefore, must be a focussing mirror, which instead of making weaker, collects and condenses the coloured rays, which will make of a gleam a light and of flame a fire, then only literature is worthy of being counted as an art. Therefore, the truth, which an artist gives, is different from the truth of a historian. The truth we expect from the philosopher, and historian or biographer, is the actual fact the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” of a witness giving evidence in a great court of law, an entire ‘statement of the necessary facts which is obscured neither by the suppression of truth nor by the suggestion of falsehood. We demand from him a perfect candor in the presentation of the source of information, perfect accuracy in dates and figures, absolute impartiality of opinion where there is a conflict of evidence. But does a creative artist also always give the same kind of naked truth? Perhaps he neither does nor can. Over and above the truth of life, there is the truth of art. That is to say, an artist tells us not so much what he says or learn, but the thoughts and feelings which the scenes of natural objects, or his contact with other men, produced in his mind. And it may well be that he can give us a moral real, and therefore, more truthful picture of men and manners, and even of natural scenery by a free use of the idealist method of art; by selecting certain features for prominent treatment, by subordinating, or even omitting, details which he considers likely to weaken the total effect which he desires to produce on our minds.

Again, there is the truth which we require in creative literature, whether fiction or poetry. This is the truth of art, for the characters and events of the poet or the novelist are typical, not actual. The scenes, which the poet or novelist describes and the characters, which he draws have not existing originals. The originals are the creations of his mind, as well as the representation, and the truth, which belongs to fiction, is the truth of idea; that is to say, the generalized experience of the individual author must correspond to the generalized experience of the community of the race. To take examples: “Middlemarch” is not Nuneaton, nor is “Maggie Tulliver”. Many Ann Evans in her girlhood; but if we wanted to get an idea of what life in Midland town was like, or an idea of the sort of girl that George Eliot must have been where could we get them better than by reading the novels in which the accounts of Middlemarch and Maggie Tulliver respectively occur? Here are the examples of the generalized experience of an individual the essential correspondence between the descriptions and characters of George Eliot, and the generalized realities and facts upon which they are based. [the_ad id=”17142”]

Literature is a picture of life, at once real and ideal

Therefore, we always expect from a true literary artist not merely a photographic presentation of life but a picture of life, at once real and ideal, that is to say not a copy of what it is but what it ought to be. If we wish to get an idea of the supreme devotion which is produced by the passion of love, we do not think of the engagement and marriage of one of our acquaintances, but of the story of “Romeo and Juliet”; idea of a woman’s ideal of duty is based upon the conduct of the Antigone of Sophocles; our idea of knightly duty upon the Arthur of the “Idylls of the King”. The truth of an idea, which is thus attained in the works of the great poetic masters, is in a certain sense superior to the truth of history, biography, or of any mere transcript from reality. And so, as Aristotle says, “poetry has a wider truth and a higher aim than history; for poetry deals rather with the universal, while history with the particular”, or it becomes, as Wordsworth say “the breath and finer spirit of knowledge.”

The literary artist is not an escapist

But this does not mean that the poet or novelist, the lyricist or dramatist ought to be an escapist, who leaves the familiar earth and weaves a magnificent tapestry borrowing all the colours of the heavens. As a matter of fact, all art springs directly from life and no literary product can be a mere separate creation carved in on an ivory tower. The impulses that set a man to writing and that determine the spirit of his work are mainly real impulses. He may enter a contest to write a sonnet on a grasshopper and a cricket, yet out will peep his own preoccupation and he will begin, if he is Keats:

“The Poetry of earth is never dead”,

[the_ad id=”17150″]The artist may venture into the most out of the way corners of the golden realm, he may leap beyond the valley of the shadow of the moon; still there clings to his feet the clay of earthly soil. His feet are clay. “However, far a bird may fly, it takes its tail along,” Keats may soar high on the ‘viewless wing of poetry’, flee from the ‘weariness and the fever and the fret’ of this world and delight to open ‘magic casements’ in ‘fairylands forlorn’, but ultimately he will have to say:

“The fancy cannot cheat so well,

As she is famed to do deceiving elf.”

We know that Wordsworth was grieved to see ‘what man has made of man’ and went to seek solace and joy in the company of meadows, woods and flowers. But could he cut himself off from life? Did he not hear the ‘still and music of humanity’ and the voice of thoughts that lie too deep for human tears? Shelley felt that life is a dome of many coloured glass that stains the white radiance of Eternity, but did he not think of a poet as an unacknowledged legislator of the world? No doubt, these romantic poets were dreamers but their dreams are the dreams of all of us. Everybody in his life has moments when he is tired of life and dreams of the world “where, moonlight, music and feeling are one.” The romantic poets essentially dealt with reality, with a ‘reality higher than that of Pope or Johnson.

Art is life seen through a temperament

Classical poets tried to hold the mirror to nature. They strove to paint reality as it is. But could they do it upto the hilt? Did not they paint only that which interested them? Johnson painted the world of London but the reality of life was painted through his own visions. As a matter of fact, complete reality cannot be revealed. The poet has always to make selection, rejection, assimilation and idealization. Moreover, he sees that selected piece of life through his own visions. Literature, according to Mathew Arnold much-discussed definition, is a criticism of life; but this can mean only that it is an interpretation of life as life shapes itself in the mind of the interpreter. The French epigram hits the mark – “Art is life seen through a temperament” for the mirror which artist holds up to the world about him is of necessity the mirror of his own personality. “A good book” as Milton finely says in words, which, however hackneyed, can hardly to be too often repeated, is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured upon purpose to a life beyond life”. To throw upon our whole nature to the quickening influence of such a master-spirit, to let his blood flow freely into our veins, is the preliminary step in literary culture – the final secret of all literature. [the_ad id=”17144″]

The impression of time in literature

But the personality or the collective experiences of an artist through which he observes life are greatly influenced by the life around him. Even the greatest genius is necessarily molded by the culture, ideals, mental and moral tendencies of the world into which he is born, and the character of what he produced is, therefore, to a large extent determined by these. It is true that a man of genius stamps his own impression upon his age as Pope and Rousseau did but it is nevertheless true that he also takes the impression of his age and the success of his work, entirely original it may seem to be, is often due to the way in which it meets or anticipates the general taste of the public to which it appeals. Whatever brings fresh interests and ideas into the life of an age, whatever tends to modify its ways of thought and feeling more than often enter as a vital fact into the making of its literature. We can hardly think of a book as though it were written outside the conditions of time and place. We must think it as the work of a man who living in a certain age was affected according to the nature of his own personality, by the atmosphere and the movements of that age. The Reformation, Puritanism, the French Revolution have played important roles in shaping the course of the various literary tendencies. Even such a genius as Shakespeare was not wholly free from the impress of time. Whatever melodrama, the scenes of murder, madness, and intrigue, we find in his plays is the result of his attempt to cater to the low tastes of his contemporary audiences. The bitterness of love in Milton’s poetry is the consequence of the bitterness of political rivalry in the seventeenth century.[the_ad id=”17151″]

Literature should rise above the local and the contemporary

So we see that literature is very much a reflex of life. But when it becomes exclusively an attempt to reflect the conditions and problems of its contemporary age, it becomes a mere piece of propaganda. By reflecting the conditions of his age, the artist may earn immediate and sensational popularity but it will always be temporary. Tennyson reflected his age and became a popular idol. But today, his reputation has lost its force. Bernard Shaw, Galsworthy and others have reflected our age and dealt with its problems with zeal of a propagandist but in future when the present problems are solved, it is more than probable that they may become to posterity what Tennyson has become for us today. The real literature, which escapes the poppy of oblivion, is only that which deals with the eternal values and varieties of human life.

Literature should guide life

But when Oscar Wild, Swinburne and Walter Peter emphasis the pleasure-giving or aesthetic quality of literature they press the matter too far. No doubt, a true work of art must satisfy our aesthetic urge but only in a manner, which ennobles us, refines our feelings, and chastens our thoughts. To oppose didacticism is not good. The desire to “fashion a gentleman or a noble person into a virtuous and gentle character” or to “justify the ways of God to man” has produced nobler results than have been achieved on the most correct aesthetic principles. Dr. Johnson was not wrong when he said that “knowledge of books without the knowledge of life is useless for what should books teach but the art of living”.

The permanence of literature

Yet we should not forget that the worth and excellence of literature is superior to life. It is the peculiar glory of great literature that it lasts longer than kings and dynasties. History bears witness to the power of human spirit, which ensures longer than dynasties or creeds. The political world of Homer is dead while his song is living today. The splendor of Rome has vanished but the poetry of Virgil is yet alive. The sayings of Saadi Shirazi still move us like the cry of a living voice, with their poignant sense of tears in human relations while Gulistan and Bostan of which he was the author has left his memory to his keeping. The great medieval potentates are forgotten but the song of Dante is still cherished, and the Elizabethan age will be remembered as long as the English language lives on account of its Shakespeare.

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