Literature consists of any written productions. More restrictively, it refers to those deemed to have artistic or intellectual value, or which deploy language in ways that differ from ordinary usage. Its Latin root literatura/litteratura (derived itself from littera: letter or handwriting) was used to refer to all written accounts, though contemporary definitions extend the term to include texts that are spoken or sung (oral literature). 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 categorized according to historical periods or their adherence to certain aesthetic features or expectations (genre).
Definitions of literature have varied over time; it is a “culturally relative definition”. In Western Europe prior to the eighteenth century, literature as a term indicated all books and writing. A more restricted sense of the term emerged during the Romantic period, in which it began to demarcate “imaginative” literature. Contemporary debates over what constitutes literature can be seen as returning to the older, more inclusive notion of what constitutes literature. Cultural studies, for instance, takes as its subject of analysis both popular and minority genres, in addition to canonical works.
The three major forms of literature are poetry, prose, and drama.
Poetry is a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, prosaic ostensible meaning. Poetry has traditionally been distinguished from proseby its being set in verse;[a] prose is cast in sentences, poetry in lines; the syntax of prose is dictated by meaning, whereas that of poetry is held across metre or the visual aspects of the poem. Prior to the nineteenth century, poetry was commonly understood to be something set in metrical lines; accordingly, in 1658 a definition of poetry is “any kind of subject consisting of Rythm or Verses”. Possibly as a result of Aristotle’s influence (his Poetics), “poetry” before the nineteenth century was usually less a technical designation for verse than a normative category of fictive or rhetorical art. As a form it may pre-date literacy, with the earliest works being composed within and sustained by an oral tradition; hence it constitutes the earliest example of literature.
Prose is a form of language that possesses ordinary syntax and natural speech rather than rhythmic structure; in which regard, along with its measurement in sentences rather than lines, it differs from poetry. On the historical development of prose, Richard Graff notes that “[In the case of Ancient Greece] recent scholarship has emphasized the fact that formal prose was a comparatively late development, an “invention” properly associated with the classical period”.
Drama is literature intended for performance. The form is often combined with music and dance, as in opera and musical theatre. A play is a subset of this form, referring to the written dramatic work of a playwright that is intended for performance in a theatre; it comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at dramatic or theatrical performance rather than at reading. A closet drama, by contrast, refers to a play written to be read rather than to be performed; hence, it is intended that the meaning of such a work can be realized fully on the page. Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently.