Literature

LiteratureOxford Reference provides more than 177,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries across Literature. Our coverage comprises authoritative, accessible information on writers, works, movements, historical context, literary theories, and allusions—from African American literature and Irish literature to Canadian and Italian, from Classical to Romantic, from poetry to plays.

Written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, entries are complemented by chronologies, line drawings, and charts wherever useful.

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Sample resources

Discover literature on Oxford Reference with the below sample content:

Timelines of literature: from English, German, and American, to Italian, Greek, and Latin

Quotations about literature and writers from Oxford Essential Quotations

'Dialect and Obsolete Words' from The Oxford Companion to the Brontës

'Towards a Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale' from The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

Biography of Herman Melville (The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History)

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Featured author

Daniel Hahn

Marlé Hammond

Marlé Hammond is Senior Lecturer in Arabic Popular Literature and Culture at SOAS, University of London. She held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oriental Institute of Oxford University (2007–10) and a Research Centre Fellowship in the Programme of Arabic Poetry and Comparative Poetics at St John’s College, Oxford (2002–6). She is the author of Beyond Elegy: Classical Arabic Women's Poetry in Context (Oxford University Press, 2010), and the editor of Arabic Poems (Everyman's Library, 2014). She authored A Dictionary of Arabic Literary Terms and Devices, available on Oxford Reference.

Author Q&A

In your opinion, which is the most fascinating entry you have written for Oxford Reference and why?

I think the most fascinating entry, not necessarily in the way that I composed it but definitely with regard to what the term represents, is jinās or wordplay. This is because wordplay is a universal phenomenon but the precise techniques of wordplay vary from language to language, according to its specificities. Arabic morphology rests on a system of roots and patterns. Most words derive from roots of three radicals, and manipulating these letters and reordering them create phonic correspondences between divergent meanings in interesting ways. A brilliant example may be found in the opening lines of a famous poem by Abū Tammām (d.c. 232/845):

The sword is more truthful than books,

In its edge is the limit between seriousness and jest

White blades (ṣafāˀiḥ) not black pages (ṣaḥāˀif), in

Its surfaces doubt and uncertainty become clear

The Arabic word for ‘blades’ is derived from ṣ-f-ḥ and that of pages from ṣ-ḥ-f, and both words are formed on the plural pattern faˁāˀil. This tongue-twisting root-play comes amidst a very neat opposition (or ṭibāq) between ‘white’ and ‘black’ as well as a pleasing similarity between the meanings of the words in question: both ‘blade’ and ‘page’ evoke flat surfaces. It is the kind of exquisite structure that makes learning Arabic poetry worth the effort.

What is the one term or concept that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why?

If there is one term with which everyone should be familiar it is iltizām. Iltizām is a verbal noun meaning ‘adherence’, ‘sticking’, or ‘persevering’, and, in a modern Arabic literary context it refers to ‘commitment’ in a political sense. It serves as a translation of the French concept of littérature engagée promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre. Its advocates, who have perhaps made up the majority of avant-garde writers in the Arab world since events of the mid-twentieth century—most notably the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ of Palestine with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948—do not believe in artistic experimentation for its own sake but rather see the role of the artist as one actively working to improve the human condition. A preoccupation with social justice runs deep through Arabic fiction, drama, and poetry, to the extent that even Postmodernist Arab authors, who are meant to eschew ideologies and other forms of grand narrative, often demonstrate this impulse. In a study of Moroccan novelist Mohamed Berrada, for example, Magda Al-Nowaihi has called this phenomenon ‘committed postmodernity’. I think it is important for people to understand, when they pick up a piece of Arabic literature in translation, that it is often the case that one cannot fully appreciate its artistry without an awareness of the forms of political, social, and economic oppression against which its creator struggles.

What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?

Here I will discuss not so much a misconception but more of a misnomer, which causes a lot of confusion when translating from Arabic to English. Al-shiˁr al-ḥurr means ‘free poetry’ or ‘free verse’, but whereas the term ‘free verse’ in English refers to poetry which is free from the constraints of metre and rhyme, al-shiˁr al-ḥurr exhibits both. It is called ‘free’ not because it dispenses with metre and rhyme altogether, but rather because it is liberated from the ancient traditional model of the monorhymed qaṣīda, with its strictly regulated combinations of feet into lines with balanced hemistichs. The Iraqi poet Nāzik al-Malāˀika (1923–2007), who along with her compatriot Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb (1926–1964) was one of the first composers of al-shiˁr al-ḥurr, theorized and systematized this new form of verse, which considered the foot rather than the line as its basic unit. Whereas a poem was previously divided into lines of a fixed combination of feet, now the poem could be divided into lines of varying lengths. The lines were still composed with feet, but the number of feet in a line could change. Moreover, whereas the rhyme that marked the end of a line used to be uniform throughout the qaṣīda, al-shiˁr al-ḥurr introduced variation into the rhyme schemes and the monorhyme was dropped. Meanwhile, the Arabic term which is equivalent to the English ‘free verse’—in other words that form of poetry which dispenses with metre and rhyme—is called al-shiˁr al-manthūr or ‘prose poetry’. This is, indeed, an accurate translation, since all non-versified texts in Arabic are labelled as prose (nathr), but its connotations in English would suggest a more radical departure from the poetic paradigm than is necessarily the case. For example, al-shiˁr al-manthūr tends to appear in columns and to be divided into stanzas rather than formatted in paragraphs. The Arabic equivalent of ‘prose poem’ or poème-en-prose is qaṣīdat al-nathr. Early experimentation with prose poetry, be it al-shiˁr al-manthūr or qaṣīdat al-nathr is associated with the avant-garde journal Shiˁr (Poetry) and its contributors, such as the internationally renowned Syrian poet Adonis (Adūnīs, born 1930).

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Featured blogs


Shakespeare’s clowns and fools [infographic]
September 7th 2016
From the songs they sang to the costumes they wore, discover facts about fools from Shakespeare's plays.

Which literary couple are you and your beau? [quiz]
February 14th 2016
Find out which famous couple from literature you most resemble with our quiz.

Which fairy tale character are you? [quiz]
December 17th 2015
The best fairy tales are populated with memorable characters … which one are you?

This blasted heath – Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth
November 29th 2015
Dr Erin Sullivan considers the question 'How many children had Lady Macbeth?'

For more literature blog posts delve in to the OUPblog archives >

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