Oral Traditions are words set apart in some way from ordinary everyday communication. In the ancient oral traditions, before stories and poems were written down, literature had a mainly public function – mythic and religious. As literary works came to be preserved in writing, and, eventually, printed, their role became more private, serving as a vehicle for the exploration and expression of emotion and the human situation.
Poetry and prose In the development of literature, aesthetic criteria have come increasingly to the fore, although these have been challenged on ideological grounds by some recent cultural critics. The English poet and critic Coleridge defined prose as words in their best order, and poetry as the ‘best’ words in the best order. The distinction between poetry and prose is not always clear-cut, but in practice poetry tends to be metrically formal (making it easier to memorize), whereas prose corresponds more closely to the patterns of ordinary speech. Poetry therefore had an early advantage over prose in the days before printing, which it did not relinquish until comparatively recently.
Over the centuries poetry has taken on a wide range of forms, from the lengthy narrative such as the epic, to the lyric, expressing personal emotion in songlike form; from the ballad and the 14-line sonnet, to the extreme conciseness of the 17-syllable Japanese haiku.
Prose came into its own in the West as a vehicle for imaginative literature with the rise of the novel in the 18th century, and fiction has since been divided into various genres such as the historical novel, detective fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. See also the literature of particular countries, under English literature, French literature, United States literature, and so on.
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