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As Graham Hough in his famous book An Essay on

Criticism (1966: a, pp 10 & 14) has rightly observed, there are

two categories ofliterary theories namely:

(a) moral theories, i.e those that are concerned primarily with

what literature is for; and

(b) formal theories, i.e. those that are concerned primarily with

what it is..

The first see literature as part of human activity in general while

the other see literature as a self-contained activity. However, the

two types are not mutually exclusive; a dialogue in some sense

occurs between them.

The present lecture relates mainly to (a) above. It is concerned

primarily with what Yoniba literature, an art form, is for.

Sufficient illustrations are taken from aspects of Yoruba

literature as a token of those aspects which divine providence

has helped me to have studied and appreciated. These include

(a) Ese Ifa (Ifa literary corpus),

(b) Orin agbe (agbe art)

( c) Owe (Proverbs) and

(d) Fagunwa's Novels.

Now, scholars, the world over, have made many important

points in favour of the utilitarian view of literature. For our

purpose, however, highlights of the main points will do.

Eliot, in his famous work, On Poetry and Poets (1957: pp

15-23) has written on the social functions of poetry - both

general and particular functions. Some early runes and chants

had very practical magical purposes - to avert the evil eye, to

cure some disease, or to propitiate some demon ... The early



forms of epic and saga may have transmitted what was held to

be history before it survived for communal entertainment only

(p.5). Didactic may mean "conveying information", or ...

"giving moral instruction, ... or something which comprehends

both (p.I6) Dramatic poetry has a social function ... peculiar to

itself: the making of an immediate, collective impression upon a

large number of people gathered together (p.I7). "Poetry is to

give pleasure, ... and ... there is always the communication of

some 'new' experience, or some fresh understanding of the

familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced

but have no words for, which enlarges or refines our

sensibility". (p.I 7)

Wellek and Warren (1963: pp 30 - 32), writing on the functions

of literature, rightly observe that, "poetry is sweet and useful."

(p.30). To them the pleasure of literature... is not one

preference among a long list of possible pleasures but is a

'higher pleasure' because pleasure is a higher kind of activity,

i.e. non-acquisitive contemplation." (p.3I). They also rightly

note that "poetry is a form of knowledge." (p.32)

For Finnegan (1977: 270), "to speak of 'literature' in

general terms can be misleading, whether or not it is opposed to

another supposed entity termed "society". For what is

interesting and significant is not, most often, something called

'literature' but rather what people do: the way they act within a

literary context, the social conventions connected with literary

activity which they observe and manipulate, the different uses

to which they can put literary formulations - literature, in fact,

conceived as social action by people rather than as a static

entity in its own right.

According to Plekhanov (19157: pp 5-6), Chernyshevsky

(1906:pp 33-34) wrote as follows in one of his earliest critical


"The idea of 'art' for art's sake' is as strange in our

times as 'wealth for wealth's sake', 'science for


science's sake', and so forth. All human activiti

must serve mankind if they are not to remain

useless and idle occupations. Wealth exists in order

that man may benefit by it, science exists in order

to be man's guide; art, too, must serve some useful

purpose and not fruitless pleasure." In

Chemyshevsky's opinion, the value of the arts, and

especially, of "the most serious of them", poetry, is

determined by the sum of knowledge they

disseminate in society. He says, "Art, or it would

be better to say poetry... spreads among the mass

of the reading public an enormous amount of

knowledge and, what is still more important,

familiarizes them with the concepts worked out by

science - such is poetry's great purpose in life."

Plekhanov goes on to say that, "in the opinion of

Chemyshevsky and his disciple, Dobrolyubov, the function of

art was indeed, to reproduce life and to pass judgment on its

phenomena." (p.6)

Plekhanov explains further in a footnote (p6. footnote**)

that this opinion was closely related to the views formulated by

Belinsky in his article, "A view of Russian Literature of 1847,"

where Belinsky wrote:

"The highest and most sacred interest of society is its

own welfare, equally extended to each of its

members. The road to this welfare is consciousness,

and art can promote consciousness no less than

science. Here science and art are equally

indispensable, and neither science can replace art nor

art replace science. But art can develop man's

knowledge only by passing judgement on the

phenomena of life."


The argument that art, like any other activity, is purposeful

cannot but be valid - more so as it does not deny the aesthetic

value of art. And Belinsky's observation that "art can promote

consciousness no less than science" is reassuring to all those

who are involved in the production' and consumption of art.

Belinsky's view, that the road to the welfare which society

desires is consciousness, agrees with the definition of art by

Marx and Engels as "one form of social consciousness". And

with its corollary "that the reasons for its (art's) changes should

be sought in the social existence of men." (Marx and Engels

1976:p 17 Preface by Krylov). Krylov explains further in his

preface that:

"Marx and Engels revealed the social nature

of art and its development in the course of

history and showed that in a society with

class antagonisms it was influenced by class

contradictions and by the politics and

ideologies of particular classes. (loc;.cit).

Eagleton (1976:p viii) thus rightly defines Marxist Criticism

as"part of a larger body of theoretical analysis which aims to

understand ideologies - the ideas, values and feelings by which

men experience their societies at various times. And certain of

those ideas, values and feelings are available to us only in


and he finallysummarizesits value as he writes:

"To understand ideologies is to understand

both the past and the present more deeply;

and such understanding contributes to our

liberation". (loc. cit.)


Eagleton's thesis here not only applies to literature but also to

history. This theoretical perspective is therefore invaluable as it

points to an assured means of achieving (through literary art) serenity

in the face of the vicissitudes of life. Neither religion nor science can

do more for human beings in their' continuous Struggle for freedom

from all forms of enslavement of human beings by human beings, e.g.

fear, exploitation, poverty and misery.

Having looked at literature critically, Eagleton (1983:22)

declares in his celebrated work on literary theory thus:

"To speak of 'literature and ideology' as two

separate phenomena which can be interrelated

is... in one sense, quite unnecessary.

Literature, in the meaning of the word we

have inherited is an ideology. It has the most

intimate relations to questions of social


To substantiate this point, he devotes the next thirty-one pages of

the book to a detailed explanation of how English Literature has

been changing with the English ruling class. He has rightly

observed, "like religion, literature works' primarily by emotion

and experience and. so was admirably well-fitted to carry through

the ideological task which religion left off." (p.26). Indirectly,

literature has been. communicating ideological dogmas disguised

as. timeless truths, "thus distracting the masses from their

immediate commitments, nurturing in them a spirit of tolerance

and generosity, and so ensuring the survival of private property."

Eagleton rightly ends the fascinating book with the following allegory:'

"We know that the lion is stronger than the

lion-tamer, and so does the lion-tamer. The

problem is that the lion does not know it. It is

not out of the question that the death of

literature may help the lion to awaken."



The 'lion-tamer' in this allegory represents the class of exploiters

in modem capitalist society while the 'lion' represents the

exploited class. The 'pill' of the class of exploiters' ideology is

being sweetened by the 'sugar' of literature. It is true that the

death of literature may help the exploited class to awaken. But

can literature die?

The answer to this question appears to be an emphatic

'No'. Eagleton thus rightly reminds us that:

"Literature... is vitally engaged with the

living situations of men and women: it is

concrete rather than abstract, displays life in

all its variousness, and rejects barren

conceptual enquiry for the feel and taste of

what it is to be alive." (p.16).

The aspects of Yoruba literature under study bare out most of the

issues raised above. The following three sections illustrate this


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SSA, R (2021). APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -. Retrieved May 10, 2021, from

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Research, SSA. "APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -", 02 May. 2021, . Accessed 10 May. 2021.


Research, SSA. "APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -".,, 02 May. 2021. Web. 10 May. 2021. < >.


Research, SSA. "APPRECIATING THE U.IEl OF LITERATURE: A YORUBA EXAMPLE .,~ , ' -" (2021). Accessed May 10, 2021.