How would you define and identify classics in world literature? What touchstones do you feel are common while identifying one?
The question “What is a classic?” has been asked by one and all, in most discussions pertaining to literature, and there have been varied, eye-opening answers. Today, however, the word has generally come to describe “standard” authors and pieces of literature. It has been used for Greek, Latin, and English literatures and for the greatest authors from the same. Sometimes, the term “Classic” might also have been used as an antithesis to the term “Romantic”. Since time immemorial, the word has taken on many meanings, and has been used with varied intent in different contexts.
Furthermore, because of the classic – romantic controversy, the word ‘classic’ could be used to bestow the highest praise, and at other times, the greatest abuse, depending on the party to which one belongs. Those following the classical school of thought praise classical art for their perfection of form; while those from the romantic school of thought belittle it for its (seemingly) total lack of passion. Classical literature does have certain qualities, but it does, in no way, signify that all great literatures, or all great authors need to have those qualities. Although all these features may be found more in certain languages and literatures than others, it does not mean that they are superior to the others. Literatures, like English, in which the classical qualities are spread across different authors and periods, are made all the more rich because of this very reason.
I hereby begin my way of identifying a ‘classic’ by quoting a line from T.S. Eliot’s famous speech delivered to the Virgil Society in 1944, “A classic can only occur when a civilization is mature; when a language and a literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind.” To define the word ‘mature’ is also difficult. To recognise the virtue of maturity in an author or a literature, the reader should also be mature and educated. Only then he will be able to realise the progression of language which knows its own potentialities within its own limitations that makes for a mature literature. The levels of mature literature can be understood with reference to the works of two of the greatest poets in history, from the culturally rich civilisations, Rome and Greece, Homer and Virgil. First, Virgil had a considerably more mature mind than Homer, and this maturity of his can be seen in his awareness of history, not only of Rome, but also of Greece, whose civilisation and culture were closely related to that of Rome. The Romans were well-informed about Greek culture, and of its affiliation – to their own, and Virgil did much to develop this situation. He often adapted, and used purposefully, traditions of Greek poetry while artfully also weaving his own country’s history and inventions in his epics. It is this development of one civilisation, its literature, history and culture, in relation with another, which gives a peculiar edge to Virgil’s works. In Homer’s works, the conflict between the Greeks and Trojans seems hardly larger in scope than a feud between one city-state and an alliance of other city-states in Greece; behind the story of Aeneas is a vivid awareness of a more revolutionary distinction, which is also a picture of relatedness between two great cultures, and in the end, of their settlement under an all-embracing destiny.
Another important characteristic of a classic, is comprehensiveness. In Classicism lies maturity, and with maturity comes the process of careful selection and elimination. It means favouring development of some possibilities over others. A classic must, within its normal capabilities, convey the maximum possible of the entire range of emotions which represents the character of the people speaking that language. It should also have the widest appeal among the people and cultures to which it belongs, and find acceptance among major classes and conditions of humanity. Moreover, the classic must also embody value and significance in relation to various foreign languages, thereby successfully cementing its place in classical literature for eons to come.
The last, but certainly not the least, important virtue of a classic is its ability to transcend time. Quoting Clifton Fadiman’s saying “If you wish to live long in the memory of men, you should not write for them at all. You should write what their children will enjoy”, I believe a classic should be able to unite ages in a continuum, while sharing a quality of irrepressible freshness, lasting recognition and eternal vastness. A classic comes to the reader bearing the aura of previous interpretations, bringing traces it has left on the cultures, languages, literatures, and customs through which it has passed. A classic, along with being long-lasting, should also present the reader with new insights and creative perspectives each time it is reread.
In conclusion, I will end this essay with an all-encompassing and powerful definition of a ‘classic’, given by Italian journalist and writer, Italo Calvino –
“A classic is a book which has never finished saying what it has to say.”