In his important essay presented to the Virgil Society in 1947 in London, T.S. Eliot attempts to nail down what makes a classic work of literature a classic. It’s actually not that easy to do. I am reminded of the comment by Ben Jonson about his contemporary’s plays (i.e. Shakespeare). He says they were “not of an age, but for all time”. I tend to agree. A piece of literature say, like Virgil’s Aeneid, or Dante’s Divine Comedy or the Bible or Shakespeare that speaks to any and every age with eloquence and wit and invokes joy and wonder is certainly a classic, in at least one sense of the term. But as Eliot points out, a classic can also be a classic for just one particular language group and cultural group as well. Not all classics have universal appeal.
Here below are some of the criteria which Eliot puts forward other than ‘it has stood the test of time’. Well, yes, a classic does do that, but then so do the Roman aqueducts, now still standing but defunct. Just enduring the ravages of time does not make something a classic in a literary sense.
First of all Eliot reminds us that a classic can only be recognized as such with the benefit of hindsight and in historical perspective. While I think this is largely true, and don’t think it is entirely true. Shakespeare’s plays were wildly successful in their own day and made the man rich, retiring as he did before he reached 50 from London back to Stratford upon Avon. But I take his point that it takes time to compare a new work of literature to the body of other classics, before one can really say it is a classic. I am reminded of John Wesley’s rather narrow minded review of Handel’s Messiah when he saw it performed. He said, ‘it had some affecting portions, but I doubt on the whole it will endure’. Boy was he wrong.
For Eliot the designation ‘a classic’ refers to a work of great maturity, and I would add, great insight, especially great insight into human character among other things. He distinguishes rightly between a universal classic, and a work that is a classic only in relationship to its own culture and language groups and other works of its sort and locale and tradition and age.
What Eliot means by maturity is that for a classic to emerge, the culture itself, and its language has to have matured to a point where such is possible, where the best possible use of the language can be made to express something well and wisely and perspicuously. As Jonson once said ‘perspicuity is the chiefest virtue of a style’. But a classic can only be produced by a mature mind operating at a stage in history where the language and culture of that region has matured. One may well ask— how are classic works of literature even possible in a culturally chaotic setting, or one where the language itself is undergoing constant change, and not in a more eloquent direction, such as is the case with American English these days. ‘What Up Dog?’ does not exactly cut it as a phrase to be used in a work of enduring literary merit, in a classic.
It becomes clear as one reads on in Eliot’s essay that by classic, he does not merely mean a work from hoary antiquity, such as the Greek and Roman works enshrined and ever freshly retranslated in the Loeb Classical Library series though some of those works qualify as a classic in Eliot’s sense of the term. We, on the other hand, seem prepared to talk about an ‘instant classic’ when it comes to films or popular novels or good albums and the like. What is usually meant by the term is a work of remarkable creativity which makes it appealing to a culture where the new is always assumed to be the true, and the latest the greatest. As Eliot reminds us however “The persistence of literary creativeness in any people, accordingly, consists in the maintenance of an unconscious balance between tradition in the larger sense– the collective personality, so to speak, realised in the literature of the past– and the originality of the living generation.” (p. 15). He’s right about this— a classic is something that draws on the past but does not live there. It has a familiar as well as a creative element to it. I think this is why for me, while I can certainly see Impressionistic art as classic works in various cases, I find absolutely nothing classic about Mondrian or Kandinsky. Pointless pointalism does nothing for me either.
Eliot also notes that it is a sign of the maturity of a work that it is able to show development of more complex period and sentence structure. To use popular examples, compare the simple sentence structures in a John Grisham novel to what you find in P.D. James novels which, while crime or mystery novels, are nonetheless beautifully written and at times even eloquent. As Eliot warns however, complexity itself can lead to a merely prolix style, too weighty, too arcane, too cumbersome, too scholarly and too toffee-nosed by half (to mix some British idioms). He says “complexity for its own sake is not a proper goal: its purpose must be, first the precise expression of finer shades of feeling and thought; second the introduction of greater refinement and variety of music” (in a literary form) (p. 16).
Eliot then looks for maturity of mind, maturity of manners, maturity of language and perfection of the common style in a classic.
To some degree the whole matter involves a certain element of the fortuitous. For example, Shakespeare lived at a time when the English language had developed well past Middle English (not to mention Beowulf) and had become quite lyric with interesting idioms and turns of phrase. Similarly with the example Eliot points to, namely Virgil. Virgil lived in an age in which Latin had been richly influenced by and was indebted to the great works of Greek literature. Maturity of style was possible because the culture had come of age, and its language had drawn on deep wells from the Greek tradition. Eliot puts it this way: “Conspicuousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the ['writer's] own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history.” (p. 19). In other words, a classic is a work that not merely has scope and depth, but has plumbed the depths of other rich traditions and has breadth of perspective of what makes for great literature, and not just in one’s own language and cultural group. He’s right about this. I don’t think you can really understand the beauty and richness of say Gibran’s The Prophet, unless you have read wisdom literature and poetry in the Biblical tradition from which Gibran draws. The ability to draw cross-culturally on other literary traditions and not just from one’s own linguistic and cultural wells is the mark of a classic.
One needs to be not merely literate or eloquent to write a classic work, one needs to be knowledgeable of great literature, not to mention having a depth and maturity of soul so that you have the capacity for keen insight into the human condition and honesty about it. Chaucer has such insight, and it is one of the reasons the Canterbury Tales deserve to be seen as classics.
Eliot distinguishes between poetry and prose when it comes to classics, and he allows that poetry more often stands or falls on its creativity (as well as its turns of brief phrases and depth of insight). Accordingly he allows “It is true that every supreme poet, classic or not, tends to exhaust the ground he cultivates, so that it must, after yielding a diminishing crop, finally be left fallow for some generations.” (p. 23). To use a musical analogy— Bob Dylan is one thing, Jackson Browne or even Bruce Springsteen another. Don’t get me wrong, I like both of the later as writers of meaningful ballads. But they are plowing the same furrow as Bob, and not as deeply, profoundly, or creatively. Hence Eliot concludes about poetry “every great work of poetry tends to make impossible the production of equally great works of the same kind” (p. 24).
There is much more that could be said along these lines, but this must suffice for now. Let us leave it at this. Any culture which does not strive to be not merely literate (in the barest sense of the term) but also lettered, literary, cosmopolitan, cultured, poetic and prosaic, is a culture doomed to be forgotten, a disposable culture that will wind up on the rubbish tip of history. Let’s hope I have not just described America descending into a new dark ages where people can barely read and write, and they mistake twittering and tweeting for actual communication, and blogging for actual attempts at being literary. Any educated person should strive to be what used to be called ‘a Renaissance man’ (or woman), not take pride in being an ignoramus.