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Classic literature is an expression of life, truth, and beauty. In classic literature, work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written and it merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, it is not a classic; while the term “modern classic” may apply to books written after World War II, they need longevity to achieve the designation of a simple “classic.” A book of recent vintage that is of high quality, acclaim, and influence needs a few generations to determine whether it deserves to be called a classic.

Great works of literature touch readers to their very core, partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith, for example, touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses. In fact, a classic can alter one’s view of history to see how little has changed in our basic human makeup.

By covering themes universal to the human condition and doing so in a way that stands the test of time, classics remain relevant to all. Because of the high quality of the characters, story, and writing, people can read classics in their youth and gather a basic understanding of the author’s themes, and then they can read them later in life and see additional layers of truth that they missed previously. The quality enables the work to communicate to multiple age groups throughout time.

According to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869), a classic implies something that has continuance and consistence, and which produces unity and tradition, fashions and transmits itself, and endures… A true classic is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.

The concept of ‘the classic’ was a theme of T S Eliot’s literary criticism as well. In The Sacred Wood, he thought that one of the reasons why Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius was because of the concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy. In echoes of Sainte-Beuve, Eliot gave a speech to the Virgil Society concerning himself with the very same question of What is a Classic? In his opinion, there was only one author who was ‘classic’: and it was, the classic of all Europe, Virgil. In this instance, though, Eliot said that the word had different meanings in different surroundings and that his concern was with “one meaning in one context”. He states his focus is to define only “one kind of art” and that it does not have to be “better…than another kind”. His opening paragraph makes a clear distinction between his particular meaning of classic having Virgil as the classic of all literature and the alternate meaning of classic as a standard author.

Literary figures from different eras have also weighed in (sometimes humorously) on the matter. Alan Bennett, the modern English playwright and author, said that a classic is a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves. And in his “Disappearance of Literature” speech given over a century ago in 1900, Mark Twain said, (referring to a learned academic’s lofty opinion of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”) that the work met the Professor’s definition of a classic as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”.

Classics are often defined in terms of their lasting freshness. Ezra Pound in his own tome on reading, ABC of Reading, gave his opinion when he stated, “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rule, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” Michael Dirda, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, concurred with Pound’s view regarding the vitality of a classic when he wrote that “…one of the true elements of a classic” was that “they can be read again and again with ever-deepening pleasure.”

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.