‘What is a classic?’ is the Presidential address delivered by Eliot to the Virgil Society in 1944. It was first published in his volume of essays entitled On Poets and Poetry in 1957. It is a thought-provoking essay in which Eliot expresses his views on the distinguishing features of classic art and literature.
The question “What is a classic?” has always been asked since times immemorial, and most varied answers have been given. The word classic has been used merely to mean a “standard author”. It has been used for either Greek and Latin literatures in toto or the greatest authors of these languages. The term “Classic” has also been used as an antithesis to the term “Romantic”. The word would continue to have most varied meanings in varied contexts. But in the present chapter, Eliot is concerned with one particular meaning of the word in one context, his purpose being to show that Virgil alone is a ‘classic’ in the true sense of the word.
As a result of the classic-romantic controversy, the word ‘classic’ sometimes implies highest praise, and at other times the greatest abuse according to the party to which one belongs. It implies certain merits or certain faults. Those of the classical school praise classical art of its perfection of form; those of the romantic school criticise it for its absolute lack of passion. Classical literature has certain qualities, but that does not mean that all great literatures, or great authors should have all those qualities. All those qualities, may be found in Virgil but that does not mean that he is the greatest of all poets, or that Latin literature is greater than all other literatures. Or if no author or period in any literature is completely classical, as is the case with English, it does not mean that it is defective or inferior in quality. Literatures, like English, in which the classical qualities are scattered between different authors and periods, may be the richer for this very reason. The conditions of a language, and the history of the people may be such that a completely classical period or author may be out of the question. Rome was lucky in as much as its history was such, and such is he character of the Latin language that at a particular moment a uniquely classical poet could be possible in it. But it required a life-time of labour for that poet (Virgil) to acquire the classical qualities. But Virgil himself never knew that he was acquiring classical qualities. It is only in historical perspective that a classic can be known as such.
The outstanding quality of a classic is maturity. 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 and explain the word mature is difficult. But if a person is mature and educated he can easily recognise his quality of maturity in an author or a literature. For example, every reader of Shakespeare can easily realise the gradual maturing of Shakespeare’s art, the rapid maturing of Elizabethan drama and a decline in its maturity in the next age. Similarly, a comparison between Marlowe’s play and Shakespeare’s early plays clearly brings out that Marlowe matured more rapidly than Shakespeare. A writer who individually has a more mature mind, may belong to a less mature period than another, so that in that respect his work will be less mature. The maturity of literature is the reflection of that of the society in which it is produced: an individual author—notably Shakespeare and Virgil—can do much to develop his language: but he cannot bring that language to maturity unless the work of his predecessors has prepared it for his final touch. A mature literature, therefore, has a history behind it; a history, that is not merely a chronicle, an accumulation of manuscripts and writings of this kind and that, but an ordered, though unconscious, progress of a language to realize its own potentialities within its own limitations.
There is no single period of English literature or any single author which may be said to be fully mature. Shakespeare shows greater maturity than any other English writer, and he did much to make the English language more mature, so that it could’ express finer shades of meaning and more subtle thoughts. But Congreve’s Way of the World is more mature than any play of Shakespeare because it reflects a more mature society. It reflects a greater maturity of manners. In other words, in addition to the maturity of mind and language maturity of manners is also essential to produce a true classic. Shakespeare is not a complete ‘classic because the society in which he produced lacked maturity. Maturity of manners was lacking in the Elizabethan age.
The maturity of language can be more easily recognised in the development of prose, than in that of poetry. This maturity is seen in the gradual evolution of a common standard, a common vocabulary and a common sentence structure. When prose departs from such a common standard and becomes individual in the extreme, it is likely to be called “poetic prose”. (Many of us would not agree with the view that poetic prose is merely a departure from a common style, and not a highly wrought work of art. There is much poetic prose in The Bible, as it is a model of what good prose should be. In the opinion of Eliot, “the development of a classic prose is the development towards a common style”. Individual differences remain, but as the common style evolves the differences become more subtle and refined. In a period of classic prose there is a community of tastes, and this makes the evolution of a common prose style possible. In the age which precedes the classic age of prose there is much eccentricity and monotony in prose writing, and in the following age also there is much eccentricity, and monotony, because the resources of the language have been exhausted, and because there is a search for originality and correctness is sacrificed to it. But the age in which we find a common style will be an age when society has achieved a moment of order and stability, of equilibrium and harmony; as the age which manifests the greatest extremes of individual style will be an age of immaturity or an age of senility.
Maturity of language which distinguishes classic prose accompanies maturity of mind and manners. Maturity of mind implies that the poet is aware of the literary tradition, respects his literary ancestors as he would respect his parents and grandparents, and this literary tradition should be such as leaves scope for further achievements. If the possibilities and resources of the language have already been exhausted then the literary tradition has the same chilling effect on the new generation of writers as the fame of an able parent or grandparent has on the younger people in the family. Poets in a late age must not have a feeling that they cannot compete with their ancestors of the preceding age. Such a feeling either kills creativeness or a search for originality leads to eccentricity which is an effort to renounce the past—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, realized in the literature of the past—and the originality of the living generation.
The Elizabethan literature, though great, is not wholly mature and so cannot be called classical. Latin literature is more mature because it had Greek literature behind it, and Elizabethan literature has the semblance of maturity because it had both Latin and Greek behind it. We approach nearer to real maturity with Milton. He was in a better position to have a critical sense of the past English literature than his predecessors. Yet the style of Milton is not a classic style; it is a style of a language still in formation, the style of a writer whose masters were not English, but Latin and to a less degree Greek. But Milton did much to develop the language. One of the signs of approach towards a classic style is a development towards greater complexity of sentence and period structure. But 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 muse. When an author appears, in his love of the elaborate structure, to have lost the ability to say anything simply, the process of complexity ceases to be quite healthy, and the writer is losing touch with spoken language. Nevertheless, as verse develops, in the hands of one poet after another, it tends from monotony to variety, from simplicity to complexity; as it declines, it tends towards monotony again, though it may perpetuate the formal structure to which genius gave life and meaning. We see this secondary monotony in the eighteenth-century imitators of Milton—who himself is never monotonous.
It is generally supposed that the qualities of a classic—maturity of mind, maturity of manners, maturity of language and perfection of a common style—are most fully realised in the poetry of Pope. But, in reality, this is not so. The fact is that in English there is no classic age, and no classic poet. This is not a reason for regret at all. No doubt, we must, always keep the classical ideal before our eyes, and certainly, we cannot afford to reject the age of Pope as worthless, but it must also be clearly understood that only certain classical qualities are exemplified in the poetry of Pope. The realisation of these qualities was obtained at a high price, and some greater potentialities of English verse were sacrificed. Some sacrificed is always necessary for a great achievement, but in the English poetry of the 18th century too much has been sacrificed. English mind in the 18th century was mature, but it was a narrow one. It was a provincial age lacking in that amplitude and catholicity which are present in all great poets, even though they cannot be regarded as classics. In the age of Pope, the range of sensibility was limited. Its religious sensibility was restricted, and this produces a kind of sensibility which indicates the decay of Christendom and the decay of common belief and a common culture. The 18th century despite its classical achievement lacked certain conditions which make the creation of true classic possible. What these conditions are, can best be understood with reference to the works of Virgil.
First Virgil had maturity of mind and this maturity of mind is shown in his awareness of history, not only the history of Rome, but also the history of Greece whose civilisation and culture is closely related to Roman culture and civilisation. The Romans were conscious of Greek culture, of its relatedness—to their own, and Virgil did much to develop this consciousness. He constantly adapted the traditions and inventions of Greek poetry, as all those of his own country. Such use of a foreign literature marks an important stage in the development of a civilisation. It is this development of one literature or one civilization, in relation to another, which gives a peculiar significance to the subject of Virgil’s epic. In Homer, the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans is hardly larger in scope than a feud between one Greek city-state and a coalition of other city-states; behind the story of Aeneas is the consciousness of a more radical distinction, a distinction, which is at the same time a statement of relatedness, between two great cultures, and finally, of their reconciliation under an all-embracing destiny. It means that Virgil is more Catholic, the sweep and range of his epic is vaster and nobler.
In addition to his maturity of mind, shown in his awareness of the history of another people, Virgil also lived in a society which had maturity of manners and absence of provinciality. Virgil’s epic displays a refinement of manners resulting from a delicate sensibility and this refinement of manners is best seen in the private and public conduct of the sexed towards each other. The meeting of Aeneas with the shade of Dido is not only one of the most poignant, but also the most civilised passage in poetry. It is complex in meaning and economical in expression. Dido’s behaviour is a projection of Aeneas’ conscience. By reading the passage we feel that this is the way in which Aeneas’ conscience would expect Dido to behave to him. Aeneas does not forgive himself for his conduct towards Dido, though he is well aware that he acted in compliance with destiny and according to the plan of the gods. The instance shows civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience. T.S. Eliot concludes from it: “The behaviour of Virgil’s characters never appears to be according to some purely local or tribal code of manners; it is in its time, both Roman and European. Virgil certainly, on the plane of manners, is not provincial.”
As regard the maturity of Virgil’s style and language, it is too obvious to require any comment. Virgil’s mature style would not have been possible without his having an intimate knowledge of it. He was a learned poet, who had full command over Latin language and literature, and who could use the phrases of earlier writers and considerably improve upon them. His maturity of style is seen in the fact that he had full command over complex structure, and yet he could be startlingly simple when the occasion required such simplicity. He could draw upon the full resources of the Latin language, and so his style is a common style, a style in which the full genius of the Latin language has been realised. This cannot be said of any English poet, not even of Pope, in whom only the genius of the English language during a particular period is realised. Shakespeare and Milton, both men of genius, left many of the possibilities of the English language, unrealised, but Virgil exhausted all the possibilities of his tongue, and so no great development in it could be possible after him.
Hence it is that achievement of a classic, is not an unmixed blessing for that literature and that language. After Virgil, there could be no great Latin poetry, for the subsequent poets lived under his shadow, and were measured by his standards. They could achieve nothing new or original. England is lucky, for in this country no one has exhausted all the possibilities of the language. Milton and Shakespeare exhausted possibilities only of particular areas. That is why there could be no poetic drama after Shakespeare, and no epic after Milton. Says Eliot, “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 to allow for some generations.”
There is no doubt that every poet of genius makes impossible the production of equally great works of the same kind. But great poets, as Milton and Shakespeare were, exhaust the possibilities merely of particular forms, and not of the language as a whole. But when a great poet is also a great classic, he exhausts the possibilities not of one particular form but of the language as a whole. It follows from this that a classic can be produced only in one exhaustible language. A language which has great variety cannot produce a classic, and English is such a language. The entire possibilities of the English language have never been realised in the work of a single poet, and so there is no classic in the English language. While a classic is necessary to judge the performance of other poets, his absence is not a matter of regret. English is a living language and it has great variety. It does not have that homogenity which Latin has, and so does not easily tend towards a common style. It has great variety, great capacity for changing and growing. It has still many unexplored possibilities, and so great achievement is still possible for new poets. There is no classic in English: therefore, any living poet can say, there is still hope that I—and those after me for no one can face with equanimity, once he understands what is implied, the thought of being the last poet—may be able to write something which may still be worth preserving.
Eliot now points out one more characteristic of a classic— comprehensiveness. Classicism implies maturity, and maturity means a process of selection and elimination. It means the development of some possibilities to the exclusion of others. In a minor classic, such as the classic poets of the 18th century, the elements excluded would be more numerous and of greater importance. In their works the genius of the English language remains unrealised, and we are conscious that large areas of sensibility have been left out. Their work is not representative of the total genius of the race and the language. In a perfect classic the whole genius of a people is revealed. A perfect classic must have comprehensiveness. The classic must, within its normal limitations, express the maximum possible of the whole range of feeling which represents the character of the people who speak that language. It will represent this at its best, and it will also have the widest appeal among the people to which it belongs, it will find its response among all classes and conditions of men.
When a classic, in addition to the comprehensiveness in relation to its own language, also has value and significance in relation to a number of foreign languages, he may be said to have universality. He is then a universal classic. This is the distinction between a relative classic—classic in relation to his own language—and absolute classic—classic in relation to a number of foreign languages and literatures. There is no universal classic in any of the modern languages, for even Goethe does not represent fully the European tradition. To find a universal classic we have to go to the two dead languages—Latin and Greek. Of all the great poets of Latin and Greek, it is Virgil who is the universal classic in the true sense of the word. His universality arises from the fact of the unique position of the Roman empire and Latin language in the histoiy of Europe. Virgil’s Aeneas is the symbol of Rome, “As Aeneas is to Rome, so is ancient Rome to Europe. Thus Virgil acquires the centrality of the unique classic, he is at the centre of European civilization, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp. The Roman Empire and the Latin language were not any empire and any language, but an empire and a language with a unique destiny in relation to ourselves, and the poet in whom that Empire and that language came to consciousness and expression is a poet of unique destiny.”
Virgil is the consciousness of Rome and the supreme voice of her language. He is a supreme or absolute classic, and his value for us lies in the fact that he provides us with the criterion for judging other works of art. He provides us with the standard by which we can measure works in our language, and realise that they are lacking or are defective in some one respect or the other. Without such a standard we tend to admire works of genius for the wrong reason, as when we admire Blake for his philosophy, and Hopkins for his style. Without such a standard we commit even a greater error when we give the second rate poets equal rank with the first rate ones. In short, without the constant application of the classical measure, which we owe to Virgil more than to any other one poet, we tend to become provincial.
The word ‘provincial’ has been variously defined and explained But by ‘provincial’ Eliot means much more than merely, “wanting in the culture or polish of the capital”, or merely, “narrow in thought in culture, in creed”. Such definitions are narrow and vague. By this term Eliot means, “a distortion of values, the exclusion of some, the exaggeration of others, which springs, not from lack of wide geographical perambulation, but from applying standards acquired within a limited area, to the whole of human experience; which confounds the convenient with the essential, the ephemeral with the permanent.” In our own age, says Eliot wisdom is confused with knowledge, knowledge with information, and efforts are made to solve the problems, of life through technology. There is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism. It is a provincialism not of space, but of time a provincialism which considers the past as dead and useless, and which values the present at the cost of the past. This new kind of provincialism is world-wide. It leads to intolerance with its stress on the local and particular, rather than on the universal. The corrective to such a provincialism is literature. Just as Europe is a single whole, so European literature is a single whole, the same blood stream flowing through the whole body of it.
The blood-stream of European literature is Latin and Greek—not as two systems of circulation, but one, for it is through Rome that our parentage in Greece must be traced. What common measure of excellence have we in literature, among our several languages, which is not classical in its origin. No modern language could aspire to the universality of Latin even though it came to be spoken by millions more than ever spoke Latin, and even through it came to be the universal means of communication between peoples of all tongues and cultures. No modern language can hope to produce a classic, in the sense in which I have called Virgil a classic, “Our classic, the classic of all Europe, is Virgil.”