“What Is a Classic?” by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869)

“What Is a Classic?” by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869)

  • It all depends… if someone I trust recommends it to me, I’ll give it a whirl – all my attention & give my honest opinion
    • The English have been writing essays for non-personal opinions – abstract & moral – should be moderate & leisurely – not like in France
  • The classic definition is: from an old author canonized by admiration & of authority in his style
    • Definition 1st used by Romans – writers of worth & distinction & not of a proletarian level
    • Greeks were grandfathered in & were to be imitated
      • After Cicero & Virgil, Romans established their own classics
      • Romans began to place Ovid over Homer & Boetius on par with Plato
      • Only after the 15th & 16th centuries were things brought back & Latins & Greeks were restored to their great heights
  • Others started to show up
    • Dante in Italian but with a style of antiquity – the first modern classic
    • When Louis XIV came, France hit its stride in literature
      • Perreault, Corneille, Molière, Pascal, Boileau & La Fontaine
  • After Louis XIV, France began to perfect the classic
    • Voltaire, Montesquieu, Buffon, Rousseau – reconcile tradition with freedom of development & independence
    • The Academy’s Dictionary (1694) defined a classical author as “a much approved ancient writer, who is an authority as regards the subject he treats”
      • Later updated to give precision to those who give models or fixed rules for composition of language
  • Sainte-Beuve’s definition – an author who’s enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, advanced it, discovered a moral, unequivocal truth or revealed an eternal passion in the heart – made it broad & great, refined & sensible, sane & beautiful in itself, in its own style, without neologism, contemporary with those of all time
    • This definition of a classic may be revolutionary for a time but will be tied down & used by whatever prevents the balance & order
    • May include Corneille’s Polyeucte, Cinna & Horace, & Molière’s Avare & Tartuffe
    • Sainte-Beuve’s definition is far too strong but it should include conditions of uniformity, wisdom, moderation & reason which dominate & change others
    • May depend on harmony & nuances of expression, graceful & temperate style
      • Pre-eminent classics writers of a middling order, exact, sensible, elegant, always clear but noble & airily-veiled strength
      • Good sense – reason doing everything – virtue, genius, soul, talent & taste
        • Virtue is reason put into practice
        • Talent is reason expressed with brilliance
        • Soul is reason put forth delicately
        • Genius is sublime reason
  • Some say that if the term “reason” isn’t abuses, classics have imagination & feeling subordinated to reason
    • But it can be abused & be confused with poetic genius
      • 4th book of the Aeneid – Where’s reason in the transports of Dido?
    • Spirit is ruled by writers ruling inspiration rather than abandoning themselves to it
      • This puts Virgil over Homer, Racine over Corneille
    • Brings together all conditions of prudence, strength, tempered boldness, moral elevation & grand – Athalie by Racine
  • Buffon – unity of design, arrangement & execution
    • Breaks in writing only to change subjects drastically
    • Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws” is great but far too subdivided
    • Bossuet’s “Discourse on Universal History” is in one treatise, one series, one breath
  • Are “Athalie” & “Discourse on Universal History” classics?
    • Need more discussion
      • Goethe said – A classical is healthy & Romantic is sickly. “Nibelungen” is as much a classic as Homer. Ancient works aren’t classics because they are old but because they are health, fresh & powerful”
    • Thinking of Homer, father of the Classical world – not so much an individual than a living expression of the epoch
      • We later attributed a design, literary invention, atticism that he never would have dreamed of
      • Aeschylus & Sophocles were survivors of the epoch but because they fit the view of the epoch we have given it
    • Shakespeare? Yes, he’s a classic not but he wasn’t nearly so much in the time of Pope. Only with time did the positions of rank become sorted as they are
  • Ages defined by King Louis XIV & Queen Anne are seen as classical eras because they provided protection to talent
    • Sometimes when the political climate is difficult, writers fail to make it, restrain themselves or don’t even bother
      • True greats persisted under great difficulty: Dante, Shakespeare, Milton
      • Burgeoning greats like Byron, were in awe & fear of the greats (Shakespeare) & this may have intimidated or hampered them
    • In France, there was nothing truly great before Louis XIV – no Dante or Shakespeare
      • Régnier, Rabelais & Montaigne were flukes. Not until Molière & La Fontaine did you see classics regularly
  • There is no recipe for making a classic
    • You can’t just imitate “classical” qualities: purity, moderation, accuracy & elegance – it won’t be genuine & won’t last
    • Fontanes had the appearance of a classic but time did tell with him – containing only an evanescent color
    • Those who have the least to prove often do the best
  • No question of sacrificing or depreciating anything
    • Temple of taste is to be rebuilt through enlargement of what it can be home to
  • Sainte-Beuve confines himself to his wishes for design
    • Not to exclude anyone worthy of a place, whether they’re famous – Shakespeare – or not – Andrieux
    • Homer should be the highest above similar poets – Valmiki, Vyasa, Firdousi (all Eastern poets)
      • Putting human morality into maxims
    • Solon, Hesiod, Theognis, Job, Solomon & Confusious would feel in good company with La Rochefoucaulf & La Bruyère about humanity’s lack of knowledge
    • Virgil is ahead of Menander, Tibellus, Terence, Fénelon feeling at home with Augustus – priests of the muses
    • Pope, Boileau, Montaigne together with La Fontaine & Voltair but beneath Virgil & Xenophon in persuasiveness
    • Plato, Sophocles & Demosthenes – the ideal of art
    • Cervantes & Molière – practical painters of life – indulgent & gay
    • Dante, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Fasso – the masters of the Middle Ages
    • Lucretius & Milton – reducing chaos into order
  • With classics, individual imagination may finish the sketch & chose a preferred group
    • But choose with taste – don’t do with continual travel but in rest, without wandering
    • Let’s not imitate masters but know them, admire them. Let’s be ourselves with sincerity & naturalness of our own thoughts & feelings, speaking our own voice under the conditions we live in, asking about our heroes: “What would they say about us?
  • Maybe there’ll be no more writing & we’ll be happy enough to know what we know & feel what we feel
    • A classic is an irresistible choice shaped & definite, to be preferred in us
    • No new stuff may be needed – there are plenty of classics
    • Their maturity will only grow & they’ll be something to confer, like an oracle in the past – something that never fails us but reconciles us with mankind & ourselves

Leave a Reply