What is a Classic?
We often hear the word “classic” used in remarks, such as, “Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is a great classic”; “He is well-read in the classics of English literature”; “So-and-so’s novel is a fine piece of work, but it will never become a classic”. What exactly do we mean by a word “classic” so used ?
The term “classic” (classics), as applied to literature is derived from the division of the ancient Roman people in the “assembly of the centuries” into five classes, on the basis of property in land. The term classicus (classic) came to be applied specially to the first of these five classes. So it came to mean first class, or, of the first class.
As early as the 2nd Century A.D., the term “classic” or “classical” was used to describe the great writers of ancient Greece and Rome; and ever since, these writings have been known as “the classics”. The main subject of study in European schools and universities up to quite modern times was “the classics”; that is, the books and writings of the Greek and Latin authors of the old classical periods of literature. Those books were considered to be in the “first class” of world literature.
But “classic” has now a broader meaning, and is used to describe the acknowledged masterpieces of any great literature; so we can speak of English classics, French classics, Italian, German, Spanish classics. A classic in any of these or other languages means a book (in prose or poetry) that has stood the test of time, because it combines perfection of literary form with excellence of matter. It has been judged by competent criticism and the best public taste to be in the first class of literature, and in its turn it becomes a test and a cultivator of the highest literary taste. In French literature, the works of such authors as Corneille, Racine, Moliere are classics; in Italian, Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Ariosto ; in German, Schiller and Goethe.
The English classics include Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, Shakespeare’s plays, Spenser’s poems, Milton’s “paradise Lost”, Dryden’s satires, the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning. In fiction, we have Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and many more; and histories like Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”. The word “classic” may be used of a book (as of Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”), or of a writer, as “Ruskin is a classic”.
As Lowell said, a classic “is neither ancient nor modern, always new and incapable of growing old.”