Classical Literature: #
Writers write for a variety of reasons, but mainly to voice their concerns; some write to document the times – chronicle or crystallise experience and distil the essence of history to give it permanency, while others use it as an emotional release of pent up tension and some write for the edification or moral uplifting of the world.
Classical literature also known as universal literature or the canon, appeals to all people of all places and all times. It speaks to us because of the fundamental messages conveyed are relevant to all people and engages us to identify and see ourselves.
The Western canon, the feminist canon, or the African American canon, view the idea of a literary canon as a form of cultural capital.
A classic had been defined as a work of art you can never see twice - because you are a different person the next time.
There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth. Even if the books have remained the same (though they do change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing.`
Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading. Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading. A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.`
A classic has been described a book that changes everytime you read it, because you become aware of new aspects.
The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).`
Stories are our lifeblood. From our childhoods we love to hear stories. As adults we read, watch movies, television, soap operas, serials….Narratives invite understanding through vicarious, immersive experiences, leading to tolerance and empathy and they tell of the richness of our culture, our lives and our heritage.
We use the word “classics” for those books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them. If we reread the book at a mature age we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us. `
`The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.
Peter Craven writes:
certain works having an enduring value – and an enduring truth because of the moral depth out of which they come – is an ancient concern that Samuel Johnson, the greatest of English literary critics, and Aristotle, the supreme theorist of these things, both understood.
TS Eliot believed literature was a timeless order that was modified by every subsequent work of literature.
He also suggested:
that minor poets were superior to major ones.
Who are the gatekeepers of the Canon.
Peter Carey’s address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which rebuked a nation:
“getting dumber every day”; “forgetting how to read” the classics in favour of cookbooks and Dan Brown and “cultural junk … completely destructive of democracy”.
Several popular writers have taken exception to this as elitist.
Throughout history various people have attempted to determine the canon, however in our democratised world we are now free to choose for ourselves.
Auden believed: Pleasure may not be an infallible guide, but it may be the best one. and Virginia Woolf agreed: “anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.” also Dylan Thomas, “I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like.”
Eliot trusts his readers to reach their own conclusions.
“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “
‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’ Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.
Art can get ideas into us before we have a chance of blocking them out. Peter Craven writing about Dylan Thomas says:
“It was a poetry made out of mouthfuls of air, as poetry must be, and it was also full of a rich kaleidoscope of imagery, and that seemed to make perfect sense because the emotional thrust was clear from the power of the rhetoric that sustained it.
This was a poetry that was deeply traditional in its sound patterns. It had a romantic grandiloquence and an alliterative richness, a reckless audacity of effects that was a bit like that priestly poet who had anticipated modernism, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
And, of course, it’s that lassoing effect of poetry as a language of the gods that can encompass a universe of feeling and imagining. It can intoxicate itself with language but see the world with a radiant clarity as a consequence of the intoxication. That makes people surrender to Thomas, the way when they are young they surrender to the first stirring of desire, that strange sense of body and soul coming together at the prospect of love.
If that sounds a bit much for mere poetry to achieve, listen to the lilting lyricism of Fern Hill:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes …
It’s poetry of almost total sensuous suggestion and it is saturated with the feeling of sap and possibility. In one way, it’s a poetry that seems to embody the idea of youth even though it is constantly talking about shadows and spectres of mortality.”
Essentially Literature is the result of dreams, visions, spells, songs….
Matthew Arnold claimed that:
“the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”.
“the chances of understanding the meaning of our involvement in the present is very small. It is generally the artists who see what they are living in the present and we are always one step ahead (of technology)”.
The earliest literary artefact is The Epic of Gilgamesh, believed to be recorded some 1700 years BCE.`
Most Classical literature comes from Greek and Roman times especially the Golden Age of Greece; the Epic poems of Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey, the plays of the Greek tragedians, and many others.
In the English Language Beowulf is considered one of our first recorded tales, followed by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and then the plays of Shakespeare during the Elizabethan Golden Age, which have survived the test of time and been translated into hundreds of languages.
Classical novelists would include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jane Austen’s many novels and the Bronte sisters followed by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain ….
Modern Drama has its origins in 5th Century Greek Drama and the influence of Plato and Aristotle continue to this day. Perhaps the pinnacle of dramatic performance was the Elizabethan/ Jacobean period in England during the 15 and 16th centuries.
Plato and Aristotle laid out polemic or juxtaposing ground rules of what good literature should look like.
This is how Neil Armfield introduced his 2007 Season at Belvoir
“If theatre is a metaphor of life (and what is it but that), it suggests that there is some way out of the mess we seem to have all found ourselves in. ………
…..You do it by listening and teaching, by raising the standards of education, by advancing informed debate by encouraging the telling of our stories in books, on our screens ‘and on our stages. And that’s what we (Dramatists) are trying, in our own way, to do. That’s our job: to tell the stories, to sing the songs of our land, our world, our past.