Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23: Saved from a Bonfire of Books (Vol. 32, pp. 121-133)

Today's author, Charles Augustus Sainte-Beuve, was born this day in 1804. He apparently was a pioneer in the field of literary criticism, so he is well-equipped to take on today's question -- "What is a classic?"

His definition is as good as anyone's: "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 the heart -- where all seemed known and discovered; who has exposed 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."

Thus, Saint-Beuve writes, "Such a classic may for a moment have been revolutionary; it only lashed and subverted whatever prevented the restoration of the balance of order and beauty."

Of course, this definition infuses the whole of the Harvard Classics, and it would have been a surprise if the editors did not include this essay. Saint-Beuve name-checks all the great writers and in the end concludes that only through knowledge and development of taste can one appreciate the great writers.

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