Classic, classical

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Classic, classical

Classic, classical: The term classic refers to works from the ancient Graeco-Roman tradition; those written in imitation of it; or, more generally, works that have gained such widespread recognition that readers and critics over time agree that they have merit transcending the particular period in which they were written. Although some would generally define the classics as those frequently anthologized texts we associate with the Western canon, the word classic may be used to define an exceptional work arising out of any cultural tradition.

Classical has also had a number of meanings over the centuries. Its root (like the root of classic and classicism) is the Latin word classicus, referring to a person or thing of the first rank. A scriptor classicus was a writer whose audience was upper-class; thus, classical literature first referred to works written for the nobility. Over time, however, classical came to signify any Greek or Roman work deemed particularly worthy, and subsequently Graeco-Roman writing in general. Still later it was used to refer to texts that imitated the Graeco-Roman tradition and even to ones that, although not written in imitation of the ancients (and perhaps even written in thematic or stylistic opposition to them), were deemed particularly worthy. Classical can also be used to describe works that exhibit the qualities or characteristics of classicism, a complex set of attitudes and standards associated with the art, architecture, history, philosophy, politics, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Classicists, scholars of Graeco-Roman antiquity, believe that the ancients achieved a standard of excellence that has seldom been surpassed by more modern writers; as a result, the term classical carries the positive connotations of excellence and achievement.

EXAMPLES: Classic works from the ancient Graeco-Roman tradition include Homer’s Greek epics The Iliad (c. 850 B.C.) and The Odyssey (c. 850 B.C.); Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (c. 458 B.C.), Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 430 B.C.), and Euripides’ Electra (c. 413 B.C.); and Virgil’s Roman epic The Aeneid (c. 15 B.C.). Ancient classics arising out of other cultural traditions include the Epic of Gilgamesh (Mesopotamia, c. 2000 B.C.), the world’s oldest surviving epic; Laozi’s Tao Te Ching (China, sixth century B.C.); and the Kama Sutra (Indian Hindu, fourth century A.D.). Works written in English that are commonly referred to as “classics” include William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (1602) and Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations (1861).

Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964) are widely considered children’s classics, while J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (1997—2007) are well on their way to achieving this status.

The songs “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965) by the Rolling Stones and the Doors’ “Light My Fire” (1967) are regularly referred to as “rock classics” or “classic rock.” Classic rock albums include the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987). The music of the alternative bands Nirvana (1987—94) and Pearl Jam (1990— ), influenced by classic rock of the 1970s, is itself coming to be considered classic rock. Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di,” referenced and sampled continuously since its release in 1985, is a rap classic.