On the Classics

Owing to unpredictable changes in the original meanings of words down through time, few disciplines are of greater interest than etymology. Given such changes, which in many cases touch on the paradoxical, the root of a word will prove of little or no use in understanding an idea. Knowing, for example, that “calculus,” in Latin, means a small stone, and that followers of Pythagoras used such stones before numbers were invented, may not help us unravel the mysteries of algebra; knowing that “hypocrite” meant actor, and “person” a mask, is hardly a sufficient instrument for the study of psychology or ethics. Similarly, to pin down what we mean today by the word “classic,” it is of little value to know that the word comes to us from the Latin “classis,” a fleet, which was in time to take on the meaning “order.” (Let us remind ourselves, by the way, of the analogous meaning of “shipshape.”)

What, then, do we mean by a classic? I have within reach the definitions of Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Sainte-Beuve—all of them doubtless sensible and illuminating—and although it would be nice to find myself in agreement with such respected writers, I shall not consult them. I am seventy years old; at my age, whether I am in agreement or disagreement with anyone else is of less importance to me than what I believe to be true. I shall therefore limit myself to setting down my own thoughts on this subject.

My first stimulus was Herbert Allen Giles’s History of Chinese Literature (1901). In its second chapter I read that one of the five basic Confucian texts was the I Ching, or Book of Changes, made up of sixty-four hexagrams which exhaust all possible arrangements of six broken or whole lines. One of the diagrams, to give an example, consists of two whole lines, of one broken line, and of three whole lines laid out one above the other. A prehistoric emperor is supposed to have discovered them on the shell of one of the sacred tortoises. Leibniz thought he saw in the hexagrams a binary system of numbers; others, a secret philosophy; others, like Richard Wilhelm, a scheme for looking into the future, since the sixty-four figures correspond to the sixty-four phases of any given enterprise or process; others again, the vocabulary of a certain tribe; still others, a calendar. I remember my friend Xul-Solar, the painter and mystic, laying out the diagrams with toothpicks or matchsticks. To outsiders, the Book of changes runs the risk of seeming a mere piece of chinoiserie, but generations of scholars have read and studied it with reverence for thousands of years, and generations will go on reading and studying it. Confucius told his disciples that if fate were to grant him another hundred years of life, he would devote fifty of them to studying the Book of Changes and its commentaries, or wings.

I have purposely chosen an extreme example, the kind of reading that demands of us an act of faith. I come now to my point. A classic is that book which a nation (or group of nations, or time itself) has taken the decision to read as if in its pages everything were predetermined, predestined, destined, deep as the cosmos, and capable of endless interpretation. As may be seen, these decisions vary. To the Germans and Austrians, Faust is a work of genius; others find it one of the most celebrated forms of boredom—like Milton’s second Paradise or the work of Rabelais. Books like the Book of Job, the Divine Comedy, Macbeth (and, for me, some of the northern sagas) hold in store a long immortality, though all we know of the future, really, is that it will be different from the present. Personal preferences may well be superstitions.

By nature I am not an iconoclast. About the year 1930, I thought, under the influence of Macedonio Fernández, that beauty was the privilege of very few writers; I know now that beauty is fairly common and that it lies in wait for us even in the unlikely pages of quite commonplace writers or in snatches of street conversation. It so happens that my ignorance of Malayan or Hungarian literature is total, but I am sure that if I were given time to study these literatures I would find in them all the sustenance the mind requires. In addition to linguistic barriers, political or geographical barriers intervene. Burns is a classic in Scotland; south of the Tweed, he is of less interest than Dunbar or Stevenson. A poet’s fame depends, in short, on the excitement or indifference of nameless men who put him to the test in the solitude of their libraries.

The emotions literature stirs up are perhaps unchanging, but the means used to evoke them must vary constantly, even if only slightly, so as not to lose their power. Means wear off the moment the reader spots them. This is the danger of asserting that certain works are classics and that they will go on being classics forever.


Each one of us disbelieves in his own craft and its tricks. I myself, resigned to doubting the continued immortality of Voltaire or of Shakespeare, believe (at the time of this writing) in the immortality of Schopenhauer and of Berkeley.

A classic is not a book (I repeat) that necessarily possesses this or that merit; it is a book that the generations of men, moved for different reasons, read with a built-in passion and with a mysterious loyalty.

A Defense of Poetry

Since the time of the Renaissance, the defense of poetry has become a minor literary genre, and as such obeys its own set of unwritten laws. The reader expects—and is generally treated to—an assertive, flowery style, pathetic exhortation rather than logical reasoning, and pages whose obvious aim is to find their way into anthologies. So deepseated and instinctive are these unwritten laws that I am not quite sure I shall be able to avoid them myself; I may, in fact, already be under their spell.

During the course of a now long life, I seem to have noticed that poetry excites indifference, suspicion, and a kind of secret hostility. It is respected, certain set quotations creep into our everyday talk, the names of Virgil or Shakespeare are on people’s tongues, but very few of us are readers of poetry. The polite convention that in some dim past we have all read the classics excuses us from actually reading them. At this moment, for example, how many of my reader’s friends are engrossed in the Odyssey? Publishers are fond of reminding us that no one buys poetry, except for fine editions or sets of firmly established and long dead authors, but these are little more than forms of conspicuous consumption.

My sole aim here is to point out, with a minimum expenditure of rhetoric, the claims of poetry and the unsuspected and accessible joys it can offer us. Finding our way inside a novel—the pet reading of this hurried age—is like entering a room full of people we don’t know. We hear and learn their names, and little by little begin distinguishing their faces and the minds back of them. There are novelists who enrich these unavoidable hindrances with others of their own invention—chronological chaos, a painstaking ambiguity of pronouns and even of nouns, a blending in the same page or paragraph of present and memory. Disregarding such novelties or perversions, which fortunately can be avoided, the fundamental fact remains that the novel demands of us a more. or less long period of apprenticeship or, if I may be allowed the neologism, acclimatization. The same may be said of the story, though the initiation rites here do not last as long. In both cases—in War and Peace, let us say, or in “The Abasement of the Northmores”—we find ourselves in the presence of strangers and it is some time before we learn who they are, and finally, if we are not unworthy of the work, we discover that we ourselves are those strangers—or rather, that there is no basic difference between them and us. Poetry (like music), on the other hand, is the immediate language of the Spirit. For the sake of greater impartiality, let us consider a passage that is no special favorite of mine and that is quite different from my own literary habits. The subject is the swan.

Boga y boga en el lago sonoro
donde el sueño a los tristes espera,
donde aguarda una góndola de oro
a la novia de Luis de Baviera.

[It sails and sails on the sonorous lake, where dream awaits the melancholy, where a golden gondola stands in wait for the bride of Luis of Bavaria.]

The repetition of the opening verb is hardly worthy of praise, the word “sueño” is misused since it generally means “sleep” and here is supposed to mean “dream,” the similarity of “aguardar” and “esperar” is rather awkward, the use of years has worn thin the glamor of lakes and gondolas, but down to this day the stanza continues to be a perfect symbol of our loneliness and our evenings. Beyond censure or praise, beyond mere reason (or the mere mechanics of reason), Darío’s famous stanza expresses us and in some unexplainable way touches us.

I have chosen an example almost at random; I might have quoted others from Shakespeare, or Verlaine, or Whitman, or maybe from any other author, because it has been given to every poet—even if only once in a lifetime—to write the finest line in the language. This unfathomable privilege urges us on. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth.


My simple argument, as is obvious, is of a hedonistic nature. Why deny ourselves the pleasures of poetry, which are so accessible and so intimate? Let us begin our reading with contemporary poets; soon we shall be able to explore the other-world regions of the Divine Comedy and the sound and fury of Macbeth.

Let us, at the outset, steer clear of the old classics of our own literature, whose language holds suggestions which are no longer our own; let us steer clear, also, of professionally modern poets, who have not passed the test of time and whose only virtue may be their modernity.

De Quincey divided literature into two categories—the literature of knowledge, whose subjects are intellectual, since they provide us with information and arguments; and the literature of power, whose aim is to ennoble and exalt the capacity of the mind. The prototype of this second category is poetry; to ignore it is to impoverish ourselves. Let each reader look for it wherever he pleases; someplace it awaits him.

The Metaphor

The great historian Snorri Sturluson, who in his full lifetime did so many different things, compiled at the beginning of the thirteenth century a glossary of the traditional figures of Old Norse poetry, in which we read—to give a few examples—that “gull of hatred,” “blood-spattered hawk,” “gory swan” or “red swan” stand for the raven; “whale’s roof” or “island chain” for the sea; and “the teeth’s house” for the mouth. Interwoven in the poems and carried along by them, these metaphors provide (or once provided) a pleasant surprise, but we feel today that they are hardly justified by emotion, and judge them labored and pointless. I have verified that the same kind of thing often occurs with the metaphors of symbolism and marinism.

Benedetto Croce accused seventeenth-century baroque poets and orators of “inner frigidity” and of “a rather witless wit”; in the figures of speech registered by Snorri I find something akin to a reductio ad absurdum of any attempt to work out new metaphors. I have always suspected Baudelaire and the Argentine poet Lugones of having failed no less signally than their Old Norse forerunners.

In the third book of his Rhetoric, Aristotle pointed out that metaphor springs from the perception of an affinity between dissimilar things; Middleton Murry holds that the affinity should be real and hitherto unperceived (Countries of the Mind, vol. II, p. 4). Aristotle, as we see, bases the metaphor on things and not on language; the figures preserved by Snorri are (or seem) the result of a mental process not intent upon discovering affinities but rather on linking words together; some may be surprising (redswan, blood-spattered hawk), but they reveal or communicate very little. They are, so to speak, mere verbal objects, as pure and impersonal as a prism or a silver ring. Similarly, the Greek grammarian Lycophron called Hercules “lion of the threefold night” because the night in which he was begotten by Zeus had been made, for the god’s enjoyment, to last the length of three; the phrase is memorable beyond the interpretation of commentators, but it does not exercise the function demanded by Aristotle.1

In the I Ching, one of the names for the universe is the Ten Thousand Beings. Some forty years back, my contemporaries marveled that poets should disregard the wealth of possible combinations which the figure ten thousand affords and stubbornly stick to a few well-tried combinations—stars and eyes, women and flowers, time and the river, old age and evening, sleep and death. Presented in this stripped-down fashion, these combinations seem a set of commonplaces, but let us look into some concrete examples.

We read in the Old Testament (1 Kings 2:10), “So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.” In shipwrecks during Roman times, when a vessel was sinking, sailors on the Danube prayed, “I sleep; presently I row again.”2 Brother of Death is what Homer called Sleep in the Iliad; of this brotherhood, according to Lessing, a number of funeral monuments bear witness. Ape of death (“Affe des Todes“), Wilhelm Klemm called sleep, writing also of death—during the First World War—as the first quiet night. Earlier, Heine had written, “Death is the cool night; life, the sultry day….” Vigny called death earthly sleep; old rocking chair it is called in the blues, death becoming here the last sleep, the last nap, of the Negroes. Schopenhauer repeats the death-sleep equation throughout his work. One example will do: “What sleep is to the individual, death is to mankind” (World as Will, vol. II, p. 41). The reader will already have recalled Hamlet’s words, “To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream,” and his fear that the dreams of the sleep of death may prove nightmares.

To compare women to flowers is another habit of eternity or of triviality. Here are some examples. “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys,” says the Shulamite in the Song of Solomon. In the story of Math, which makes up the Fourth Branch of the medieval Welsh tale known as the Mabinogion, a lord is asked to form a woman who is not of this world, and by “magic and enchantment” conjures one out of “the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet….” In the Fifth Adventure of the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried at last beholds Kriemhild, and the first thing we are told is that her skin shines with the glow of roses. Ariosto, imitating Catullus, compares a maiden to a hidden flower (Orlando, I, 42); in Armida’s garden, in Tasso, a purplebeaked bird exhorts the lovers not to let this flower wither (Gerusalemme, XVI, 13-15). At the end of the sixteenth century, Malherbe tries to console a friend on the death of his daughter and in his condolence are these words: “Et, rose, elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses” (“And, a rose, she lived the lifetime of a rose”). Shakespeare, in a garden, admires the deep vermilion of the roses and the whiteness of the lilies, but these delights for him are but shadows of his absent love (Sonnets, XCVIII). “God, making roses, made my face,” says the Queen of Samothrace on a page of Swinburne. This list might go on without end;3 let it suffice to recall that scene in Stevenson’s last book, Weir of Hermiston, in which the hero wants to find out whether Christina had a soul in her or “if she were only an animal the colour of flowers….”

I have brought together ten examples in the first group and nine in the second; in many of them the essential unity is less apparent than the differences. Who, at first sight, would suspect that “rocking chair” and “David slept with his fathers” spring from the same root?

The first monument of Western literature, the Iliad, was composed some three thousand years ago; it seems safe to surmise that during this vast lapse of time every familiar and necessary affinity (dream-life, sleep-death, the flow of rivers and time, and so forth) has been noted and recorded by someone. This does not mean, of course, that the number of metaphors has been exhausted; the ways of stating or hinting at these hidden sympathies are, in fact, limitless. Their strength or weakness lies in the words employed. The strange verse in which Dante (Purgatory, I, 13) in order to describe the purity of the eastern sky invokes an eastern stone, a translucent stone in whose name, by some felicitous chance, the word “east” is found—“Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro” (“Sweet color of eastern sapphire”)—is, beyond any doubt, admirable; not so Góngora’s line (Soledad, I, 6), “en campos de zafiro pace estrellas” (“in sapphire fields [the Bull] grazes on stars”), which is, if I am not mistaken, merely uncouth and literal.4

Some day the history of the metaphor will be written, and then we will know the truth and the error that these conjectures hold.

(Translated from the Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author)

This Issue

August 13, 1970