This essay was presented in 1944 as the Presidential Address to the Virgil Society, then published by Faber & Faber in 1945, and finally collected in On Poetry and Poets in 1956. Eliot begins his remarks by moving straight to the point.
By classic, Eliot means a work that reflects the maturity of a culture. Indeed, he argues that “[a] classic can occur only when a civilization is mature; when a language and a literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind.”
Eliot had at this same time been preparing the preliminary essays from which his Notes towards the Definition of Culture would eventually emerge in 1948, and he had also discussed in the 1943 essay “The Social Function of Poetry” the integral relationship that exists between a people and their national language. It is no doubt that it is these same considerations that are now making him identify what is called a classic with the maturation of a people and of their language as they are realized in a single work, itself the product of a mind capable of wholly embracing that same measure of cultural maturity.
Given the context of his remarks—an address to the members of the Virgil Society—it makes further sense that, along with the obligatory passing reference to William Shakespeare, Eliot should use as his model the first-century B.C. Roman poet Virgil, whose epic of the founding of Rome, the Aeneid, is one of the great masterpieces of the Classical Age. That, however, is not what makes Virgil’s epic poem a classic. Using the Aeneid as his running example, Eliot requires that a classic foremost cannot be manufactured with that aim in mind: “it is only by hindsight, and in historical perspective, that a classic can be known as such.”
By the same token, there has to be a history behind it; that is to say, the literature of a people and their culture must have arrived at a point that the writer of genius has already in place the tools and traditions by which a classic can be achieved. Furthermore, with Virgil’s Rome still as his model, Eliot observes that a common literary style must also have emerged because the “society has achieved a moment of order and stability, of equilibrium and harmony.” Out of that kind of a culture can come that final ingredient: maturity of mind. That sort of maturity, Eliot feels, requires both “history, and the consciousness of history.” In other words, a Virgil must find all these conditions available to him but must also be able to avail himself of them. Thereby, the characters and situations that Virgil manipulates are not in any manner provincial but ready, as it were, to step onto the world stage.
That these conditions obtained for Virgil is shown in the expansive way that he operates his material, one that “never appears to be according to some purely local or tribal code of manners: it is in its time, both Roman and European.” The result is not just great poetry by a great poet but a classic. The great poet, such as a Shakespeare or a Milton, may exhaust a form as it has come to be developed in that culture and for that language. When, by contrast, the poet in question is, like Virgil, a great classic poet, “he exhausts, not a form only, but the language of his time; and the language of his time, as used by him, will be the language in its perfection.” It follows, then, that the great classic poet will ultimately “express the maximum possible of the whole range of feeling which represents the character of the people who speak that language.” If, however, the resulting work is truly to achieve the status of a classic, it must not only have seized the right historical moment and exhausted the possibilities of the language but transcended even purely literary values. “If Virgil is thus the consciousness of Rome and the supreme voice of her language, he must have a significance for us which cannot be expressed wholly in terms of literary appreciation and criticism.”
What such a poet leaves behind, rather than a critical legacy, is itself a criterion by which other works in its category may be judged. That would indeed be the very definition of a classic—that it is so much a product of its time, place, and cultural, linguistic, and historical conditions that it does not so much exhaust its form as set a new standard for what that form might achieve, should all the other conditions be propitious. In Virgil’s case, however, Eliot does not stop there. Because Virgil’s language happened to have been Latin, which, thanks to the influence of the Roman Imperium that Virgil himself celebrated, “came to be the universal means of communication between peoples of all tongues and cultures,” Virgil writes in a language to which no modern language can ever hope to aspire in terms of that very universality. As a result, no modern language, Eliot asserts, can achieve a classic on the order of Virgil’s. Indeed, on the basis of his preceding argument, he can say with some confidence that “[o]ur classic, the classic of all Europe, is Virgil.”
Eliot concludes by strongly implying that in celebrating Rome and by placing Roman culture and values and language at the center of human history, Virgil unconsciously paved the way for a new epoch in history. His vision of a common order, an ideal harmony, for humanity “led Europe towards the Christian culture which he [Virgil] could never know.”
Eliot’s rationale for such broad claims is explained in detail in a subsequent essay, “Virgil and the Christian World,” which Eliot presented as a radio address on the BBC in 1951. There he makes a convincing case that Virgil’s Roman virtues found a hospitable soil in the ethics that the teachings of Christ inspired. It may seem that Eliot, who had started out “What Is a Classic” by making rather modest claims for his intentions, ends with extravagant ones instead. In fact, however, he goes from arguing that a classic must, in effect, summarize a whole people to establishing that classics are, in and of themselves, a summarization of even greater cultural and historical developments.
Eliot also was likely aware that any reference on his part to “classic” might call up memories of the romanticism versus classicism debate that engaged much English literary thinking during the 1910s and the 1920s and in which Eliot himself had been a passionate partisan on the side of the Classicist agenda. This debate, in which Eliot most famously took issue with J. Middleton Murry, whom he characterized as marching under the banner of “Muddle Through,” centered primarily around the larger issue of the place and importance of tradition in the face of the constant, rapid, and dramatic social change that, in turn, characterized the modern scene at that time. In prose works as early as the 1923 essay “The Function of Criticism” and as late as his book-length diatribe, After Strange Gods, which was subtitled A Primer of Modern Heresy and published in 1934, Eliot had pretty much excoriated those whom he perceived to be representing the enemy camp, either in their professed thinking or their creative endeavors.
Even from this vantage point, the matter would not necessarily strike any informed person as one to be taken lightly. Whether a society founds itself on long-established values or on self-corrective evaluations of contemporary needs remains a source for intellectual conflict. In the case of Eliot, then, who had in 1928 declared himself a Catholic, a classicist, and a royalist—that is to say, a traditionalist or conservative on all counts—his defense of valued traditions and traditional values was not petulance but a moral imperative.
By 1944, however, the time of these present remarks, England along with most of the rest of Europe and virtually the entire globe as well had been engaged for five years in that armed conflict known to history as World War II. It would be hard to imagine anyone still harboring old intellectual animosities in any life-and-death struggle such as global warfare portends. At the very least, the far more pressing requirements of that conflict seem to have had an ameliorative effect on Eliot’s intellectual and moral largesse when it came to principled conflicts.
If his definition of a classic as a summary work holds true, then it would be equally true that, for European history and culture, no classic can ever equal Virgil’s Aeneid for the simple reason that Europe would never again realize such cultural and linguistic cohesion as it did during the time of Caesar Augustus, whose reign Virgil celebrates. Eliot, who had been fighting a holding action to maintain the coherence of Christian Europe in the face of 20th-century secularism and who was writing in the midst of a European conflict that would, by its conclusion in May 1945, leave 50 million dead, knew whereof he was speaking.