What Makes Certain Literature Timeless?
  • “To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”

    Said Herman Melville.

    And it’s true — true of any and all art: mighty themes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of timeless art.

    What is theme? Theme is the meaning that the components of your story or artwork add up to.

    In literature, not all stories necessarily have a theme — and these are the stories that time invariably sinks.

    Soap operas, for example, which possess plenty of plot, usually have no theme to speak of.

    Some of the great books in world literature are great primarily because of their themes. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which does not translate well, is great because of its theme: the human potential which resides within us all.

    But there is one other element to durable art, another reason that some art is timeless, even when the theme is not mighty: That reason is depth of style.

    Style is The How. It is presentation.

    Here, for example, we can observe drastic stylistic differences in artworks whose theme and subject-matter are essentially identical:

    Crucifixion by Salvador Dali


    Christ On The Cross by El Greco

    Notice the obvious differences but also the similarities — and notice how, as great a painter as El Greco was, Salvador Dali’s style significantly eclipses El Greco’s.

    I often cite in literature the Englishman Anthony Burgess, whom I admire, but who never, in my opinion, wrote a great book. Yet his literature, much of it, endures and will endure, for one reason alone: his writing style (at its best — not, incidentally, evidenced in his most famous book) is so sophisticated and so strong.

    “This was the day before the night when the knives of disappointment struck.”

    That is a good sentence.

    But the greatest example of timelessness in literature is unquestionably Shakespeare, whose themes are so often undistinguished and even trite. Yet the power of his writing style alone — what Nabokov called “the verbal-poetic texture of Shakespeare” — is what makes Shakespeare’s literature last.

    “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows.”

    That is a durable style — and that is why it will forever last.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

10 Responses and Counting...

  • Susan Golicic 07.19.2012

    Your means of providing examples to explain a point (done in a great deal of your posts) demonstrates style.

  • Thank you very much, Susan.

    I’ve found in my own life that concrete examples are the most helpful, and that is why I use them.

  • I’ve got to grudgingly admit (and stop lurking) that I do like your clear style. My comment concerns the idea of “theme.” Understand that I’m not arguing against your main idea; I am clarifying terminology.

    The central idea of any work of art is not a single theme; a theme is an idea (or image, sound, word or phrase) that gets repeated, varied or even contrasted. There can be several themes in a work of art. But all the themes, great or small, are the components or signposts that point to the main idea.

    The top down triangles of the Chrysler building and the curved ogees – that’s a theme, but they’re not the main idea of the building. Da-da-da-DAH is one of the two major themes in Beethoven’s fifth symphony, but it is not the main idea. The white whale is one of the themes in Moby Dick, the relentless arm-waving of Agnes DeMille’s dancers in the Oklahoma dream ballet choreography, or the full body extensions of the gang members in West Side Story (both are copyrighted and are part of the script that must be used when you produce it), the galloping repeated words and rhythms are themes of “The Highwayman,” but they are not the main idea.

    So, I think that Melville either meant that evil mankind’s dogged hunt to kill something innocent was his Main Idea (and he called it a theme), or he meant that the theme of the white (innocent, though dangerous) whale was mighty.

    Thanks again for your comments, and I enjoy reading you.

  • Hi D.P. Burrows.

    What an excellent analysis, what a well-written comment. Thank you.

    But why grudgingly? Is it my unsystematic and rather shoot-from-the-hip methodology?

    To be honest, I think our main disagreement — if it can even be termed such — is definitional: specifically, I mean, in how we’re each using the word theme. Furthermore I believe that the way you’re defining theme is entirely legitimate — e.g. in your Beethoven example — and in this sense, theme is almost synonymous with motif.

    But when in this and other essays I use the word theme, I use it more in the Ancient Greek tradition, which states that theme is the “principle meaning” or “root proposition” of a piece.

    Perhaps I over-simplify.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • A pure and philistine answer to the aforementioned question is simple – literature becomes timeless because of the human emotion it evokes.

    That is all.

  • An example of what I’m talking about within the aspect of human emotion:

    “Saw someone who looked like you, much older than you, but nonetheless resembled your image.. and it made me pause. Why do you think I paused? It troubles me on why I pause so much.. in life… not just with you… but sometimes, with you, I pause.”

    The same can be said of literature… it can make you pause in life.. and all for varying reasons.

    For instance, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood… and I took the one less traveled by.. and that has made all the difference” (Frost, 1920).

    It can take on meaning… differing meaning, for any one person.

    Just sayin’…

  • I’d have to go along with with you one this subject. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to speak my mind!

  • You’re welcome! Thank you, Margaret.

  • I think these wise words speak to what makes literature stand the test of time. ‘Being human doesn’t change over time, only the circumstances in which we are human change.”

    Basic human emotions and tendencies have always been and always will be part of who we are as human beings. What is different, is the times we live in–customs, ways of life, etc. Day to day life in Shakespeare’s time, for instance, was much different, yet his works speak to basic human emotions and thus stand the test of time.

  • I completely agree, Ms. Canady.

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