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Classics Revisited

(Essays by Kenneth Rexroth)

 

Introduction
The Epic of Gilgamesh

Homer, The Iliad
Homer, The Odyssey
Sappho, Poems
Aeshylus, The Oresteia
Sophocles, The Oedipus Cycle
Euripides, Plays
Euripides, Hippolytus
Herodotus, History
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates
Plato, The Republic
Aristotle, Poetics
Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius*
The Greek Anthology
Job
The Song of Songs
The Mahabharata
The Bhagavad-Gita
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Records of the Grand Historian*
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Catullus, Poems
Livy, History of Early Rome
Julius Caesar, The War in Gaul
Virgil, The Aeneid
Petronius, The Satyricon
Tacitus, Histories
Plutarch, Parallel Lives
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
Apuleius, The Golden Ass
The Early Irish Epic
Beowulf
The Kalevala
Tu Fu, Poems
Classic Japanese Poetry
Sei Shônagon, The Pillow Book*
Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Carmina Burana (Medieval Latin Lyrics)
Abelard and Héloise
Heike Monogatari*
Thomas Aquinas
Njal’s Saga
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
The English and Scottish Popular Ballad
Thomas More, Utopia
Machiavelli, The Prince
Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
Montaigne, Essays
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Shakespeare, Macbeth
Shakespeare, The Tempest
Ben Jonson, Volpone
Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler
Racine, Phèdre
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Defoe, Moll Flanders*
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
T’sao Hsueh Ch’in, The Dream of the Red Chamber
John Woolman, Journal
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Acquaintances
Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne
Casanova, History of My Life
Restif de la Bretonne, Monsieur Nicolas
Robert Burns, Poems and Songs
William Blake, Poems
Goethe
Stendhal, The Red and the Black
Balzac
Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Francis Parkman, France and England in North America
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Frederick Douglass
Baudelaire, Poems
Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
Flaubert, A Sentimental Education
Rimbaud, Poems
Edmund and Jules de Goncourt, Journal
Dostoievsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Tolstoy, War and Peace
Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You*
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Chekhov, Plays
Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
H.G. Wells
Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist*
William Butler Yeats, Plays*
Kafka, The Trial*
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End
Herbert Read, The Green Child*
William Carlos Williams, Poems*

______
*Not originally part of the Classics Revisited series, but later added to More Classics Revisited.

 



Kenneth Rexroth wrote 89 “Classics Revisited” essays for Saturday Review (1965-1969). 60 of these were reprinted as Classics Revisited (Quadrangle, 1968; New Directions, 1986). The remaining 29 were included in The Elastic Retort (Seabury, 1973, now out of print). Rexroth’s literary executor, Bradford Morrow, later put together More Classics Revisited (New Directions, 1989) comprising those 29 essays plus a dozen other pieces (book reviews, introductions, etc. — asterisked above). The above list is the combined contents of Classics Revisited and More Classics Revisited (both of which are in print and are highly recommended). The highlighted selections are reproduced at this website by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

It should be noted that this list does not necessarily represent Rexroth’s choice of the “100 greatest books,” but simply the ones he happened to deal with first. (This applies even more so, of course, to the dozen added essays, which were not originally intended to be included in the series.) The following manuscript note, which probably dates from 1969, lists some seventy other classics that Rexroth hoped to discuss but never did (apparently either his Saturday Review contract was discontinued or he became too busy with other projects):

Projected Classics Revisited

Anna Karenina, Henry Adams, Arabian Nights, Aristophanes, Augustine Confessions, the Epic Books of the Bible, Boethius Consolation, Boswell—Johnson, etc., Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights, Buddha, Charterhouse of Parma, Confucius, Conrad Victory, Dante La Vita Nuova (first), Donne, Froissart, Golden Lotus, Hamlet, Hardy, Hawthorne, Histories—Shakespeare as English Epic, Horace, Hugo Les Misérables, Smollett Humphrey Clinker, Ibsen, James Wings of a Dove, Johnson, Joyce, Lear, Rochefoucauld, Lawrence, Bovary, Mallarmé, Clerk Maxwell, Melville, Mill Autobiography, etc., Milton, Molière, Sophocles Oedipus cycle, Pascal, Pepys, Plautus, Poe, Prescott, Princesse de Clèves, Proust, Ramayana, Strindberg, Tennyson, Terence, Thackeray, Upanishads, Vasari, Vauvenargues, Water Margin (All Men Are Brothers), Wells, Zola, de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Winter’s Tale, one piece: Morris/Ruskin/Kropotkin, one piece: Bashkiertsieff/Barbellion/Amiel/Hinton, Richard Jefferies, etc.—nineteenth-century nature writers. These group bits would only occur very widely spacedthe series should be single books or at most single authors with hardly any exception. The lesser known people have been selected because they make interesting copy. Of course they are all still read.

For those who may find it useful, I have merged the two lists into one. I stress again that these are simply some of the works Rexroth felt worth discussing, not necessarily those he considered the greatest (he detested Poe, for example). Nevertheless, of all the many lists of books that “every educated person should have read” or that you would want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island, this is the best one I have come across. I have used it as a general guide for my own literary explorations and I know many other people who have done the same. With very few exceptions I have found that the works he recommends are indeed well worth reading — and rereading over the course of a lifetime — and that no one conveys as clearly as Rexroth not only what significance they had in the past, but what they may mean for us now.

This combined list is roughly chronological (the earliest datings are of course only very approximate). In a few cases I have expanded the references to make them clearer. I have taken the liberty of adding The Divine Comedy since “La Vita Nuova (first)” seems to imply that Rexroth envisaged discussing the Vita as a prelude to Dante’s magnum opus. There is some ambiguity in the final “one piece” entry. Bashkiertsieff, Barbellion, Amiel and Hinton were all noted for their unusually intimate autobiographical writings, but none of them were “nature writers.” Jefferies could fit in either category. I am assuming that “Richard Jefferies, etc.—nineteenth-century nature writers” is a different one-piece group, presumably including authors such as Audubon, John Muir, Henry Walter Bates, Henri Fabre, etc.

 

Written and Projected “Classics Revisited”


2000 BC

The Epic of Gilgamesh

1000 BC

Homer, The Iliad
Homer, The Odyssey
The Upanishads
The Epic Books of the Bible
The Song of Songs
(Bible)
Job (Bible)
Buddha
Confucius
Sappho, Poems

500 BC

The Mahabharata
The Bhagavad-Gita
The Ramayana
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Aeschylus, The Oresteia
Sophocles, The Oedipus Cycle
Euripides, Plays
Euripides, Hippolytus
Aristophanes, Comedies
Herodotus, History
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates
Plato, The Republic
Aristotle, Poetics
Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Mathematical Works
The Greek Anthology
Plautus, Comedies
Terence, Comedies
Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Records of the Grand Historian of China
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Catullus, Poems
Julius Caesar, The War in Gaul
Horace, Poems
Virgil, The Aeneid
Livy, History of Early Rome

AD

Petronius, The Satyricon
Tacitus, Histories
Plutarch, Parallel Lives
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
Apuleius, The Golden Ass
St. Augustine, Confessions
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
The Early Irish Epic
Beowulf
The Kalevala
Tu Fu, Poems
Classic Japanese Poetry

1000

Sei Shônagon, The Pillow Book
Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Carmina Burana (Medieval Latin Lyrics)
Abelard and Héloise
Heike Monogatari
Thomas Aquinas
Njal’s Saga
Dante, La Vita Nuova
Dante, The Divine Comedy
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo
The Arabian Nights
Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Jean Froissart, Chronicle
Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
English and Scottish Popular Ballads

1500

Thomas More, Utopia
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
The Water Margin (All Men Are Brothers)
The Golden Lotus (Chin P’ing Mei)
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists
Michel de Montaigne, Essays

1600

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
William Shakespeare, Histories as English Epic
Shakespeare, Hamlet
Shakespeare, Macbeth
Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeare, The Tempest
Ben Jonson, Volpone
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
John Donne
Blaise Pascal
Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler
John Milton
Samuel Pepys, Diary
Molière, Plays
Jean Racine, Phèdre
François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims
Madame de La Fayette, La Princesse de Clèves
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

1700

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Defoe, Moll Flanders
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
Vauvenargues, Reflections and Maxims
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Tsao Hsueh Chin, The Dream of the Red Chamber [a.k.a. The Story of the Stone]
Samuel Johnson
Tobais Smollett, Humphry Clinker
John Woolman, Journal
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Acquaintances
Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson and other writings
Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life
Nicolas Edme Restif de la Bretonne, Monsieur Nicolas
Robert Burns, Poems and Songs
William Blake, Poems

1800

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Stendhal, The Red and the Black
Stendhal, Charterhouse of Parma
Honoré de Balzac
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
Alexis de Tocqueville
William Prescott, The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru
Edgar Allan Poe
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Henry David Thoreau
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Herman Melville
Edward Lear
William Thackeray

1850

Francis Parkman, France and England in North America
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Frederick Douglass
Charles Baudelaire, Poems
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Flaubert, A Sentimental Education
Arthur Rimbaud, Poems
Stéphane Mallarmé, Poems
Edmund and Jules de Goncourt, Journal
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography and other writings
James Clerk Maxwell, Scientific Writings
Feodor Dostoievsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Tennyson, Poems
Henrik Ibsen, Plays
August Strindberg, Plays
Henry Adams
Thomas Hardy
Émile Zola
John Ruskin
William Morris
Piotr Kropotkin
James Hinton
Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Private Journal
Marie Bashkirtseff, Journal
Richard Jefferies and other nineteenth-century nature writers
Anton Chekhov, Plays
Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes

1900

Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
Joseph Conrad, Victory
W.N.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man
Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist
H.G. Wells
Marcel Proust
William Butler Yeats, Plays
James Joyce
D.H. Lawrence
Franz Kafka, The Trial
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End
Herbert Read, The Green Child
William Carlos Williams, Poems

 


 

Original Order of “Classics Revisited” essays

 
The following is the order of  Rexroth’s “Classics Revisited” essays as they appeared in The Saturday Review. Titles are given exactly as they appeared in the magazine (with no italics, and with or without quote marks). When the essays were later published in book form, the titles were sometimes expanded (e.g. “The Iliad” became “Homer, The Iliad”) or slightly altered (e.g. “The Works of Marx” became “Marx, The Communist Manifesto”).

1. The Epic of Gilgamesh (March 20, 1965)
2. The Iliad (March 27)
3. The Odyssey (April 3)
4. Beowulf (April 10)
5. Njal’s Saga (May 1)
6. Don Quixote (May 15)
7. Livy’s Early Rome (May 29)
8. The Satyricon (June 5)
9. Plutarch (June 12)
10. Tacitus (June 26)
11. Le Morte d’Arthur (July 10)
12. The Oresteia (August 14)
13. Gargantua and Pantagruel (August 28)
14. The Trial and Death of Socrates (Sept. 11)
15. Euripides (Sept. 18)
16. Machiavelli (Oct. 2)
17. Sophocles: The Theban Plays (Nov. 13)
18. Sappho—Poet and Legend (Nov. 27)
19. The Tale of Genji (Dec. 11)
20. Chaucer (Dec. 25)
21. Dream of the Red Chamber (Jan. 1, 1966)
22. “The Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius (Jan. 29)
23. Plato’s “Republic” (Feb. 19)
24. Montaigne’s Essays (Feb. 26)
25. Restif de la Bretonne (April 2)
26. Casanova (April 9)
27. The Book of Job (April 23)
28. The Works of Sir Thomas More (May 21)
29. Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” (June 11)
30. Macbeth (June 25)
31. Apuleius (July 2)
32. Julius Caesar (July 30)
33. The Pilgrim’s Progress (August 13)
34. Marco Polo (August 27)
35. Walt Whitman (Sept. 3)
36. The Works of Marx (Sept. 17)
37. “The Tempest” (Sept. 24)
38. The Goncourt Journal (Oct. 22)
39. “The Brothers Karamazov” (Dec. 3)
40. The Works of Ben Jonson (Dec. 27)
41. “Sentimental Education” (Dec. 31)
42. The Works of Rimbaud (Jan. 14, 1967)
43. The Poetry of Tu Fu (Jan. 21)
44. “The Duchess of Malfi” (March 4)
45. “Carmina Burana” (April 22)
46. “Huckleberry Finn” (May 13)
47. “Tom Jones” (July 1)
48. Chekhov’s Plays (July 8)
49. The “Greek Anthology” (July 29)
50. The “Kalevala” (August 19)
51. Japanese Poetry (Sept. 2)
52. “The Compleat Angler” (Sept. 16)
53. The “Mahabharata” (Sept. 30)
54. “War and Peace” (Nov. 11)
55. The Works of Herodotus (Dec. 2)
56. The Poetry of Lucretius (Dec. 9)
57. “The Decline and Fall” (Jan. 6, 1968)
58. “Tristram Shandy” (Jan. 20)
59. The Poetry of Catullus (Jan. 27)
60. Abélard and Héloïse (Feb. 10)
61. Parkman’s History (Feb. 24)
62. “Parade’s End” (March 16)
63. The Works of Blake (March 30)
64. Sherlock Holmes (April 27)
65. White’s “Natural History” (May 11)
66. Euripides’s “Hippolytus” (May 18)
67. Racine’s “Phèdre”
68. “Tao Te Ching” (July 20)
69. “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (August 24)
70. Balzac (Sept. 7)
71. “Fathers and Sons” (Sept. 14)
72. The “Aeneid” (Sept. 21)
73. The “Bhagavad Gita” (Nov. 2)
74. Robinson Crusoe (Nov. 9)
75. The Journal of John Woolman (Nov. 16)
76. The Early Irish Epic (Nov. 23)
77. “Pickwick Papers” (Dec. 7)
78. The English and Scottish Popular Ballad (Dec. 14)
79. Frederick Douglass (Dec. 28)
80. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Jan. 11, 1969)
81. Aristotle’s Poetics (Feb. 22)
82. Gulliver’s Travels (March 22)
83. Robert Burns (April 12)
84. Goethe (April 19)
85. The Song of Songs (April 26) 

The order is of some interest. Rexroth was obviously roaming from one work to another according to his mood, and not necessarily working from the best on down; but the fact that certain works come near the beginning suggests that he thought they were definitely basic works and by no means afterthoughts.

The book Classics Revisited (Quadrangle, 1968) included the first 58 essays listed above plus two additional essays on Thucydides and Baudelaire that never appeared in Saturday Review. Presumably Rexroth thought that those two authors were too important to omit in the initial book collection even though he had not yet got around to writing them for the magazine. And once they were in the book, perhaps Saturday Review didn’t want to present already-published material.

Twenty-nine other essays were later reprinted in the “More Classics Revisited” section of The Elastic Retort (Seabury, 1973): numbers 59-85 above plus two additional essays on Aquinas and H.G. Wells. I’m not sure if those latter two essays ever appeared in Saturday Review; if they did, I overlooked them after the series seemed to have stopped. Much later, Bradford Morrow edited More Classics Revisited (New Directions, 1989), including those 29 essays plus 12 others that he picked (to make a total of 101 in the two volumes).

 


 

 


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