While in Spanish we are taught that Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the defining work of literature of the Spanish language (not as a matter of opinion, but rather as a matter of Canon), I have heard similar claims in my foreign​ language courses, for example, Goethe’s Fausto enthroned as opus magnum of the German Language, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables claims the same title in regard to the French Language, and Leon Tolstoy’s War and Peace being held in the same regard for Russian.

Although the merits of each of these works could be a matter of hot debate amongst contemporary linguists, I always found it strange that there was no similar consensus about a single opus magnum of the English Language, with my teachers sometimes settling for the collected works of Shakespeare to claim the title.

My question is whether there exists a single work of literature that is considered as such in the English language, or rather the title is in fact commonly known to be the collected works of Shakespeare.

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    This isn't really about the English language. I think this would be a much better fit on Literature. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '17 at 8:18
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    @sumelic Yes, magnum opus or perhaps pluralised as opera magna if I remember my schoolboy Latin correctly. – Andrew Leach May 6 '17 at 8:38
  • If you need to narrow it down to one work, wouldn't it have to be Hamlet? – Peter Shor May 6 '17 at 10:31
  • @PeterShor Which is, ironically, only accidentally a work of "literature". – StoneyB on hiatus May 6 '17 at 11:10
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    This question is not suitable on ELU; it may belong on another site in the Stack Exchange network (Literature SE). – Edwin Ashworth May 6 '17 at 13:33

My impression, being an American and lifetime English speaker, is that English is too large for there to be one definitive English work. I haven't found any source that lists fewer than 10, and several list 100 or more; I think we have more a literary canon than a single work.

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  • It takes time for something to be recognised as a potential definitive work, too -- I'm sure there is later literature than the works mentioned in the question. English has works from Beowulf through Shakespeare to Hemingway and Harper Lee (and perhaps even J K Rowling, who knows?) all of which were seminal examples of English. [Feel free to plunder this comment, or to add examples from other sources.] – Andrew Leach May 6 '17 at 8:42
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    Good point. A German, Oskar Adolf Hermann Schmitz, in the febrile atmosphere before the first world war described Britain as "A land without music", which, notwithstanding Elgar, Holst, Parry and Vaughan Williams, compared to the Germanic parts of Europe, is perhaps true. Nor do we have the wealth of fine art of the French, the Russians, the Dutch and the Italians. But there is no disputing that our artistic glory is our literature. No other language possesses such a wealth of the written word as does English. – WS2 May 6 '17 at 8:45
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    One definitive English author, maybe. For "English" meaning England, I nominate Terry Pratchett, whose work is mutually intelligible in other Englishes than England's. – John Lawler May 6 '17 at 15:39
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    @JohnLawler Unfortunately the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has not yet got round to producing Pratchett's life, following his death two years ago. But Wikipedia has a reasonably good article. – WS2 May 7 '17 at 10:49

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