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The Last Critic Turns 100

A birthday visit with M.H. Abrams, peer of Trilling, teacher of Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology

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M.H. Abrams, 2009. (Dale R. Corson)

Abrams was also sailing against the prevailing intellectual winds in his choice of specialization: the Romantic poets. Starting with T.S. Eliot, the modernist revolution in English literature had aggressively demoted the Romantics from their former place in the canon. Politically, Eliot saw the Romantics—especially his bête noire, Percy Bysshe Shelley—as destructive radicals; poetically, he saw them as victims of the “dissociation of sensibility” that made 19th-century poetry too pretty and ruminative. “The Romantics,” Abrams recalled, “were whipping boys of the New Criticism, but they appealed to me anyway. I was recalcitrant.” Contrary to the Eliot-inspired New Critics, who saw the Romantics as messy emotionalists, “it was clear to me that they had thought innovatively.”

Elucidating that complex body of thought would be the work of a lifetime. Abrams began working on what would become The Mirror and the Lamp while a graduate student at Harvard. During World War II, he did war-related work as part of Harvard’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, whose goal was to figure out the best way to transmit oral commands in a loud, distracting combat environment. (When he protested to the head of the laboratory that he knew nothing about the subject, Abrams remembered, the response was a cheerful, “That’s all right, none of us do.”) It was in 1945, just after the war ended, that Abrams was hired at Cornell, where he spent the next four decades teaching (his students have included Harold Bloom and Thomas Pynchon, among many others) and writing.

The Mirror and the Lamp begins boldly, with Abrams’ highly influential taxonomy of types of literary theory. Every work of literature, he observes, can be understood as the product of three different relationships. There is the relation of the work to the world it describes, explains, and imitates; the relation of the work to the audience it affects, instructs, and entertains; and the relation of the work to the mind that created it. Starting with Aristotle’s Poetics, some 2,500 years ago, and continuing until the 18th century, the most influential literary theorists focused on the first of these three relationships. Literature, according to Plato and Aristotle, was an imitative, or mimetic, art form: It represents the actions of human beings in conflict, which is why Aristotle thought that plot was the most important element of drama.

The deeper Abrams pursued his study of Romantic art theory, the clearer it became that his real subject was the evolution of the religious consciousness of the West.

The Romantic achievement, as Abrams anatomizes it in The Mirror and the Lamp, was to shift the emphasis in literary theory from mimesis to expression. What mattered most about art, starting in the late 18th century, was no longer what it said about the world, the skill or verisimilitude or loveliness with which it represented reality. Instead, art became seen primarily as the self-expression of the creator, the product of an exceptionally sensitive and creative soul. The book’s title—which Abrams took from Yeats, and which he credited with much of its success—points to the difference between these two models. Classical literature was a mirror, reflecting the world; Romantic and modern literature is a lamp, shining forth from the soul of the artist.

Much more is at stake in this change than just literary criticism. As Abrams writes, the “submerged conceptual models” with which we “select, interpret, systematize, and evaluate the facts of art” are basic ways of thinking about the world and of assigning value to human experience. Indeed, the real discovery or argument of The Mirror and the Lamp has less to do with literary history—though Abrams’ command of period sources is amazingly thorough—than with his analysis of the role of metaphor in human thought. The images we think with, Abrams shows, determine the shape of our world, and the difference between intellectual epochs—the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romantics—can be seen fundamentally as a difference in those epochs’ favorite metaphors.

If the Romantics began to think of art as expression and projection rather than imitation, it was because they had suffered a drastic loss of confidence in the worthiness and meaningfulness of the world they imitated. For many poets, Abrams shows in his section on “Newton’s Rainbow and the Poet’s,” this anxiety was expressed in the way they thought about the rainbow. In the Book of Genesis, the rainbow is the sign of God’s pledge, after the flood, that he will never again destroy the world. To a faithful Jew or Christian, every time a rainbow emerges after a storm, it is a reminder of that cosmic benevolence and continuity. By showing that the rainbow is in fact the artifact of light passing through water droplets, Newton severed the natural phenomenon from its supernatural meaning. It was for this reason that, at a storied dinner in 1817, the Romantic writers John Keats and Charles Lamb drank a toast of “confusion to mathematics,” agreeing that Newton “had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colors.”

The rainbow, here, is a symbol of the disenchantment of the world by science. And the Romantic project, Abrams shows, was to overcome that disenchantment by finding a new source of meaning and value derived from the soul of the artist. Genius, poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge believed, was not just exceptional artistic skill. It was, Abrams writes, the power “to overcome the sense of man’s alienation from the world by healing the cleavage between subject and object, between the vital, purposeful, value-full world of private experience and the dead postulated world of extension, quantity, and motion.” Abrams finds a key proof-text in Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem “The Prelude,” where the poet describes the way a newborn child is introduced to the world:

No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.

Where Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” was about the Fall of Man, the subject of Wordsworth’s epic was the growth of his own mind. The location of meaning in the universe had shifted from the external to the internal, from myth to psychology. Abrams shows how the often abstruse critical vocabulary of Coleridge, in his masterwork Biographia Literaria, makes the same point in prose that Wordsworth made in verse. For Coleridge, the imagination was not just the power to conjure images; it was “the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.”

The echo of the Hebrew Bible in that sentence is unmistakable. Coleridge’s “infinite I Am” is a philosophical recasting of God’s name in Exodus, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” “I Am That I Am.” In fact, the deeper Abrams pursued his study of Romantic art theory, the clearer it became that his real subject was the evolution of the religious consciousness of the West. Natural Supernaturalism, Abrams’ second magnum opus, starts from the premise that religious ways of thinking—the metaphors that the West inherited from Judaism and Christianity—are far too deeply ingrained to be simply discarded. “Secular thinkers,” he writes, “have no more been able to work free of the centuries-old Judeo-Christian culture than Christian theologians were able to work free of their inheritance of classical and pagan thought. The process … has not been the deletion and replacement of religious ideas but rather the assimilation and reinterpretation of religious ideas.”

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M.H. Abrams was my tutor at Cornell and had the critical sense to inform me, at an early stage of my life, that I would really do well in some career other than English Literature. He was a kindly man and genuinely involved so I took his guidance with gratitude.

Hurrah for Prof. Abrams! I am a Nortons Anthology acolyte: I teach from it; I read it; I worship at its undying flame. Thanks to him (as well as Bloom, Howe, Kazin, and a host of others) Jews in English literary scholarship are no longer on the periphery. Jews are among those who propel the van of civilization forward: so has it been, so shall it ever be. Amen!

from Ron Pies, Cornell Class of ’74 [wife is Nancy]

It was my great honor and privilege to have taken a course on literary criticism with Prof. M.H. Abrams, in 1973. The course was also co-taught with the renowned philosopher, Prof. Max Black. Prof. Abrams proved not only a passionate and brilliant interpreter of literary texts, but also a warm and encouraging mentor to the small group of students in his class–even inviting us to his home for a pasta dinner! As a “pre-meddie” at Cornell, I was of the view that science had much to contribute to literature, and vice verse. I was humbled and gratified to find that “Mike” Abrams felt the same way, and–having had a good background in science–was extraordinarily receptive to a broad, eclectic approach to literary texts. He was and remains the model of a gentleman and a scholar.

Ronald Pies MD (Cornell Class of ’74)

P.S. Thanks to Adam Kirsch for a discerning article.

Earl Ganz says:

I agree with the three comments. Happy Birthday for Professor
Abrams. I recently sent him a story of how I flunked my orals.
He was the chairman of the orals committee. The story is called
“Nabokov’s Grader.” He loved it. And congratulations to Adam
Kirsch. It’s a wonderful if too brief presentation of Professor
Abrams, contribution to English LIterature.

Small point, but I liked the mention of the retirement community. Where will all the smart people go as they age? Hopefully they will congregate.

That will make the final years of life a (modified) delight.

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The Last Critic Turns 100

A birthday visit with M.H. Abrams, peer of Trilling, teacher of Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology