Lascelles Abercrombie 1881-1938
English poet, playwright, and literary critic.
The following entry provides criticism on Abercrombie's works from 1913 through 1999.
An accomplished poet, playwright, and critic, Abercrombie belonged to the Georgians, a group at the beginning of the twentieth century whose works were characterized by an interest in dramatic form and the adoption of colloquial diction. However, in contrast to his contemporaries, Abercrombie stood alone in his descriptions of the metaphysical landscape. He strove to reveal an otherworldly dimension to feelings and emotions. Although his poetry was not always successful, Abercrombie was admired by colleagues and critics.
Abercrombie was born into a wealthy and aristocratic family on January 9, 1881. He was introduced to the arts at a young age and began writing when he was just nine years old. However, growing up in a family that included a stockbroker father and politically savvy uncles meant that the young Abercrombie was formally educated in the sciences rather than the arts. In 1900 he enrolled at Owens College in Manchester, England, intent on earning a degree in chemistry. He left just two years later, due to familial problems brought on by the Boer War, a conflict waged between South Africa and Great Britain between 1899 and 1902. The war had a damaging effect on the family's finances, which suffered incredible losses. As a result, Abercrombie left school in 1902 to find work and help support his family. Fueled with a desire to make a living as a writer, Abercrombie first worked as a surveyor, then as a journalist in Liverpool. While his rise to literary acclaim was slow, Abercrombie still managed to make a living in his chosen profession. He worked as a journalist for the Liverpool Courier. It would not be long, however, before both his personal and professional life would change drastically. In the early 1900s he met and subsequently married an aspiring artist named Catherine Gwatkin. Through Gwatkin, Abercrombie was exposed to numerous influences that would help boost his career. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a Cambridge scholar and friend of Gwatkin, used his own credibility to help Abercrombie's work get published in various local publications, including the Independent Review and the Nation. While these publications did little to garner him fame or fortune, they did help to establish Abercrombie as a man of literary abilities. As a result, in 1908 Abercrombie's first volume of poetry, Interludes and Poems was published. In 1912 Abercrombie published Emblems of Love, which experienced critical and popular success. This allowed Abercrombie to quit his job as a journalist and pursue his own writing full time. He and his wife relocated to the country, where they lived happily from 1911 to 1914. In their cottage, affectionately named “The Gallows,” Abercrombie enjoyed his most fruitful years as a writer. He also enjoyed the company of other writers who came to visit often, including Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. In 1914 Abercrombie moved back to Liverpool. The years of World War I were difficult for him and his peers. As newspapers quickly phased out their literary columns to cover news of the war, Abercrombie had to find other work. Poor health kept him out of the war and manual labor jobs. While friends helped secure him a Civil List pension, it was not enough to live on. As a result, Abercrombie turned to teaching. He found financial security in academia, although it took time away from his writing. In 1926 Abercrombie became gravely ill. A period of forced seclusion allowed him to return to writing poetry. He completed several poems during this period, and, in 1930, the Oxford University Press published a volume of his poetry. This was an unusual honor, one of which Abercrombie realized the significance. Only one other poet, Robert Bridges, had ever been bestowed this honor while still living. Abercrombie died on October 27, 1938.
Although Interludes and Poems did not sell well, it did establish Abercrombie as a literary figure in England. It also illustrated his literary style—a style that would remain with him throughout his career—namely, a fascination with the otherworldly and its influence upon this world, particularly the notion of ecstasy, which figures heavily in several of the volume's poems. Abercrombie was greatly influenced by the work of English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. A poet of the naturalist movement, Hardy believed in the scientific hypotheses of biologist Charles Darwin and philosopher/mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. He often wrote with a sense of tragic gloom, employing spirits and otherworldly apparitions as literary devices. Abercrombie was so enamored of Hardy and his work that he often borrowed stylistic devices, including the assignment of speeches to mystical or otherwise otherworldly bodies. Abercrombie's interest in Hardy led to his writing Thomas Hardy: A Critical Study, which was published in 1912. Among the features of Hardy's work that Abercrombie admired was the use of various perspectives to achieve a unified whole within a literary work. While he was working on his study of Hardy, Abercrombie was simultaneously writing his next volume of poetry, Emblems of Love. Strongly influenced by Hardy's idea of infusing a work with a unifying framework, Abercrombie sought to apply the principle of love as his own unifying framework. Composed mostly of free verse interspersed with couplets, Emblems of Love solidified Abercrombie's literary reputation. These fruitful years also proved controversial as Abercrombie found himself under the literary microscope, criticized by radical stylists for being part of the Georgian movement. In reality, Abercrombie's work most closely resembled the modernism of those who criticized him. Despite the criticism, Abercrombie continued writing. He published Speculative Dialogues in 1913, a work greatly influenced by the exultant philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. His work also appeared in New Numbers, a periodical that Abercrombie contributed to and published beginning in 1914; and Georgian Poetry, an anthology to which he contributed poems. In the 1920s Abercrombie focused his poetic energies on two stage plays, Phoenix (1923), and The Deserter (1927), which earned him moderate success. Two other verse plays, The Sale of St. Thomas (1911) and Deborah (1913), are among Abercrombie's most critically admired works. Abercrombie also published books based upon lectures he delivered during 1920s. These works include An Essay towards a Theory of Art (1922), The Theory of Poetry (1924), The Idea of Great Poetry (1925), and Romanticism (1926).
As a writer, Abercrombie found himself immersed in his stylistic tendencies, a predisposition that was not always received positively by scholars. Critics argued that Abercrombie was too intent upon style, often forsaking the deeper meaning of his writing in his efforts to employ stylistic devices. Other reviewers have noted that Abercrombie's theoretical works illuminate not only his intentions in writing his poetry but also the ultimate failure of it.
Interludes and Poems (poetry) 1908
Mary and the Bramble (poetry) 1910
The Sale of St. Thomas (play) 1911
Emblems of Love (poetry) 1912
Thomas Hardy: A Critical Study (criticism) 1912
The Adder (play) 1913
Deborah: A Play in Three Acts (play) 1913
Speculative Dialogues (criticism) 1913
The End of the World (play) 1914
The Epic (criticism) 1914
Poetry and Contemporary Speech (criticism) 1914
The Staircase (play) 1920
An Essay towards a Theory of Art (criticism) 1922
*Four Short Plays (plays) 1922
Phoenix: Tragicomedy in Three Acts (play) 1923
Principles of English Prosody (criticism) 1923
The Theory of Poetry (criticism) 1924
The Idea of Great Poetry (criticism) 1925
Romanticism (criticism) 1926
The Deserter (play) 1927
Twelve Idyls and Other Poems (poetry) 1928
The Poems of Lascelles Abercrombie (poetry) 1930
The Sale of St. Thomas in Six Acts (play) 1930
Lyrics and Unfinished Poems...
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SOURCE: Untermeyer, Louis. “Deborah: Mr. Abercrombie's Verse Drama of Life among Fisher Folk.” New York Times Book Review (15 June 1913): 357.
[In the following review, Untermeyer assesses Abercrombie's verse drama Deborah as one of the finest examples in its genre of its day.]
Just as the critics have proved, to their own satisfaction, that the classics are dead, that restraint and nobility of thought have perished beneath the blows of a savage and incoherent realism, that a sonorous blank-verse drama cannot be written to-day except possibly in slang, Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie is discovered—and smash go all their solemn predictions and glum assurances. Not that Mr. Abercrombie is any less “modern” than his contemporaries—he is often more brutal than Masefield, more direct and incisive than the Abbey Theatre dramatist—he has, in short, all the qualities that make him a product of his times. But there is one thing that distinguishes him from the rest—he is not alone a more intense person, but a far greater writer. This does not mean that his poetry is “literary” or that it will appeal only to the honest seekers after truth who form societies for the discussion of “The Message of So-and-So.” Mr. Abercrombie's work is as unliterary, in the special sense, as Synge's; and it carries no more message than Life does. Take up, for example, Emblems of Love, his previous...
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SOURCE: Sturgeon, Mary C. “Lascelles Abercrombie.” In Studies of Contemporary Poets, pp. 11-35. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1916.
[In the following excerpt, Sturgeon examines the ways in which Abercrombie's poetry represents the age in which it was written.]
In the sweet chorus of modern poetry one may hear a strange new harmony. It is the life of our time, evoking its own music: constraining the poetic spirit to utter its own message. The peculiar beauty of contemporary poetry, with its fresh and varied charm, grows from that; and in that, too, its vitality is assured. Its art has the deep sanction of loyalty: its loyalty draws inspiration from the living source.
There is a fair company of these new singers; and it would seem that there should be large hope for a generation, whether in its life or letters, which can find such expression. Listening carefully, however, some notes ring clearer, stronger, or more significant than others; and of these the voice of Mr Abercrombie appears to carry the fullest utterance. It is therefore a happy chance that the name which stands first here, under a quite arbitrary arrangement, has a natural right to be put at the head of a group of the younger moderns.
But that is not an implicit denial to those others of fidelity to their time. It is a question of degree and of range. Every poet in this band will be found to...
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SOURCE: Weygandt, Cornelius. “Realists of the Countryside.” In The Time of Yeats: English Poetry of To-day against an American Background, pp. 336-62. New York: Russell and Russell, 1937.
[In the following essay, Weygandt concludes that Abercrombie's vivid characterizations are the most memorable elements of his poetry.]
Lascelles Abercrombie (b. 1881) is a difficult poet. He is primarily concerned with philosophical problems, or psychological problems, which may be carried by a thread of narrative, or of drama, but which, when they are so carried, strain the thread to the breaking point. And whatever he is concerned with he is concerned with at length. He is not the man to flash a revelation on you and have done. He would analyze and derive, he would discuss and debate. Had he been born in the eighteenth century he had been wholly at home, with Pope and Young and Dr. Johnson. Had he been born then, however, he would surely have been more explicit and simpler and more direct in expression. He seems to have put himself to school to all the crabbed writers from Donne to Doughty. Browning and Meredith he knows intimately; but, for that matter, he knows intimately all the poets of the world, the Greeks and Romans, the Old Testament men, Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Racine, Milton and Goethe, Whitman and Hardy. He is one of the most learned of our poets. He quotes from all poets, and not only from...
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SOURCE: Fisher, Esther Safer. “Lascelles Abercrombie—Playwright.” Modern Drama 23, no. 3 (September 1980): 297-308.
[In the following essay, Fisher discusses how Abercrombie's plays convey “symbolic realism” through his frequent use of metaphorical language and symbolic settings, as well as by choosing anti-heroic themes and characters.]
Best known as a critic and poet, Lascelles Abercrombie (1881-1938) was also a playwright deeply concerned with the state of the English theatre in the first three decades of this century. For the most part, he was adversely critical of the commercial theatre of his day, opposed to the twin evils of sentimentality and the factual treatment of contemporary social issues, what he termed “naturalism.” He wanted to create and promote plays which conveyed the type of “symbolic realism” he found in the work of two fellow Georgians, John Drinkwater and Gordon Bottomley. In Drinkwater's Cophetua, he saw “a bold attempt to break through the accretions of dramatic convention … and to achieve a broader, simpler, more frankly symbolic method of drama”1; and in Bottomley's The Riding to Lithend, he appreciated a play shaped not “according to nature, but according to the curves of beauty, into a symbol of life infinitely more powerful than any actuality could do.”2
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SOURCE: Parker, Rennie. “Lascelles Abercrombie: ‘What Great Things I Meant to Do.’” In The Georgian Poets: Abercrombie, Brooke, Drinkwater, Gibson, and Thomas, pp. 6-20. Plymouth, England: Northcote House Publishers, 1999.
[In the following essay, Parker places Abercrombie within the historical context of his contemporaries and discusses his critical reception.]
‘Anyone who has ever heard him will remember the charm of his reading voice, the best reading voice of any poet known to me, or indeed of any man’ (J. W. Haines).1 This is not the photogenic and charismatic Rupert Brooke, but the little-known poet Lascelles Abercrombie (1881-1938), whose reputation has not survived, despite the enthusiasm shown for his works by critics during his lifetime. Although Abercrombie largely gave up writing poetry during the First World War and turned increasingly to criticism during the 1920s, his reputation as an academic and literary pundit were sufficient to guarantee a high profile until his death; so it is not merely an early cessation of his poetic activity which caused a downturn in his creative reputation after 1938.
Neither is this posthumous lack of profile due to a reluctance in effort from Abercrombie himself while he was alive. Letters and reports agree that he was an engaging person, witty, knowledgeable, and unstuffy. An early talent for natural history and...
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Cooper, Jeffrey. A Bibliography and Notes on the Works of Lascelles Abercrombie. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1969, 166 p.
Primary and secondary bibliography of Abercrombie's works; includes illustrations and an appendix of Abercrombie's radio broadcasts.
Fisher, Esther Safer. “Lascelles Abercrombie: A Biographical Essay.” English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 25, no. 1 (1982): 28-49.
Biographical reappraisal of Abercrombie's life and works.
Fisher, Esther Safer. “The Pound/Abercrombie Feud.” Four Decades of Poetry 1890-1930 1, no. 1 (January 1976): 66-9.
Discusses some of the errors and misconceptions about the Ezra Pound and Abercrombie feud.
Leishman, J. B. Review of The Poet Wordsworth, by Helen Darbishire, and The Art of Wordsworth, by Lascelles Abercrombie. Review of English Studies 4 (1953): 293-95.
Notes that The Poet Wordsworth and The Art of Wordsworth complement one another, and finds these works to be equally illuminating on their subject.
Stenberg, Theodore. “Abercrombie's View of Poetry.” Sewanee Review 37, no. 1 (January 1929): 108-14.
Presents an overview of...
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