Abrams, M(eyer) H(oward)
M(eyer) H(oward) Abrams 1912–
American critic and editor.
Although Abrams has written many scholarly essays and edited several texts of literary criticism, his reputation as a critic rests on his two books on the English Romantic movement, The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism. In the former, Abrams elaborated on the images of "the mirror" as a metaphor for the classical view that art must imitate reality and "the lamp" as a metaphor for the Romantic belief that artists should express personal perceptions through their creations. Using these symbols, Abrams studied Romantic critical theory and traced its break from the tradition of mimesis.
In Natural Supernaturalism Abrams identified Christian and biblical patterns in Romantic literature and effectively outlined his theory of the Romantic method of secularizing religious concepts. In addition, Abrams deemed the Romantic period "a decisive turn in Western thought" and followed its influence on twentieth-century literature.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)
Thomas M. Raysor
The title of Mr. Abrams' book [The Mirror and the Lamp] is not fanciful external ornament like those with which scholars sometimes mistakenly attempt to adorn a serious theoretical or historical work, but an indication of a characteristic purpose, to consider the extent to which metaphorical thinking inevitably enters into the theory of poetry, as well as into poetry itself, and indeed into most human thought. The mirror is the inadequate metaphor continually used as the symbol of arts which regard their function as an imitation or reflection of reality; and the lamp is an opposed metaphor occasionally used by romantic theorists for the light from the artist's own mind, which not only illuminates but somehow modifies the objects of perception. In brief, then, the subject of the book is the contrast of neoclassic with romantic literary theory, considered not only logically but in the logical implications of antithetical systems of metaphors.
This method of analysis is very fruitful as Abrams uses it, as he frequently must because of the nature of his materials. We find, for instance, an analysis of the objects of imitation in imitative art which might convince any fanatical expressionist theorist of modern painting that representationists have never, or almost never, been so naïve as to put forward a photographic theory of painting, in spite of the deceptive implications of the mirror metaphor, which seems to do just that. We...
(The entire section is 906 words.)
M. H. Abrams, whose Mirror and the Lamp is one of the most influential books on the early nineteenth century, is a master of the themes of Romanticism. It is doubtful if anyone has surpassed, or that many have equaled, the range and depth of his reading. His point of departure in Natural Supernaturalism is Wordsworth's scheme for the great unfinished poem called The Recluse, a poem which was to crown the poet's work and to which the rest of his verse was to stand as chapels to the main body of a cathedral.
From the "Prospectus" Wordsworth wrote for The Recluse, Abrams isolates the concept of the spiritual resurrection of mankind by the marriage of nature to the mind of man. For Wordsworth, mind or spirit here has become largely secular: God appears—if at all—only as within man's mind, and Abrams recalls a rich seventeenth-century tradition that resists any attempt to place God outside ourselves…. The wedding of man and nature is seen by Abrams as achieving its full meaning as a manifestation of the millennium, a vision of the apocalypse secularized into revolution, but he characterizes this union with nature as a consolation and a substitute for the shattered revolutionary dream.
From here, Abrams is concerned chiefly with Romantic metaphors of alienation—of man from nature, of man from himself. The marriage of nature to the mind of man is a metaphor for the overcoming of...
(The entire section is 1881 words.)
Wayne C. Booth
When M. H. Abrams published a defense, in 1972, of "theorizing about the arts" ["What's the Use of Theorizing about the Arts?"], some of his critics accused him of falling into subjectivism. He had made his case so forcefully against "the confrontation model of aesthetic criticism" and had so effectively argued against "simplified" and "invariable" models of the art work and of "the function of criticism" that some readers thought he had thrown overboard the very possibility of a rational criticism tested by objective criteria.
In his reply to these critics ["A Note on Wittgenstein and Literary Criticism," published in the journal English Literary History], Abrams concentrates almost entirely on whether his critical pluralism is finally a skeptical relativism. He does not even mention his great historical works, The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism, and he has nothing to say about how his pluralistic theories could be applied to the writing of history. But then, surprising as it seems once we think about it, neither of the two histories says much about his method either. (p. 139)
In both of these recent articles, Abrams proposes critical pluralism as a base for humanistic inquiry. He sees belief in a plurality of valid critical modes not simply as one interesting possibility but as a position forced upon us by what we now know, both about the history of critical rivalry and...
(The entire section is 6173 words.)
M. H. Abrams
Wayne Booth is quite right [see excerpt above]: for all my interest in the methods of literary criticism, I say nothing about method in my two historical books, The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism. The reason for my silence on this issue is simple: these books were not written with any method in mind. Instead they were conceived, researched, worked out, put together, pulled apart, and put back together, not according to a theory of valid procedures in such under-takings, but by intuition. I relied, that is, on my sense of rightness and wrongness, of doubt and assurance, of deficiencies and superfluities, of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. (p. 176)
I confess that I was taken aback to discover, in Booth's just analysis, what a strange book Natural Supernaturalism is, and how extraordinary are the claims it presumes to make on its readers. It involves, explicitly or implicitly, a wide range of propositional truth-claims, of which only a fraction assert literal causation. Other propositions are assertions about an epoch. "Romanticism," and its special importance to us, and about the validity of the contention of some Romantic writers that they are "prophets" or "seers"; others assert not only facts, but values—the great values in the poems of certain Romantic authors, especially Wordsworth, and the high moral values that constitute the general Romantic "ethos"; still other implicit...
(The entire section is 3341 words.)