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.)
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 find an even fuller analysis of the metaphorical thinking in an expressive metaphor of poetry like Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" or in Coleridge's biological metaphor of organic unity, which Abrams treats more clearly than anyone else because he sees that it is basically metaphorical, and is therefore able to bring out its logical implications of unconscious determinism. Coleridge himself saw these implications, Abrams points out, though his followers have not always done so, and attempted to avoid them by his favorite polar logic of the reconciliation through the imagination of such opposites as art and nature, the conscious and the unconscious, judgment and emotion. But he may not have succeeded in completing the logical...
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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 this inner and outer division. The most persistent metaphor Abrams finds is that of the "circuitous journey," the vision of a regained paradise, a return through alienation to an original state of "organic" unity, now made transcendent by incorporating and resolving the contradictory forces of the journey itself. The circle is therefore generally a spiral, a return to the same point on a higher level. As the mature mind, in Wordsworth, returns to the child's unconscious acceptance of the world, now transformed by experience, so Hegel's spirit in reaching absolute consciousness attains the static condition, the complete repose of pure, undifferentiated, unalienated being. The juxtaposition of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind with Wordsworth's Prelude is perhaps the most brilliant detail of Abrams's book. (p. 12)
Are the patterns of Romantic thought, as Abrams believes, theological or even religious?…
[Abrams] has precedent for his view from the Romantics themselves. Wordsworth, for example, spoke easily of "such religious feelings as cannot but exist in the minds of those who affect atheism." This generous view of the meaning of "religious" is found often enough today, if only because the more precise and rigorous sense has come to seem unbearable to so many. But the significance of the early Romantics' use of religion can only be assessed if we measure it against each poet's relation to religion and morality proper—organized, established, or at least traditional. (p. 13)
Most of the early Romantics came from conservative, Protestant, Pietistic families, from which they derived much of their language and imagery and their views of the world. Their magnification of the purely inward, personal elements in Pietism was turned not only against the "atheistic" Enlightenment—they were all deeply influenced by Hume and Voltaire—but against their own background as well. Their early reading in seventeenth-century mystics like Jakob Boehme provided them with ammunition in this battle on two fronts. The mystical philosophy of the seventeenth century had often been conceived as an attack on organized religion and even as part of a program of social and economic reform…. Abrams is right to maintain that the Romantic poets' need of a theological vocabulary was independent of their religious creed or lack of one, but the meaning of that vocabulary cannot be understood except through its relation to organized religion and society….
[Abrams] appears to claim for his theological forms and images a fundamental and inalterable meaning—a significance which remains constant even when they are reformulated in radically different contexts. What the Romantics discovered, however, was the possibility of stripping forms of their original significance and of giving them a new sense almost diametrically opposed to the original…. (p. 14)
What they looked for was the tension between the new meaning and the inevitable residue of the old. This was the tension that enabled the Romantics to carry out their program of reconceiving art and literature as a dynamic and...
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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...
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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)
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