Lascelles Abercrombie Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.