M(eyer) H(oward) Abrams Thomas M. Raysor - Essay

Thomas M. Raysor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 906 words.)