Friday, August 05, 2011

M. H. Abrams's "The Mirror and the Lamp"

I read this landmark book of criticism on Romantic theory while I was an undergraduate. It was immensely useful not only in examining the critical ideas of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Hazlitt, J. S. Mill and other Romantic theorists, but also in contextualizing these ideas in the Western critical tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to the Neo-classicists of the eighteenth century. The division of poetic theories into four main kinds--mimetic, pragmatic, expressive, and objective--each focusing on one main aspect of poetry--the world, the audience, the poet, and the work itself--is a rough but useful generalization.

Reading it again in order to prepare for a course on Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats, I am struck by how many of my poetic ideas are Romantic in origin. I was not unaware of this, but realize afresh the depth of my debt. I am not alone in this, of course, for it can be argued that the mainstream of Western poetry has remained essentially expressive, though there have been attempts to make it objective (i.e. the New Criticism) and pragmatic (Poetry as activism). As an expression of the longevity of Romantic theory, the lyric has remained dominant in the poems written today.

Comparing Coleridge and Wordsworth, Abrams make clear the superiority in the former's aesthetic ideas. The latter is the better poet, but also an outstanding example of how a great poet does not necessarily make a great theorist. I would not go so far as to say one cannot be both, but it is certainly very rare. Abrams concludes about Coleridge:

In sum, Coleridge holds that the greatest poetry is, indeed, the product of spontaneous feeling, but feeling which, by a productive tension with the impulse for order, sets in motion the assimilative imagination and (balanced by its antagonists, purpose and judgment, and supplemented by the emotion inherent in the act of composition itself) organizes itself into a conventional medium in which the parts and the whole are adapted both to each other and to the purpose of effecting pleasure. The paradox that what is natural in poetry includes art, and results from an interpenetration of spontaneity and voluntarism, is not merely an abstract product of Coleridge's philosophical frame of reference. The fact is attested by the creative poets of all ages who, in various idioms, assert that they write according to prior plan and as the result of skills acquired by laborious practice, but that on occasion the central idea takes control and evolves itself in a way contrary to their original intention, and even to their express desire; yet retrospect shows that they have written better than they knew.

How did Coleridge manage to balance feeling and logic, spontaneity and voluntarism, nature and art? Abrams:

It was above all in his exploitation of this new aesthetics of organism that Coleridge, more thoroughly, than Wordsworth, was the innovative English critic of this time. At the same time, it was, paradoxically, because he retained a large part of the neo-classic critical tenets and terms which Wordsworth minimized or rejected that Coleridge's criticism is much more flexible and practicable--more adequate to the illumination of a great diversity of specific poems--than Wordsworth's. The logical maneuver by which Coleridge managed this feat, through sharply differentiating 'poetry' from a 'poem,' is awkward, and has certainly led to a wide misunderstanding of his intention. But by it, he was enabled to maintain his double view, capable of dwelling on a poem as a poem, and on a poem as a process of mind. By this device, he was also able to make use of the pregnant concept of the poem as a quasi-natural organism, without sacrificing the indispensable distinctions and analytic powers of the concept that the writing of poems is basically a rational and acquired art of adapting parts to parts, and of bending means to foreseen ends. By this device, finally, he remained free to maintain that the judging of poems (as his eighteenth-century schoolmaster Bowyer, had so strenuously impressed on him) must proceed on the assumption that poetry has 'a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because . . . dependent on more, and more fugitive causes.'

I love the parenthetical reminder of Coleridge's teacher. One does not forget easily what has been well taught.


Yamabuki said...

All of this is really based on academic theories of Poetry. This is all well and good if you are dependent on academia as a student or teacher, but outside these circles, Poetry is a creature of the wilds that defies our categories and judgements.

Poetry, like any art form must defy our expectations in order to succeed at truly expressing the inexpressible. Classifying poetry, like classifying species has its place, but due to the nature of art, classification ultimately obscures as much as it illuminates.

I respect the fact that teachers and students need methods of classification and criticism to attempt to understand and learn about poetry & art. But finally I reject such methods as flawed when it comes to all art. They are like looking through a glass darkly. We think we see, but are finally fooled.

I also object to the idea that one can quantify art. To say that one poem is better than another is perhaps true technically, but not aesthetically. I believe that with art it comes down to what you like, and what you don't care for. What speaks to you, and what doesn't.


Jee Leong Koh said...

Thank you, Yamabuki, for explaining your theory of poetry.