M.H. Abrams passed away last year at the ripe age of 102. I don’t know how much he is talked about anymore among the trendsetting literary cognoscenti today, but when I was a student, you couldn’t escape his influence. M.H. Abrams was one of the giants. Perhaps best known as the editor of the venerable (and sometimes maligned) Norton Anthology of English Literature and the indispensable reference book A Glossary of Literary Terms, Abrams was largely responsible for dispensing the literary canon to the masses, and he did a fine job at it. Abrams was also one of the premier critics of the Romantic period. His books The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature are classics in the field.
When I was touring potential grad schools in the 1980’s, I visited Goldwyn-Smith Hall at Cornell, and passing by M.H. Abrams’ office, I went weak in the knees. It was almost unreal. That name on the title page of my Norton Anthology, he lived here. It was a humbling moment, one where I realized that literary tradition is forged by real people. It doesn’t descend from the heavens. It is made by scholars and writers, head to hand, at work in offices and libraries and classrooms. I still have my college edition of the Norton Anthology. It represents something large in my imagination, the idea that there is a continuity, a lineage that connects students to teachers, scholars, critics, creative writers, historians, philosophers, a connection spanning decades, eras, epochs. The Norton Anthology, that bulky mass of thin pages like a Bible, was my initiation to a living tradition.
I recently finished Natural Supernaturalism and can confirm that, beyond the mazy, dead-end twists in literary theory since it was published in the early 1970’s, the book retains its magisterial status.
Abrams first of all establishes the significant influence on Romantic writers exerted by the Bible, and then Milton. The Old and New Testament provided the essential plot and themes for major Romantic works like Wordsworth’s Prelude, Blake’s prophetic books, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Biographia Literatia, Holderin’s Hyperion, Keats’ Fall of Hyperion, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and even the philosophical works of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel–to name a few of the many writers and thinkers represented in this exhaustive analysis. The one writer conspicuously absent is Byron, but then again, Byron’s work doesn’t fit the mold and style established by Wordsworth, who serves as the foundation for everything Abrams sets out to do in the book. This is one indication that Natural Supernaturalism is by no means the only book on Romanticism that you should read. It is necessary but not sufficient.
Christianity in the West was perceived to be on the wane, due to the rise of modern philosophy and science. So the Romantics morphed God into Nature, thereby preserving much of the Biblical template: the Fall, the apocalypse, the Revelation, the paradise regained. They picked up cues from the tradition of spiritual autobiography established by Saint Augustine and focused their attention on the individual’s struggle to reintegrate the self from a state of alienation through the quasi-mystical and transformative engagement with Nature (both external and internal). I’m being way too reductive here, and you really ought to go back to Abrams for the full story; it’s a fascinating journey through British and German literary and intellectual history, a book that kept sending me to the encyclopedia to learn more about the authors and works he quotes so generously throughout the book. To me, this is a sign of great literary criticism. If the critic makes you hungry to know and explore more about the topic, he or she is doing their job.
Another major component of the analysis is the history of revolution in the period, namely the French Revolution, its promise and its tragic disappointments. Romantic writers had to deal with the revolution’s failure to usher in a “New Jerusalem”. They needed to accommodate that failure and think their way into new directions. Abrams also sends us on a head-spinning grand tour of Romanticism’s obsessive interest in apocalypse, cycles, spirals of history, dialectics, and he shows us how Romanticism influenced the writers that would come after: e.g. Marx, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, the Beats, and many more. It’s pretty clear that whatever you want to call the post-Romantic period, we are not done with Romanticism’s influence. One more recent development Abrams doesn’t really touch upon so much is ecocriticsm, environmental writing, deep ecology, etc. Environmental consciousness owes a huge debt to the Romantics, an indication that these intellectual threads run through history to our present moment. That longing to “get back to the Garden” hasn’t left us, and I anticipate it never will. Today we talk in terms of sustainability, of cohabiting, harmonizing with the more-than-human world. We talk about how our fate as a species in in the balance. You can see that the apocalyptic models haven’t disappeared either. If we don’t get right with Nature, the end for us is nigh. An understanding of Romanticism will inform your understanding of these contemporary movements. I can’t imagine a better way for a student to “unlock” and reveal the structuring principles of the period. Can books like this be surpassed? I doubt it. They can be augmented, but you can’t deny the achievement.