Learning from a Modern Master

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Robert Barker/Cornell University Photography
M.H. Abrams, Ithaca, New York, 2008

During the days I spent in Cornell’s philosophy department as a graduate student in the late 1940s, I thought poorly of English departments, and believed myself, concerning literature, beyond instruction. However, after the first humbling year among the mathematically minded, I needed some relief. My fellow students were firecrackers. Their bursts of stardom lit the intellectual landscape. I was the damp fuse one lights and then impatiently waits for.

There was a class on Psychology and Lit that came recommended. So, in my armored costume of a smartass, I came to the first meeting of this class in time to hear its youthful leader, M.H. Abrams,* cite…who?—Coleridge; quoting…whom?—the Reverend James Bowyer…huh? “In the truly great poets …there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word.” To meet the Principle of Sufficient Reason on my first day!

The following semester I attended Abrams’s seminar on Coleridge. We were studying the Biographia Literaria in the following fashion: each of us was assigned a book or bunch of books mentioned or consulted by Coleridge, and told to come to our sessions prepared to explain just what these references were and how they fit into the Biographia as a whole. I could not imagine a better method of approach, especially since my subject was the reception of the Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth. To my new task I brought writers mostly of my own time—Eliot and Pound and Yeats, Faulkner and Joyce and Ford Madox Ford—and critics fresh from the bakery like Blackmur, Ransom, Tate, Empson, and Brooks. They taught me how to read, how to reread, even to overread—slow read and rapid read; they readied me to admire Finnegans Wake and its subsidences. Ulysses was not hard to read, just difficult to understand; Pound’s Cantos were difficult to read, therefore the proper measure of a man.

John Donne was splendid when we first set our eyes on him, but even a greater poet when we got through with our inquiries. Shelley, some said, did not vacuum very well. Congratulations for enjoying such prejudices should be directed to whom, then? Not to a “he,” not to a “him,” but to a “we” whom we called the New Critics. They also came equipped with fallacy detectors, purifiers, instruments of analysis and deduction, mops to sweep up multiple meanings: they enlarged poems, they did not diminish them. Above all, they were largely poets—good poets—themselves.

Many of Abrams’s essays in The Fourth Dimension of a Poem are defensive. They point to elements in poetry that are frequently overlooked, and aspects that should be attended to. They wish to protect the traditional humanist from the poststructuralist’s heavy boot. And often there is a tone not of defeat, but of hopelessness in the arguments of the opposing sides when Abrams refers to …

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  1. *

    I have learned only recently that he is known to everyone as “Mike,” but he was Professor Abrams to me, and then became identified by his initials, M.H.A., when his books came out. I see no reason why he should remember now a W.H.G. However, my ignorance is a measure of the distance between us.