The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 23, 2013

July 23, 1912

The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition appeared in 1953. The author of the iconic text is Meyer Abrams, born July 23, 1912. Abrams studied at Harvard in the 30s, where

he was given a “downright warning” by his faculty adviser that the “profession [humanities] was not open to Jews.” 

 In 1945 he was hired at Cornell, and spent his career elucidating English literature. What a difference a world war makes.

We quote from the Tablet article on Abrams, the source of the information in this post, an article which summarizes the theme of The Mirror and the Lamp.

If the Romantics began to think of art as expression and projection rather than imitation, it was because they had suffered a drastic loss of confidence in the worthiness and meaningfulness of the world they imitated. For many poets, Abrams shows in his section on “Newton’s Rainbow and the Poet’s,” this anxiety was expressed in the way they thought about the rainbow. In the Book of Genesis, the rainbow is the sign of God’s pledge, after the flood, that he will never again destroy the world. To a faithful Jew or Christian, every time a rainbow emerges after a storm, it is a reminder of that cosmic benevolence and continuity. By showing that the rainbow is in fact the artifact of light passing through water droplets, Newton severed the natural phenomenon from its supernatural meaning. It was for this reason that, at a storied dinner in 1817, the Romantic writers John Keats and Charles Lamb drank a toast of “confusion to mathematics,” agreeing that Newton “had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colors.”

The rainbow, here, is a symbol of the disenchantment of the world by science. And the Romantic project, Abrams shows, was to overcome that disenchantment by finding a new source of meaning and value derived from the soul of the artist. Genius, poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge believed, was not just exceptional artistic skill. It was, Abrams writes, the power “to overcome the sense of man’s alienation from the world by healing the cleavage between subject and object, between the vital, purposeful, value-full world of private experience and the dead postulated world of extension, quantity, and motion.”

Abrams gets into the heaven of the Cat Lovers Almanac by virtue though, of his founding of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, in 1962. This hallmark literary event, includes of course, an entry for Gray's "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes." And his inclusion here is despite Abram's categorizing the greatest poem ever written as "occasional literature."

Maybe on the grounds of his being a centenarian, too. Meyer Abrams is living in a retirement setting in Ithaca, New York. His wife died in 2008. His most recent book, The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays was published in 2012.

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