Tuesday, April 15, 2008

For the Few Fools Who Still Care

... about poetry. I had the good fortune to once hear Meyer Abrams analyze a short poem by Wordsworth. The fluid assurance of his thought was as marvelous as the poetry itself. So I am pleased to read this tribute to his work and influence on the shrinking concern called "literature."

Why is it a sinking island? There's a clue in the difference between college now and this:

When he returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935, Abrams notes, it was "in the days when, to get a Ph.D., you had to study Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Old French, and linguistics, on the notion that they served as a kind of hard-core scientific basis for literary study."

I was reading the Romantics before I got to college and had to buy the Norton "Anthologies," which they anchor. But even for my early exposure to Keats, Wordsworth and Byron, I may have to thank Abrams.

Foregrounding that era, from the late-18th to the mid-19th centuries, was part of a shift in literary study. When Abrams started out, the basis of literary studies was in earlier periods and major figures like Spenser and Milton, and T.S. Eliot had dismissed the Romantic poets as inferior. Abrams helped turn the field toward the more modern sensibility of poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, who were more secular and concerned with problems of language and epistemology.

I would almost say I could live without Shelley, except for Julian and Maddalo, which is beyond brilliant and far ahead of its time.

But if you want to raise a glass to Abrams, do it for this:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Abrams's career is that he has kept up for more than 60 years. Through the 1970s and 80s, he sorted through and questioned new schools of literary theory like deconstruction and theorists like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida, whom he found compelling but disagreed with. He adds, "I've been skeptical from the beginning of attempts to show that for hundreds of years people have missed the real point," his chief quarrel with contemporary theory.