The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays by M. H. Abrams
M. H Abrams remains a central figure in the history of modern literary criticism whose contributions to the field are of permanent importance. This collection of nine essays on different but related literary topics is a compilation of articles, lectures and addresses that were composed during a forty-year period. The volume’s title comes from the name of first essay, which begins an eloquently written, well-researched book that explores some of the major issues in literary studies today. My short overview is a summary of five essays that are discussed in roughly chronological order, rather than in the order of their appearance in the published text.
Both “The Language and Methods of Humanism” (1975) and “What Is a Humanistic Criticism?” (1995) take issue with highly specialized approaches to literature and approaches that jettison skepticism in favor of a vatic and oracular critical voice. The true voice of the critic, Abrams argues, is dispassionate but also able to relate to the world in which the author generally [End Page 401] lives and writes. At the same time, humanistic criticism is contrasted in the latter paper with poststructuralist criticism, which seems to ignore practical, everyday contexts in order to focus on meanings that are perpetually destabilized where truth seems to have lost its historical ties. Particularly in the latter essay, Abrams offers an informed and readable account of why deconstruction is often opposed to historical criticism. His discussion of Derrida is cogent and perspicacious, just as his inclusion of Wittgenstein in this on-going debate is useful and perceptive. It might be objected, nonetheless, that deconstructive criticism might be combined with historical approaches to literature to the degree that ambiguity in interpretation invariably operates in the sphere of indeterminacy itself.
In contrast, “Kant and the Theology of Art” (1981) explores intellectual history to account for the belief in beauty as a value for its own sake. In this essay, Abrams cites a vast range of authorities in the history of ancient and modern aesthetics to argue that theology performed an essential role in the evolution of criticism. Kant’s aesthetic model is said to occupy a pivotal position in this history insofar as it includes a belief in disinterestedness and also in the transcendent power of beauty as such. Modern criticism tends either to emphasize aesthetic disinterestedness or to uphold the value of art according to a tradition that is basically theological in origin. For instance, both New Criticism and various formalist approaches to the visual arts adopt a disinterested relationship to their subject matter. Abrams contends that the tendency to view art as a transcendent reality basically derives from different versions of Platonism as theologically impacted. And yet, Clive Bell provides a relatively secularized version of this tendency whenever the visual art object is identified with a quality of perfection that goes beyond everyday life experience.
“The Fourth Dimension of a Poem” (2010) and “Keats’ Poems: The Material Dimension” (1998) are justly placed at the beginning of this collection and contribute significantly to addressing an important linguistic, aesthetic and literary problem. At a time when poetry’s sensuous qualities often go unheard, Abrams demonstrates that poetry is basically an aural medium and that aurality is an aesthetic quality that casts light on crucial poems in the modern canon from Wordsworth to Ammons. He also argues strongly in the second essay that the lyrical tradition greatly benefitted from the syntactic, semiotic and intertextual resources that Keats deeply explores in his final poems. Rather than limit this aesthetic quality to materiality, strictly speaking, Abrams argues that the so-called fourth dimension can be discovered in Romantic and post-Romantic poems, as well as in modernist and contemporary works that exploit the material effects of sound. Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” allows Abrams to discuss how Collins served as the precursor poet for an author who adopted a more strongly aural conception of poetic language in his unique response to the natural landscape.
This collection is thematically cohesive and deals with issues that remain crucial to contemporary theory and criticism. Abrams’ erudition and love [End Page 402] of literature are evident throughout, while his knowledge of Romantic texts is brought up-to-date with excursions into the pertinence of that period to the ecological crisis that looms on the horizon. For these reasons, and many others, this book is recommended to all readers who care about the future of literature and about the world in which literature is written and read.