M. H. Abrams ‘The Mirror and the Lamp’
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In the first chapter of the Orientation of critical theories entitled The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) M. H. Abrams concentrates on four main elements; the universe, the audience, the artist, and the work and relates them to four broad critical theories that explain the nature and worth of art. He explains that almost all theories will make use of at least one of these elements, some all four. That is a critic will derive from one of these terms his principle categories for defining, classifying and analyzing a work of art, as well as the major criteria by which he judges it value. The four critical theories of orientation that Abrams relates them to are mimetic, pragmatic, expressive and objective and I will start by describing mimetic.
Mimetic theories explore art as imitations of the universe. From the days of Plato and beyond mimetic orientations operated with three categories; that of everlasting ideas, that of the natural and artificial world and that of reflections, mirror images, shadows and the fine arts. However more recent mimetic theories usually have only two categories, the imitation and the imitable.
In the tenth book of Plato’s The Republic, Plato (427-384BC), Socrates and Glaucon discuss the nature of art around the three stage category. Here Socrates makes the point that there are three beds; the essence and idea of the bed, made by God, the bed made by the carpenter and the bed found in a painting, (thus the artist is an imitator). Then Plato
discards the divinely inspired poets’ work as a mere imitation of the transitory actual world, stating that the ‘creation of poets and artists are copies of copies of ideal reality, they are third hand distortions of the truth, valueless and potentially misleading.’
However, Aristotle’s The Poetics, argued that poetry creatively represents what is universal in human experience, stating that men enjoy being naturally imitative, and that they learn by it. It ascertains that the form of literature, not just the content, has to be taken into account. Here Aristotle (394-322BC) argues that we do not react to what we are shown, as Plato assumes, but also to how we are shown it. However it became clear that imitation was only instrumental toward producing effects upon an audience. Therefore in later theories the focus of interest shifted from work to universe to work to audience and pragmatic theories came into play.
Pragmatic theories explore art in terms of its effects and reception. Their critics examine the authors ‘nature’ and powers which enables him to convert, teach and delight the audience, they rank poems on their abilities to evoke an effect which they are suited to achieve, and they derive the norms of the poetic arts from the needs and demands of the audience.
Sidney (1554-1586) held a pragmatic approach stating (as Horace (65-8BC) did) that ‘Poesy, is an imitation of art [….] to delight and teach’. With this in mind he classified poetry from the point of view of the moral and social effect it was suited to achieve, thus
elevating the poets status above the historian and the moral philosopher. However where Sidney’s chief purpose of poetry was to instruct the audience in morals and to move them more forcefully to virtue, Horace’s aim was to give pleasure. This aiming to please can link pragmatics to rhetorics as rhetoric theory is concerned with how induce applause from all. However after a time this emphasis on the audience began to fade, and the artist became the new focus of critical interest. Thus expressive theories were born.
Expressive theories define art in relation to the imaginative process, and art as the internal thoughts and feelings of a poet made external in his work as a result of a creative process. As Wordsworth (1770-1850) states in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of 1800 ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. The poetry itself is generated by the artists impulse to express his perceptions and emotions. Wordsworth suggests that poetry may derive not so much from imitating nature as from imaginatively re-creating it. He states that the poet, although he is a ‘man speaking to men’ differs from others due to his profound sensitivity and powers of the imagination. Thus the pragmatic Wordsworth places the poet at the centre of attention.
In expressive theories genres of poetry are ranked according to diction and its naturalness. It has to be true to nature and match the feelings and state of mind of the poet while composing, allowing the reader to get an insight into the heart and soul of the artist. Thus the work ceases to be regarded as primarily a reflection of nature, but an ‘uttering forth of feelings’ (Mill 1833) expressed by the poet.
Objective theories differ from the other orientations described so far, as they are considered in isolation, as art as a whole, and their significance and value are determined without any reference beyond itself. (Even Aristotle isolated the species tragedy and analyzed it in terms of six elements; plot, character, melody, thought, spectacle and diction.) In other words objective theories ignore the artist, the audience and the world and deal with ‘art for arts sake’; its style, its form and its relation to other works.
As T. S Eliot (1888-1965) stated in his dictum of 1928: ‘When we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing.’ In addition to this it was written by Macleish that the concept of the poem is not to instruct or please, but simply to exist: ‘A poem should not mean But be.’
On reading the four orientations in The Mirror and the Lamp I have found it useful in learning that it is the lamp which sheds light on the world, rather than the mirror that merely reflects it. I have learned that the mimetic poet simply holds his mirror up to nature whilst the pragmatic poet is measured by his capacity to satisfy the public taste, the expressionist poet is deemed special and is separated from normal men whilst being a force of nature who writes what he must, and that the objective theories are the all inclusive approach to poetry. In addition to this I have learned that these theories are not constant, they are variable, however they each have their own characteristics to be associated with. In conclusion, M. H. Abrams work has been extremely useful in describing critical orientations from the time of Plato to the present day.
M. H. Abrams. Orientation of critical theory. Chapter 1, The Mirror and the Lamp. 1953.