Magnifying the Mirror and the Lamp: A Critical Reconsideration of the Abramsian Poetical Model and its Contribution to the Research on Modern Dutch Literature

Aukje van Rooden


Ever since its publication in 1953, M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition has been one of the most influential studies in the field of literary criticism and theory. The development of Dutch literary studies in particular would be hardly understandable without Abrams’s account of critical theory and more specifically without his classification of literary theories into four main classes – that of the mimetic, pragmatic, expressive and objective theories. This article seeks to critically consider both Abrams’s theses and their influence on the research in the field of Dutch literature. It will do so by investigating the presuppositions motivating Abrams’s classification. The hypothesis will be that both Abrams himself and his followers wrongly emphasized the analytic philosophical neutrality of this poetical model and mistakenly applied this model to post-romantic literature. It will be argued that this application fails because the shift, around 1800, from mimetic to expressive theories highlighted by Abrams is followed by a more remarkable shift from an Aristotelian view of literature – to which the four classes of theories belong – to what one might call a hermeneutic one. In a nutshell, it could be said that the shift from an Aristotelian to a hermeneutic view entailed a shift from ‘truth’ to ‘meaning’. The latter was already taking shape in romanticism but was only fully realized subsequently. It is this shift that complicates or maybe even disqualifies the poetical model for contemporary criticism.


M.H. Abrams; Literary Theory; Literary Criticism; Poetics; Romanticism; Metaphysics; Truth; Hermeneutics

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