Flashback: a Cornell English seminar 62 years ago. Professor Meyer “Mike” H. Abrams trades jokes with his student, Harold.
Harold Bloom GRD ’56, that is.
The scene was recreated Monday when Abrams, a renowned critic and founding editor of the canonical Norton Anthology of English Literature, delivered a lecture before an attentive audience of more than 160 faculty members and students in Linsly-Chittenden Hall. Bloom, Yale’s eminent Shakespeare and poetry scholar, introduced his former professor’s 60-minute lecture, which was titled “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem.”
An English professor for six decades at Cornell, Abrams is an innovative critic who focuses on English Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Abrams’s book of critical essays, “The Mirror and the Lamp,” ranked 25th among the Modern Library’s 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century.
Bloom appeared tired and shaky as he struggled to put on his glasses before reading a short introduction. He remained seated while he gave an overview of Abrams’s career and delved into their personal relationship.
“In the 55 years I have taught at Yale, I very frequently recall how Mike’s strong intellect and humane concerns helped me when I most needed it at the very beginning,” Bloom said. “My ongoing effort in teaching undergraduates is a result of his lifelong and ongoing influence upon me.”
Abrams, 97, lightened the mood with his humorous energy. He asked the audience to imagine what it was like for a young teacher to be confronted with a student like Harold Bloom.
“He seemed to have sprung full-fledged from the brow of Zeus,” Abrams said with a laugh, and the audience joined him.
He effortlessly began his lecture, which centered on the oral component of reading poetry. The “fourth dimension of poetry,” Abrams said, facilitates the reader’s interaction with the text.
Abrams applied his close reading technique — an auditory analysis of consonance and meter — by dissecting six poems and giving each a dramatic reading. He focused on how sound qualities convey the meaning of the words. For instance, he explained how the varying lengths of “s” sounds mirror the irregularity of waves in the W. H. Auden poem “On This Island.”
“There is no bad way to read a poem,” he said. “Each poem presents its own challenges or opportunities.”
Abrams’s haunting rendition of “Mansion” by contemporary poet A. R. Ammon, his former student at Cornell, created a profound silence in the room. Abrams concluded his lecture to great applause and a standing ovation.
The students who crowded the aisles said they were awed by the presence of an English language icon.
It took Justin Sider GRD ’14 a long time to find the words to describe his reaction.
“It’s really exciting to see a critic whose work was so foundational to our own,” he said.
Max Ritvo ’13 shared Sider’s sentiment. He said Abrams’s method of criticism would give him “a whole host of things to think about” as an aspiring writer at Yale.
Under the guidance of Abrams, who served as the general editor of the first seven editions, The Norton Anthology of English Literature became the most iconic textbook of college-level English survey courses.