M.H. Abrams, a literary scholar who revived interest in the Romantic poets with a landmark study in the 1950s and who edited the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which has been required reading for millions of students for the past half-century, died April 21 at a retirement community in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 102.
The death was announced by Cornell University, where Dr. Abrams was a longtime professor. The cause was not disclosed.
Years before the anthology appeared, Dr. Abrams made a lasting contribution to literary scholarship with his 1953 book “The Mirror and the Lamp,” which was credited with outlining a new understanding of the impulses of artistic creation.
In that book, Dr. Abrams defined a fundamental change in aesthetic sensibility that coincided with the dawn of the Romantic era, as exemplified in the works of 19th-century British poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.
Dr. Abrams used the metaphors of the mirror and lamp — derived from a poem by William Butler Yeats — to illustrate how the purpose of artistic expression changed over time. Before the Romantic era, he argued, poets and artists sought to imitate the world around them, as if holding up a mirror to nature.
With the Romantic revolution, artists began to embrace emotion and imagination as never before. The lamp was symbolic of the light of the poet’s soul shining on the broader world.
“It sums up an entire intellectual moment,” Erik Gray, an associate professor of English at Columbia University, said Thursday in an interview. “It takes enormous work to say something that simple and to back it up with scholarship and epistemological analysis.”
Dr. Abrams continued to be one of the foremost scholars of Romanticism throughout his career and in 1971 published another influential study, “Natural Supernaturalism.” In that book, he showed how traditional religious notions such as transcendence became interwoven with Romantic ideals that represented a more secular and personal understanding of the world.
“Natural Supernaturalism” was buttressed by Dr. Abrams’s knowledge of German philosophy of the 19th century. With his wide-ranging knowledge of many fields, he was asked by the Norton publishing house to compile an anthology of the greatest works in the history of English literature.
He edited the section on Romantic poetry and supervised six scholars who prepared the other sections of the collection, which ranged from Old English to the 20th century. Published in two volumes in 1962, the anthology helped codify the notion of English literature as a river of thought and expression, rather than a disconnected collection of books, poems and plays.
“We believed that to understand literature, you had to understand its place in history and culture,” Dr. Abrams told the Associated Press in 1999.
He insisted that the literary works be published in their entirety — not merely excerpts — whenever possible. He recommended that the anthology be portable to allow it to be “read anywhere, in one’s private room, in the classroom, or under a tree.”
Dr. Abrams edited the first seven editions of the anthology, which spawned a legion of imitators. Now in its ninth edition and under the general supervision of Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, the anthology has been expanded to include two volumes of more than 3,000 pages each. It has sold more than 9 million copies and to a large extent has come to represent the accepted literary tradition.
“I never thought of establishing the English canon,” Dr. Abrams said in a 2012 interview with Tablet magazine. “It was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Meyer Howard Abrams was born July 23, 1912, in Long Branch, N.J. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Europe, was a house painter. The family spoke Yiddish at home.
Dr. Abrams, who was known as Mike, went to Harvard on scholarship at a time when the college limited the number of its Jewish students. He studied English, he later told the Cornell alumni magazine, because “there weren’t jobs in any other profession, so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.”
He graduated in 1934, then spent a year at the University of Cambridge in England before returning to Harvard for graduate study in English literature. He received a master’s degree in 1937 and a doctorate in 1940.
During World War II, Dr. Abrams worked at an acoustic laboratory at Harvard, helping develop a phonetic alphabet that could be heard by soldiers amid the din of battle. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1945 and retired in 1983. His students included novelist Thomas Pynchon and literary critic Harold Bloom.
Among other works, Dr. Abrams was the author of “A Glossary of Literary Terms,” often revised after its initial publication in 1957. His first book appeared in 1934 and his final book, “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem,” came out in 2012, when he was 100.
Dr. Abrams received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in a 2014 ceremony at the White House.
His wife of 71 years, Ruth Gaynes Abrams, died in 2008. Survivors include two daughters; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
At Cornell, Dr. Abrams attended every home football game and chaired the university’s centennial commission in 1965.
In 2006, he reflected on the surprising durability of the literary collection he created more than 40 years before.
“I thought that we’d get the anthology done in about a year, and the thing would have fair sales for about a decade or so,” he told the Cornell alumni magazine. “Instead of a year, it took four years, and instead of lasting a decade, it seems to have become eternal.”