In his discourse on the themes and variations of the apocalypse, M.H. Abrams focuses on the cyclical nature of humanity and human history as implied by the Book of Revelation.

The shape of history implied by Revelation is a circular one which constitutes, as Karl Löwith has put it, “one great detour to reach in the end the beginning”. “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.’ But the new is represented as a renewal, and the Endzeit as a recovery of the Urzeit. The heaven and earth that God in the beginning had created he ends by recreating; Adam and Eve, who have fallen, are replaced by the Lamb and his redeemed Bride; the paradise which has been lost recurs in an equivalent state which includes the Edenic properties of the “river of water of life” and “the tree of life”; and men and women shall in the end regain their original innocence and its attendant felicity, for “there shall be no more curse,’ hence “no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying [nor] any more pain” . . . the temporal process — both in the history of mankind and in the life of each individual — is a circular movement from a unitary felicity, through self-division, sin, exile, and suffering, back to the initial felicity.

Abrams expounds upon an accepted facet of today’s society: history is cyclical. From the beginning of time — marked by the creation of Heaven and Earth — mankind progresses as if situated on the outer surface of a sphere, destined “to reach in the end the beginning.” Among all else, however, Abrams emphasizes the importance of the journey in increasing the ultimate quality of man’s existence. The “self-division, sin, exile, and suffering” man must endure to claim his final paradise makes its value that much greater; though man’s original paradise — Eden — was inherited from God, his lasting paradise will have been earned. Abrams smoothly transitions from a commentary on man’s “circuitous course” into a conversation concerning its thematic prevalence in Romantic literature.

A century or so later philosophers and poets translated this myth of man’s circuitous course from Eden to a far happier paradise into the distinctive Romantic figure of development — whether in history, the individual life, intellection, or the realm of morality, culture, and art — as a spiral: all process departs from an undifferentiated unity into sequential self-division, to close in an organized unity which has a much higher status than the original unity because it incorporates all the intervening divisions and oppositions.

By translating man’s journey toward a perfect paradise into the concept of character development, philosophers and poets essentially created a genre of literature focusing primarily on the coming-of-age process or maturation of the individual. These bildungsromanen, including works like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, comprise much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature.


1. Abrams incorporates John Milton’s concept of man’s “fortunate fall.” In other words, the fall of man not only gave him Christ, it also made the ultimate paradise earned, whereas the initial paradise — Eden — was merely inherited. How does this allusion support his argument?

2. Abrams explores the concept of man’s “circuitous course.” In what ways do Carlyle and Ruskin also focus on mankind’s cyclical tendencies?

3. In the first of two quoted passages above, Abrams lists a series of examples in an attempt to prove that man will, at the end, be as he was in the beginning. How do these examples function in Abrams’ essay? Can they adequately suffice as evidence if, in most instances, man has not reached the “end” and their individual accuracy cannot yet be proven or determined?

4. Why does Abrams articulate the “Romantic figure of development . . . as a spiral” when he draws his original analogy from man’s circuitous nature? How do these shapes differ? In what ways are they the same?

Last modified 15 February 2011