The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Abstract: The opposite of concrete. Broadly speaking, abstract terms and statements describe ideas, concepts, or qualities, whereas concrete terms and statements refer to specific people, places, events, or things. “Love” and “hate,” for instance, are abstract terms, as are “agony,” “ingenuity,” “persistence,” and “theocracy.” By contrast, terms such as “firefighter,” “kiss,” “mall,” “rain,” and “spider” are concrete. Likewise, the last two lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820), spoken by the urn itself, are abstract: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” By contrast, the first two lines of William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1919), which also include the word “beauty,” are concrete: “The trees are in their autumn beauty, / The woodland paths are dry… .”

In literary works, concrete passages are richly detailed and often make use of imagery and figurative language to create a vivid and immediate experience for the reader. Abstract passages are more general, often taking an intellectual or theoretical approach to the subject being described. The old adage “show, don’t tell” reflects a preference for concrete writing.

The term abstract is also used to refer to a short summary or overview of a longer work. Abstracts are standard in several fields, particularly in the sciences.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Robert Burns’s most famous poetic statement, “O, my Luve’s like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” (1796), is a concrete poetic statement. W. H. Auden’s statement on love in “Heavy Date” (1940) is abstract:

I believed for years that

Love was the conjunction

Of two oppositions;

That was all untrue… .