Writers imitate their precursors, consciously or not. Nobody starts from scratch. Even the Homeric poems had traditions behind them. To write is to enter a conversation, to make your own reading into a usable past, to choose the literary company you seek to join, or to beat. A writer, Saul Bellow said, is a reader moved to emulation. The question is not whether to imitate, but what to imitate and how.
But you don’t need to apply much pressure to these claims to see that the matter isn’t straightforward. When writers imitate, what do they do? Adopt or adapt a precursor’s vocabulary, syntax, imagery, or turns of phrase? Choose similar themes or subject matter? Aim to show a common set of ethical, spiritual or political concerns? Follow an established progression, such as the Virgilian cursus from pastoral to georgic to epic? Or is imitation above all a matter of writing in the spirit of a precursor, suitably modified: writing as they would have written, if they were working here and now?
From early on, discussions of literary imitation emphasised the importance of making it new. In his 84th Epistle, Seneca described the process in a series of analogies. Imitate as bees make honey, gathering pollen from various flowers and blending their flavours. Digest your reading as you digest your food, transforming it from raw material into nourishment. The new work should resemble the old as a child resembles its father, not as a portrait resembles its sitter. Honey-making, digestion, generation: the common ground in these analogies is transformation, and the common goal is the independence of the new work. Like most good advice, Seneca’s is easier said than followed. If you have a single precursor in mind, as the parent/child analogy implies, the challenge lies in establishing your own voice; the greater the precursor, the greater the challenge. If you follow multiple precursors, as the apian and digestive analogies imply, the challenge is coherence.
How is imitation taught and learned? Is it like apprenticeship to a master, a matter of acquiring skill through practice? How would the apprenticeship model work if your master wrote in another language, time and place? Is imitation a phase, to be practised by a beginner and then dispensed with? How, as a reader or critic, do you identify, evaluate and discuss literary imitation? Does it require a demonstrable verbal resemblance between old and new? How can you tell when imitation is intentional, or when a precursor’s influence has crept in unbidden? Does it matter? On what grounds do you judge whether the imitating author has produced a living child or a lifeless portrait?
These are some of the questions that a history of literary imitation will explore. It is an enormous subject. Even if you want to stick to literature – a hard enough category to circumscribe – you can’t. Plato and Aristotle, whose discussions of mimesis started the ball rolling, were concerned with the way poets imitated reality, rather than their imitation of other authors. That somewhat narrower question emerged from the Roman rhetorical tradition, which is why literary imitation has usually been denoted by the Latin imitatio rather than the Greek mimesis. But the boundary between the broader and narrower senses has never been firm, and the history of literary imitation has always been bound up with the histories of philosophy, rhetoric and education. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca, Quintilian, Petrarch and Erasmus will figure in any serious treatment, and from there it’s up for grabs. A different book could be written for each modern vernacular literature that bears the influence of classical antiquity. A thorough account will include both theory and practice: critical and philosophical writing on imitation, and the way authors have actually gone about it. Books, articles, whole careers have been devoted to studying particular cases: Virgil imitating Homer, or Renaissance humanists imitating Cicero, or English Romantics imitating Milton, or modern novelists trying not to imitate Joyce. A historian of imitation has to survey this vast body of scholarship without becoming overwhelmed.
This is the challenge Colin Burrow has set himself in Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity, a long and dense book that in less expert hands would be much longer and denser. Burrow’s home turf is early modern English literature, but he is an early modernist of exceptional range, extending across to the Continent, back to classical antiquity, and forward to contemporary poetry and fiction. He is also uncommonly good at explaining recondite matters in plain English. His book proceeds from ancient Greece to Rome, discussing philosophy, rhetoric and epic poetry; skips a millennium to Petrarch, takes up Renaissance humanist debates over imitation, and reads Castiglione’s Courtier and Cervantes’s Don Quixote as imitative texts. From here on his archive is mainly Anglophone. Two long chapters on Jonson and Milton give the book a 17th-century centre of gravity. Eighteenth-century imitation from Pope to Wordsworth is considered in light of emerging copyright law and ideas of literary property. Frankenstein leads a discussion of monsters, clones, automata and simulacra, including Battlestar Galactica and Never Let Me Go. Futurity is represented by AI-generated poems and Christian Bök’s The Xenotext (2011-), an experimental work in progress that aims to create the world’s most durable poem by enciphering text into the DNA of the hardiest of life forms, the bacterium D. radiodurans.
Histories of large, unruly concepts generally balance rival tendencies, philosophical and philological. The author’s inner philosopher says: define your terms. Draw boundaries. Explain what your subject is and what it isn’t. Concept histories in which the inner philosopher predominates tend to proceed from ancient vagueness to modern precision, telling a story of ramification and clarification. But the author’s inner philologist says: work empirically. Start with actual usage; look at the archive and describe what’s there. If your concept has been used in multiple, confused, imprecise or incompatible ways, say so. Concept histories in which the inner philologist predominates are more comfortable with imprecision and less inclined to tidy things up. Most authors of intellectual histories have both an inner philologist and an inner philosopher, but the balance of power varies.
Burrow’s inner philologist has the upper hand. He is comfortable with imitation as a slippery concept, a ‘moving target’, ‘one of the great migrant concepts in Western literature’, with a ‘very long, and in many respects very confused’ history. This slipperiness is one source of its interest:
It is tempting to play the analytic philosopher here and say by ‘imitation’ we mean too many things and that what we really need to do is to slice through the confusions with a fine edge of distinction. However I very much do not want to do that. ‘Imitation’ is an important concept because it is one which has never been completely broken down into its constituent elements. It is a revealing way into human and literary history because it is so unruly.
He does provide, early on, something like a definition: ‘The act of imitating an earlier author entails constructing an imagined view of what is distinctive about that author.’ That’s an excellent way to put it, though the idea of imitation as imagined distinctiveness turns out not to figure prominently in the story he tells. Imitating Authors starts with ancient vagueness, but it doesn’t tell a story of progressive clarification. In Burrow’s account the concept has been unstable throughout its history.
It’s not an easy story to summarise. The word mimesis was ‘extremely complex in sense from its earliest recorded occurrences’; there was no ur-meaning. Plato, who rejected poetry as an imitation of imitations of the Forms, had a notoriously flexible idea of what ‘imitation’ meant. The shift from mimesis to imitatio was first brought about by rhetoricians, Hellenistic and then Roman. Greek philosophers were vague about mimesis; Roman rhetoricians were metaphorical about imitatio. The art of rhetoric included precepts, which could be codified; it also required practice, gained by following the example of a master rhetor. As Quintilian put it in the Institutes of Oratory: ‘But these rules of style, while part of the student’s theoretical knowledge, are not in themselves sufficient to give him oratorical power (vim). In addition he will require that assured facility which the Greeks call hexis.’ This understanding of imitation as building hexis or gradually acquired skill was the salient one for Roman rhetoricians.
In the next great shift, imitating a living master gave way to imitating texts. This possibility had existed for the Romans: Quintilian advocated the imitation of Cicero, who had been dead for more than a century when he wrote. But with Renaissance humanism textual imitation became the norm, and since the texts the humanists put forward as objects of imitation were above all those of classical antiquity, the question of how to imitate at a temporal and cultural distance gained new prominence. ‘Adaptive imitation’ favoured treating your precursor as a transhistorical spirit or ‘subjunctive principle’: the idea was to write as Cicero, Horace or Virgil would write, were they here now. Petrarch represented himself as leading the way back to imitating the ancients, and he carefully concealed his debts to the medieval and late antique writers through whom his understanding of the ancients was filtered. Discussions of imitatio proliferated among early modern intellectuals. There were eclectic imitators and Cicero-only imitators. There were imitators of style, imitators of form, and proponents of a more comprehensive imitation whereby your exemplar was to serve as a ‘living model for conduct’: treat Cicero not only as a guide to Latin prose but as a guide to life. Some imitators presented their own techniques of imitation as exemplary: Jonson and Milton are Burrow’s mighty examples. Jonson’s Epigrams display, with conscious ostentation, how thoroughly they have absorbed their source, the epigrams of Martial. Milton’s experiments with scale involve using his classical precursors as ‘models’ in a then contemporary sense: a model was a small-scale replica made in advance by architects or shipbuilders. Paradise Lost’s war in heaven – hosts of angels fighting with chariots, swords and spears, eventually hurling mountains at one another in mid-air – was a magnified version of Homeric combat, making the Iliad’s epic warfare look small by comparison.
The 18th century saw a shift from imitation as a practice to ‘imitations’, which could mean freely adaptive works such as Pope’s Imitations of Horace, satirical poems in the Horatian tradition about 1730s England. Or ‘imitations’ could refer to particular instances of verbal correspondence, what we now call ‘allusions’, such as Milton’s ‘Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’, which alludes to Ariosto’s ‘Cosa non detta in prosa mai, né in rima’. We have now come to see imitation and originality as opposed. In place of the ancient imitative ideal whereby old and new works were ontological equals – like Seneca’s parent and child – we have substituted originals and replicants, reality and simulacrum. Our preoccupation with clones and simulacra, evident from Frankenstein to science fiction, illustrates the way our ‘language of imitation has spun outwards and away from the larger classical tradition’.
Modern scholarship often restricts the study of imitation to verbal correspondence or allusion. Burrow points out that most ancient and Renaissance writers understood imitation more broadly, and his book is mainly interested in these broader senses. His favourite is Quintilian’s idea of imitation as the development of hexis. That Quintilian reaches for a Greek term here is part of the point: hexis is not easy to define. You know it when you see it. It is the practised ease with which a surgeon makes an incision, or a paleographer reads a manuscript, or a French baker slashes each baguette before it goes in the oven. It’s a matter of doing, not knowing, and it is gained gradually, through imitative practice.
‘What has tended to be marginalised in the more recent history of imitation,’ Burrow writes, ‘is the aspect of it that was most central to the rhetorical tradition. That is the view that the imitator learns from an exemplum a practice rather than a series of texts or a sequence of words, and that the end of imitation is the acquisition of a habituated skill, rather than a specific set of actions or phrases.’ It is true that we no longer think of imitation this way. That is not to say that we have marginalised the idea of gradually acquired skill. Versions of hexis are everywhere, by other names. Musicians practise, athletes train, artisans take apprenticeships. ‘Practice makes perfect’ is proverbial, and the idea that mastery comes gradually through hard work is familiar to the point of banality.
In a subset of professions mastery requires an element of distinctiveness or originality – literature might seem to be one of them. But even if MFA writing programmes talk about ‘craft’ rather than imitation or hexis, they exist on the premise that craft can be taught. In the MFA version of apprenticeship, the workshop model, student writers submit work in progress for comment to experienced teachers and to one another. The idea is that this process will produce better poets or novelists. Whatever your view of MFA programmes, their proliferation shows that the model has its believers.
Burrow thinks we overvalue originality and undervalue imitation. Our tendency to oppose the two produces anxieties that might be alleviated by reclaiming the old, active sense of hexis:
The wider consequence of recognising that imitation is principally a matter of acquiring a set of habituated ways of doing – a practice or a hexis – and that this is something all language users necessarily do whether they want to or not, is to accept that we are partly other people, and we are also partly what we have read. Accepting that does not entail any loss of autonomy or the unfreedom which has been a repeated source of anxiety throughout the wider history of thinking and writing about imitatio … Recognising that the pressures which have built up in later modernity not to be a copy or a clone but to be an ‘original’ are products of a longer history might remind us that those pressures can be resisted.
The change Burrow calls for would merely require a bit of conceptual irredentism: extending a familiar idea (of the gradually acquired skill) back into a concept (imitation) where it used to belong. It would restore the view that imitation is an essential part of the creative process, not antithetical to it. It would emphasise what becoming a writer has in common with becoming a plumber or hairdresser or sushi chef. It would support a view of authorship like John Gregory Dunne’s, who described writing for a living as ‘a job, like laying pipe’.
Imitating Authors describes two developments over the past three centuries that helped imitation lose its old sense and take a pejorative turn. The first is the development in the 18th century of intellectual property law, which enabled a distinction between borrowing from the ancients, whose work could be understood as common property, and stealing from the moderns, or plagiarism. Vernacular precursors, like Milton for the Romantics, occupied an uncertain middle ground: was Paradise Lost a common good or a valuable piece of literary property? The second development is the literary history of automata. Descartes had argued that an automaton couldn’t be truly rational because it couldn’t produce apt speech for any occasion. Later writers imagined variations on this theme. In Frankenstein the automaton comes to life, attaining its terrible knowledge of its difference from humans by seeing its reflection in a pool, in an imitation of Milton’s Eve imitating Ovid’s Narcissus. Battlestar Galactica features a race of humanoid robots who appear indistinguishable from humans even to themselves, blurring the boundary between replicant and human. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go tells of children cloned to provide organs for the ‘real’ human population. Are the clones as fully human as their genetic originals? If not, in what does the difference consist?
If these two developments don’t add up to an explanation of how imitation came to be understood negatively, there may be no explanation to find. Semantic shifts can be as difficult to retrodict as to interpret. But whatever the causes, over the past two centuries or so ‘imitation’ has become mainly pejorative in common usage and marginal in literary criticism. Writers still imitate their precursors, but they don’t call it imitation, and they do it for the most part without being aware of the intellectual history described in Burrow’s book. In modern criticism, discussion of writers’ relations to their precursors has played out in other terms: influence, canon, tradition, intertextuality. These terms overlap to some extent with the older ‘imitation’, but they aren’t synonyms: they have their own histories and nests of problems.
Burrow can’t cover the entire archive of imitation over the past two centuries, and there is much he understandably leaves out, but I would have been glad to have had his take on, say, Victorian medievalism, or modernist and postmodernist forms of adaptive imitation. The modernist insistence on new literary forms didn’t entail an absolute break with the past, in practice or theory. The challenge was to find or invent new usable pasts: new precursors to imitate, or new ways to imitate old ones. Hence Joyce’s virtuosic experiments in pastiche, Pound’s adaptive translations and idosyncratic reading lists, and Eliot’s ‘fragments I have shored against my ruins’. Without using the word ‘imitation’, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ takes a position close to Burrow’s on several important points. ‘We dwell with satisfaction,’ Eliot writes,
upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously …
Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged … [Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.
Both Eliot and Burrow regret what they see as a modern tendency to overvalue individuality. Both would like new writers to develop through sustained engagement with their precursors. By ‘great labour’ Eliot appears to have in mind intense self-directed study, such as Milton’s five-year ‘studious retirement’ in his twenties. The goal Eliot envisions is to absorb your precursors so thoroughly that they speak in and through your work. This is not self-abnegation but mastery. For both Eliot and Burrow the past is a source of vital nourishment for writers who seek it out, make it their own, and use it to create something new.
Jonathan Bate’s How the Classics Made Shakespeare has more modest goals. Bate grants that Shakespeare’s classical influences have often been studied before, but claims that ‘certain aspects of Shakespeare’s classical inheritance have been curiously neglected, perhaps because they are hiding in plain sight.’ Shakespeare, he writes, had a ‘classical intelligence’, by which he means several things. Classical works were among Shakespeare’s favourite books; his thinking was shaped by the classical rhetoric he was taught at grammar school; he chose classical sources for about a third of his poems and plays; his work is full of classical ideas about fate, ethics, politics and much else.
This claim doesn’t necessarily need a book-length examination. Not only have Shakespeare’s classical influences often been studied but these influences were hardly distinctive. Classical culture was ubiquitous in Shakespeare’s England. It formed the basis of formal education; classical myths, history, tags and allusions permeated Elizabethan learning and filtered down into popular culture. These are familiar facts. Bate might answer that while the general claim may be obvious the particulars have faded from view. It is well known, for example, that Ovid was widely read in Elizabethan England, at least by the minority who could read. It is well known that Shakespeare knew his Ovid. Yet many modern readers will need a gloss for lines like ‘Adonis painted by a running brook/And Cytherea all in sedges hid.’
The book’s structure is consistent. Each chapter points out something of Greek or Roman origin in Shakespeare’s world, then identifies it in his poetry. There were well known images of Venus in antiquity and in Renaissance Europe; Shakespeare, adapting Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, describes Cleopatra as ‘O’erpicturing that Venus where we see/The fancy out-work nature’. The classical genre terms ‘tragedy’, ‘comedy’ and ‘pastoral’ were employed and analysed in the Renaissance; Shakespeare takes a dig at learned genre theory in Polonius’s ‘pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral’. On the tomb of the merchant William Bond (d.1576) in St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, Latin verses describe Bond as a greater merchant than Jason of the golden fleece; in The Merchant of Venice Gratiano declares: ‘We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece.’ The last chapter, on Shakespeare’s posthumous ascent to the height of literary fame, breaks the pattern by shifting the meaning of ‘classic’ from ‘ancient Greek and Roman’ to ‘enduringly admired’.
Less predictably, Bate develops an argument about what kind of classically inspired author Shakespeare was: ‘almost always Ovidian, more often than is usually supposed Horatian, sometimes Ciceronian, occasionally Tacitean, an interesting mix of Senecan and anti-Senecan, and, I suggest, strikingly anti-Virgilian – insofar as Virgilian meant “epic” or “heroic”’. Like Burrow, Bate takes a broad view of literary inheritance. A writer may be identified with a particular subject matter, genre, theme, outlook, tone or manner of expression. Shakespeare has many particular debts to Ovid, which Bate explored in an earlier book, but in describing Shakespeare as an Ovidian poet here he is referring primarily to a more general similarity: both were fascinated by the power of sexual desire, and explored it from many angles. Shakespearean eros can be light-hearted, brutal, absurd, pure, perverse, star-crossed, constant or mutable; its currents of attraction go in all directions, as they do in Ovid. By ‘Horatian’ Bate has in mind the notion of the ‘good life’, that ideal of self-sufficiency, self-mastery and leisured country retirement given fullest literary expression, for Renaissance readers, in Horace’s poems. The exiled Duke Senior’s lines in As You Like It – ‘Hath not old custom made this life more sweet/Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court?’ – gesture towards the Horatian beatus ille topos: ‘Happy the man’, the opening words of Horace’s second epode, which praises life in the country away from worldly concerns.
It is one thing to notice that Shakespeare evokes the beatus ille topos. It is more difficult to say what he does with it. This is true of literary imitation generally: it is easier to identify an imitation than to interpret it. Not that identification is always straightforward, especially when working across languages. Even if you take a narrow view of imitation as demonstrable verbal resemblance there will be grey areas and borderline cases. But the hard part, the fun part, the mettle-testing part for a critic, comes in discussing why this imitation is here. What are its effects? What differences register, and how? What stance does the new work take towards the old: rivalry, recuperation, endorsement, irony, reversal? Some combination? There is an added complexity when writing about plays, because the critic needs to make an interpretive leap from the sentiments espoused by the dramatic characters to the views, motives or designs of the author.
Studies of Shakespeare often claim that Shakespeare took no positions. None, at least, that are available to us. The plays are plays: their utterances belong to the characters who speak them, and it is mere speculation which would be endorsed by their author. The sonnets, whatever they may be, are not autobiography. Shakespeare wrote no treatises and left no personally revealing documents. His own views on religion, politics, love, good life, poetry, philosophy, history, creativity, theatre or anything else are hidden from us, much as we might wish it otherwise. Bate gets the familiar disclaimer out of the way in his book’s opening sentences: ‘What did Shakespeare believe? We can only guess.’
Yet it’s hard to write a b00k about Shakespeare without giving him any positions or beliefs. To study Shakespeare on religion or politics or anything else, you look at the way these subjects are represented in his poems and plays. You notice patterns, recurring ideas or images or preoccupations. You compare his handling of these subjects to the writings of his contemporaries, to his sources, and to his contemporaries’ handling of the same sources. You notice which sources and types of source he returns to, how he uses them, what he doesn’t say that he might have said. You consider genre, dramatic circumstances, the constraints of performance. You consider the impact of current events, and events in his professional or private life, insofar as we know of them. After all this analysis it’s tempting to draw some conclusions, however provisional, about Shakespeare’s own views. Critics who declare that those views are hidden from us often start revealing them in the later pages of their books. Bate is no exception. He has Shakespeare ‘implicitly offering warnings as to the dire consequences of division between present-day patricians such as Leicester and Burghley, Essex and Cecil’. The example of Theseus ‘suggests that the youthful Shakespeare had a somewhat low opinion of men in the matter of love’. Or with more confidence: ‘Shakespeare is a realist. He knows that true love must combine eros and caritas.’
Bate’s main adversary is the decline of classical literacy. This decline has been in progress for a few generations now, and there seems little prospect of reversing it. Books like his do what they can by elucidating once familiar references, and demonstrating how a knowledge of Ovid or Seneca or Horace enriches one’s reading of Shakespeare. But to bring back classical literacy we would need to bring back classical languages. In a different way the decline of classical literacy is Burrow’s adversary too. The main reason we have lost the old active sense of ‘imitation’, I suspect, is that people stopped reading Cicero, Seneca, Quintilian and the other mainly Latin writers who promoted it.
Beyond their common interest in classical reception, these are both anti-Bloomian books. Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, first published in 1973, did more than any other work of modern criticism to establish an agonistic picture of the relation between author and precursor. It placed the fear of belatedness – you have nothing new to say, your poem has already been written by your mighty precursors – at the heart of the creative process. ‘A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety.’ Those who struggle with their precursors and come out artistically alive are ‘strong poets’, and it is only with such poets that Bloom is concerned.
He sees Shakespeare as the greatest exception to his rule, the poet who transcended all anxiety of influence. ‘Shakespeare’s prime precursor was Marlowe, a poet very much smaller than his inheritor.’ In fact Marlowe and Shakespeare were coevals. Marlowe was Shakespeare’s precursor only in that Marlowe got off to a faster start before he was fatally stabbed in a tavern in 1593, aged 29. Nor was Marlowe obviously the smaller poet, if you compare the work the two produced in their twenties. This isn’t to say that Marlowe, had he lived, would have kept up with Shakespeare, but he made the final score more lopsided by dying young. London theatrical circles were small, and the two would have known each other, perhaps well. When Shakespeare quoted a line from Marlowe’s Hero and Leander in As You Like It, he did so with what sounds like affection: ‘Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:/“Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”’ Bate’s account of Shakespeare’s classical influences has nothing to do with competition between precursor and inheritor. Ovid, Horace, Plutarch et al. were sources of material for Shakespeare, not rivals to be overcome. Bate has Shakespeare absorbing the same classical influences as other literate Elizabethans, and taking them in his own directions. This is more convincing historically than Bloom’s account of Shakespeare absorbing Marlowe. It makes Shakespeare’s achievement no less magical but provides a clearer picture of how the magic worked.
Burrow’s book is anti-Bloomian in a broader sense: it opposes the agonistic picture of literary relations (Burrow’s recent essay on Bloom in the LRB of 21 November 2019 makes his opposition more explicit). Their difference begins with core vocabulary: influence v. imitation. Bloomian influence is exerted by precursors on successors, who must fight free of it if they can. Imitation, in the active sense Burrow wants to reclaim, is practised by successors. For the Burrovian imitating author (as for Eliot, and for Bate’s Shakespeare), the literary past is a source of inspiration. For the Bloomian strong poet, it is a source of existential anxiety. For Burrow, that we are ‘partly other people, and we are also partly what we have read’ are inevitable truths – liberating truths, once you accept them. For Bloom they are truths that strong poets must repress and resist with all their might: ‘what strong maker desires the realisation that he has failed to create himself?’ Small wonder that Burrow has little use for Bloom, who was more preoccupied with individuality than any other modern critic.
I have long preferred the non-agonistic view of literary transmission that Burrow, Bate and Eliot share, though it has felt like a minority opinion among literary critics. The agonistic view has had a good run in recent decades, and not only as a result of The Anxiety of Influence; it has benefited from the long half-life of Freudian thought. One effect of reading Burrow’s and Bate’s books together is that their view starts to seem like common sense. So here, in an attempt at balance, is something in favour of the opposite view.
Once you jettison the Freudian baggage, Bloomian anxiety of influence is the literary version of a common experience: the worry that you will never do what you most want to do as well as somebody else already has: ‘I’ll never do X like Y, so why bother?’ The overwhelming superiority of Y can be hard to take, the more so when X is what you care about most in the world. But you learn to live with it and carry on, sadder and wiser. Y may be a contemporary or successor rather than a precursor. ‘We may as well break our fiddles over our knees,’ Fritz Kreisler said on hearing the young Heifetz. But he didn’t. One doesn’t. Bloom, I’m fairly sure, would have disliked this broadening redescription of his idea. He proposed it specifically as a theory of poetry – ‘the poet in a poet, or the aboriginal poetic self’, in a characteristically grand formulation – and he saw ‘I’ll never write like Milton’ as a deeper, more existential worry than ‘I’ll never play like Heifetz.’ But the more general redescription helps explain why one may find Bloom’s claims overstated and his vocabulary pretentious and nevertheless grant that he was onto something.
Bloom named the anxiety of influence, but he didn’t make it up. It describes a real phenomenon in literary history (unlike Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’, which he did make up). There is plenty of evidence for it in Burrow’s book. Take Petrarch’s efforts to conceal his post-classical sources, or the German humanist Johannes Sturm’s advice on how to cover your tracks: ‘an Imitator must hide all similitude and likenesse: which is never praysed but when it is comparable with the patterne, and yet cannot be perceived by what means and in what places, and examples it cometh to pass. But this means of hyding standeth in three things: In addition, ablation, alteration and changing.’ Seneca’s analogy – ‘Be like a son to a father, not a portrait to a sitter’ – assumes the possibility that an imitating author could get it wrong and produce a lifeless portrait. If there is a constant in the long, tangled history of imitation, it is that successful imitation has always been understood to require difference; it is no surprise, then, that worries about failing to achieve the necessary independence from your source can be found all along the way. Such worries were by no means always repressed; they could be acknowledged and handled strategically. Seneca’s 84th Epistle isn’t anxious, though it’s easy to imagine it provoking anxiety in an aspiring reader-author-imitator who wonders how, exactly, to follow such excellent advice. Burrow’s project doesn’t falsify Bloom’s so much as enfold it into a larger, more complicated story in which precursors could inspire and overshadow, burden and enable, point the way and block it.
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