Bloom’s Giant Forms

Mark Edmundson

  • Ruin the sacred truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present by Harold Bloom
    Harvard, 204 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 674 78027 2
  • Harold Bloom: Towards Historical Rhetorics by Peter de Bolla
    Routledge, 155 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 415 00899 9

One way to think of Harold Bloom is as a professor and scholar of Romantic poetry who has Romantic aspirations of his own. He writes in the passionate style of Emerson and Shelley, and he has a penchant like Blake’s for system-building. Bloom would subscribe to that poet’s declaration in Jerusalem that his business isn’t to reason and compare, but to create. The characters in Blake’s cosmological fiction are named Urizen, Los, Enitharmon; in Bloom’s they include Wordsworth, Shelley, Emerson, Stevens and Blake.

Bloom’s giant forms contend with each other chiefly over the issue of priority. Each aspires to be self-begotten by his own quickening power, to adapt words of Milton’s Satan that Bloom finds congenial. But this inevitably cannot be. Even at the apex of their ‘originality’, poets are rewriting – and being rewritten by – their ‘strong precursors’. Of this process of generation, all poets are self-servingly ignorant. As Bloom puts it in The Anxiety of Influence (1973): ‘Oedipus, blind, was on the path to oracular godhood, and the strong poets have followed him by transforming their blindness towards their precursors into the revisionary insights of their own work.’ To Bloom, Wordsworth’s chief passion is not nature, or childhood, or the truths of the human heart, but the struggle to ‘revise’ Milton. His own drive to write a sprawling Romantic epic composed of ‘strong misreadings’ of the poets begins with the belief that ‘misreading’ and ‘revision’ are what the Romantics were doing all along themselves. Thus Bloom’s contention that there’s no firm difference between poetry and authentic criticism: ‘There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.’ Given Bloom’s own Romantic project, his bid to dissolve the boundaries between poetry and criticism may seem opportunistic. But it’s also true – or at least an article of Romantic faith – that ambitious writers must create the taste by which they’ll be appreciated.

Orwell acutely criticised H. G. Wells for being ‘too sane’ to understand the modern world. From Bloom’s point of view, most academic critics of poetry are of far too accommodated a disposition – too sane – to understand that a potent text is always an act, a will to power. Bloom’s criticism aims to resist the process by which poetry is absorbed into various forms of cultural consensus. The idea that anger and ambition of an emphatically personal sort motivate real artistic achievement is meant to contend against Arnold’s assimilation of sublime art to the categories of sweetness and light, as well as against the Marxist tendency to read poetry in terms that take only passing account of the individual will.

Bloom emphasises both the determining context and the power that some rare individuals have of breaking (at least part way) out of it. Anyone who wants to read great poetry as the grounds for a story about who and what we all are, or might become – that is, anyone who wants to use it for the purposes of general education – will be bound to resist Bloom’s account of how genius does its work. The objective of Bloom’s criticism, finally, is to make contact with the primitive energies in imaginative writing which are placed, by convention, beyond the walls of the academy.

Effective literary critics tend to be imaginative people who’ve taken seriously some variant of Plato’s notion that poetry is a harmful deception. Almost all of the major works of criticism in the West have been, in one way or another, defences of poetry. For his part, Bloom is out to defend poetry against its normative defenders, the humanists who believe that poetry is a ‘civilising’ influence, and the deconstructors and Marxists who feel that it provides access to ‘negative truths’. Bloom reads poems because he likes what they do for him, and what he can do with them. ‘When you read,’ Bloom says in The Breaking of the Vessels (1982),

you confront either yourself, or another, and in either confrontation you seek power. Power over yourself, or another, but power. And what is power? Potentia, the pathos of more life, or to speak reductively, the language of possession.

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