The standard view of the Romantic poets is that they derived their poetic powers from their view of nature. As a result, the general thrust of most criticism of the Romantics has been analysis of their identity and subject matter. For Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence, however, neither nature nor the content of the poet’s work is of concern. His interest is in the inner life of the poet, how the poet thinks and how he frees himself from the influence of his predecessors in order to create great poetry. Relying primarily on the theories of Freud in conjunction with the philosophy of Nietzsche, Bloom delineates in this work a pattern for the mental processes of the poet.
The resulting psychological portrait of a poet is developed in six stages: clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades. Each step builds on the one that precedes it, so the writer who begins in full awareness of the influence of other poets and essentially unable to create original poetry eventually emerges to stand as a truly independent individual.
Each new poet is seen as having one primary precursor, one dominant influence which he must overcome to establish his own voice. The new poet must fight this preceding poet for possession of the poetic muse, for it is only by destroying this father figure that the new poet will be able to find his own voice. Bloom’s images are deliberately aggressive: The poet as son and heir must kill his poetic father in order to become completely independent and achieve his own poetic voice.
The emerging poet begins in the state of clinamen, in which he misreads a work of the dominant predecessor. Though he begins by reading the poem correctly, somehow he shifts from a recognition of his predecessor’s true meaning to a misinterpretation of the work. This...
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Historically, literary criticism has looked at the specific works of individual authors and has attempted to judge them as good or bad based on a given set of aesthetic standards established for the art form. This view of the function of criticism has changed dramatically, particularly during the twentieth century. Critics have changed their priorities and have begun to consider such questions as how a poet functions and what a poet is. Harold Bloom has been in the vanguard of the attempt to understand how a poet functions.
Poets are not created in isolation, totally independent of the society that surrounds them. They are subject to a variety of influences, both physical and mental. They are aware of the poetry of those who preceded them, and this poetry creates a natural anxiety within them. How do they produce original poetry, burdened as they are with the influence of the past? The Anxiety of Influence carefully considers this question and postulates a theory of how the poet realizes the existence of this influence and defeats it, ultimately achieving an independent voice. As a result, the reader is given a deeper understanding of the workings of the poetic mind and, tangentially, a deeper appreciation of the poet’s work.