Harold Bloom Bloom, Harold (Vol. 24) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harold Bloom 1930–

American critic and editor. See also Harold Bloom Criticism (Volume 103).

Bloom is an important, if sometimes controversial, literary critic whose theories are based, for the most part, on his readings of English poetry from Romanticism to the present. Central to Bloom's criticism is his belief that writers in the modern period suffer from what he calls "the anxiety of influence." These writers are anxious because they fear that their poetic voices will be muted by those of the past, that they can say nothing original, achieve nothing profound.

As Bloom perceives it, poets gain a voice, and thus a place in the history of literature, as they revise and sometimes displace their predecessors' work. Because he believes all poets build on the "misreadings" of their literary ancestors, Bloom has little interest in analyzing the meaning of a poet's words. Bloom is extremely concerned, however, with how intensely poets struggle to assert themselves as unique imaginations against the long line of poets who have by chance come before them. For Bloom, a poet's genius is defined in this struggle to be heard.

Bloom introduced his version of the theory of influence in The Anxiety of Influence. In addition to laying the foundation for ideas that are developed in later volumes, this book is a clear indication of the extent to which Bloom has been influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. In Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, Bloom was no longer merely concerned with the struggle between individual poets and the past, but rather proposed his concept of "revisionism" which Helen Vendler defines as "a later text challenging an earlier text"; Bloom then employed this theory in relation to psychoanalysis and Gnosticism.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the essential qualities of every Romantic aesthetic is revisionism. We say that Romanticism breaks certain rules, or alters them; or we say that it attacks or changes various traditional forms of thought and order. To do so, of course, implies a deep consciousness of the past, which in fact all Romantics have. Antiquarianism is a very Romantic activity. But a Romantic consciousness recovers only to transform.

Though Harold Bloom has his own unmistakable way of speaking of these matters, they represent the subject he has always been most concerned with, as The Ringers in the Tower illustrates very well. Romantics are obsessed with history, both past and future. Bloom concentrates upon their relation to the past in order to show how frequently the Romantic writer sees himself as a sick rose. All past greatness inclines to take the form of an invisible worm which so hunts the life of the aspiring Romantic that Bloom imagines him indulging terrible secret wishes, dark loves.

Somewhere in the heart of each new poet there is hidden the dark wish that the libraries be burned in some new Alexandrian conflagration, that the imagination might be liberated from the greatness and oppressive power of its own dead champions….

Bloom's observation introduces his suggestive discussion of "Keats and the Embarrassments of Poetic Tradition," one of twenty-one essays on Romantic traditions which he has collected in his book. The quotation is central to Bloom's work over the past fifteen years, the period during which he emerged as our most influential (and, in my view, most profound) critic of English Romanticism and its traditions. [The Ringers in the Tower], in this respect, is probably his most indispensable book, for it contains—along with three new essays—the continuity of his critical thought between 1957 and 1971. The basis of that continuity, as Bloom says in his brief preface, is the study of "poetic influence (perhaps rather poetic misprision) conceived as an anxiety principle" within Romantic and post-Romantic traditions.

Bloom's highly figurative prose wheels continually about two basic metaphor systems: Freudian and Judeo-Christian. The implications of this fact are significant when we seek to understand his criticism. For example, the Freudian resonance of his surmise, quoted above, on Romantic poets is the sign of Bloom's interest in treating literature as a vehicle for observations upon more intimately psychological or more broadly social concerns. In his earlier works like The Visionary Company, these interests are generally sublimated within the immediate act of exegesis. But in the more recent essays, as well as in Bloom's other new book, Yeats, the impulse to adopt the position of a cultural oracle has grown increasingly apparent. Jeremiads upon various forms of modern decadence (as Bloom has observed them) erupt in his prose, and while one judges that such tactical lapses are in some way a function of his genius, they are nonetheless an unfortunate appearance in his work. We do not enjoy discovering the afterimage of Thomas Carlyle, however faint it may appear, in Harold Bloom.

But the critical tradition which reaches us through Bloom is an embarrassment in other ways as well, though these too are intimately related to his principal scholarly preoccupation (the working of poetic tradition) and his recurrent social polemics. For Bloom, poetic traditions in Romantic and post-Romantic art represent a continuous state of personal crisis and psychospiritual agony. Keats and Blake and Wordsworth and Shelley are (variously) "appalled" or "crippled" or "threatened" or "betrayed" by the traditions on which they draw, and if Milton stands to them as a terrifying father figure whom the earliest Romantics have a "dark wish" to destroy, those first Romantics stand in very much the same relation to their successors. Tennyson, Yeats, Lawrence, and many others suffer under similar oedipal agonies. Yet for their suffering Bloom will praise them, even though the achievements of all their ancestors seem invariably to overreach their own efforts, smothered as they must be by still further generations of great forebears. The single exception to this generally regressive view of poetic history seems to be Stevens.

Bloom's model for this history produces, necessarily, that peculiarly Bloomian method of commentary…. [His] rhetoric is continually de profundis or in extremis because Bloom sets out to imitate in his own prose the very issues which he takes to be at the heart of all Romanticism. The problems which the first Romantics had to face are still current, and they involve a continual crisis—how, in brief, to live a human life under the weight of history…. The crisis [which the traditionbound artist faces in simply trying to write a poem] comes into existence because all creation is constantly threatened by the Reasoning Spectre—by a discursive or intellectual reductiveness which...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like most good books, Harold Bloom's latest essay is by no means what it pretends to be. [The Anxiety of Influence] calls itself, in subtitle, "a theory of poetry" and claims to be corrective in at least three ways: by debunking the humanistic view of literary influence as the productive integration of individual talent within tradition; by contributing, through a refinement of the techniques of reading, to a more rigorous practical criticism; and by enriching the taken-for-granted patterns on which academic literary history is based. Under the aegis of a general theory, this large order brings together ideological, textual, and historical criticism, in a combination that is no longer unusual in recent influential essays on literature. The "corrective" aspect is not new with Bloom, who has never been inhibited by the orthodoxies that dominate the field and has always shown himself willing to go his own way. He has been corrective in the best sense of the term, not out of a vain desire to assert his originality, still less because he wants to set up his own orthodoxy as a center of influence, but because he has always tended to be more attuned to the language of the poets than to the reigning academic trends. Even with regard to the critics to whom he is indebted—Northrop Frye, Meyer Abrams, Walter Jackson Bate—he has never been paralyzed by undue anxiety. He can be called, in his own terms, a "strong" critic and it does not come as a surprise to hear him assert his intention to change rather than just to expand the course of literary studies.

Yet, if read in the light of this intention, one will fail to do justice to this book. Corrective work supposes at least some emphasis on the techniques, the know-how, of criticism and assumes directives which, without necessarily being "scientific," still lay claim to didactic effectiveness. It raises expectations of exemplary displays of interpretative skill and historical erudition. But The Anxiety of Influence, in contrast to some of Bloom's earlier books, contains very few detailed readings, and Bloom's considerable erudition is not especially in evidence. There is an abundance of poetic quotation and, in the case of Milton, Blake, Stevens, Emerson, and others, implicit interpretation on an advanced level, but always embedded within the argument and without clarifying comment, as if the inferred meaning of difficult and ambiguous passages could be taken for granted. One senses Bloom's legitimate impatience with detail in a book that has much wider ambitions. Not even on the avowed major theme, on the question of influence or, more specifically, on the manner in which the new conception of influence is to be integrated within the reading process, is the essay very explicit. For the most part, the examples are a priori assertions of influence based on verbal and thematic echoes and stated as if they spoke for themselves. Bloom has no time to waste on technical refinements. In fact, he cares little for the corrective consequences of his argument; his interest in the methodological debates that agitate American and European criticism is peripheral. The book is inspired by less specialized concerns. Despite the subtitle, it is not really a theory of poetry, or only to the extent that it conforms literally to the quotation from Wallace Stevens which serves as a motto: "that the theory / Of poetry is the theory of life, / As it is …" "Life as it is" is by no means a manageable notion and thus the motto points to the highly problematical nature of poetry. In this essay, literature is not the well-defined subject matter of a traditional discipline. It is a volatile term, in the midst of undergoing dramatic changes of content and of value. Within the context of Bloom's own work, the presuppositions about literature that supported his previous writings now begin to be put in question. As a result, the book may be somewhat hard to follow unless one is familiar with Bloom's earlier work. The precursor who worries him perhaps most of all is not Frye, or Bate, or contemporary rivals, but Bloom himself. In the case of a self-centered critic, such a self-confrontation would be trivial and self-indulgent, but because Bloom's concerns were always dominated by the un-centered otherness we call literature, the essay is anything but trivial or solipsistic. It is not every day, after all, that one has a chance to watch literature fight itself over its own claims.

In his previous books, these claims were almost extravagantly all-encompassing. They were rooted in the high evaluation of English romanticism, boldly and accurately interpreted as asserting the absolute power of the imagination to set the norms for aesthetic, ethical, and epistemological judgment. Though Bloom could sound turgid and overemphatic at times, the originality of his reading of English romanticism cannot be sufficiently stressed. He may well have felt that he had to raise his voice to be heard, for in his understanding of the catchall term "imagination" he was philosophically shrewder and, in some respects, better informed than all the other historians and theoreticians of English romanticism, including Frye, Abrams, Wasserman, and others. Ever since his book on Shelley, Bloom has always implicitly understood that, all appearances to the contrary, the romantic imagination is not to be understood in dialectical interplay with the presumably antithetical category of "nature." This inside-outside, subject-object dichotomy has driven a fatal wedge between the accepted interpretation of the romantic poets and their actual statement, a statement that is certainly difficult and ambiguous, but not in the manner in which it is usually rendered. Increased misgivings about the validity of this model led to a shift in valorization: whereas romanticism often used to be described as a cult of nature, or as a reconciliation between mind and nature, the positive emphasis on nature (and on the kind of poetic diction that is assumed to reflect this emphasis), was reversed and replaced by its opposite. Terms such as "interiorization," "mind," "consciousness," and "self," gained currency as the worthy counterpart of...

(The entire section is 2520 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fame, Borges once wrote, is a form of incomprehension, and perhaps the worst. Harold Bloom's theory of poetry has a sort of fame, at least by hearsay, and is largely uncomprehended. This is partly Bloom's fault. If some of the more militant phrases from The Anxiety of Influence are often heard flying among the martinis, it is because he wrote them intending to provoke us…. Bloom constantly writes as if he were simultaneously inventing gunpowder and telling us a particularly bloodcurdling bedtime story. The story concerns what Bloom says is "the saddest truth" he knows about poets and poetry, the truth that no poet is as original as he thinks he is, that the very notion of originality is more often than not a...

(The entire section is 1480 words.)

Jonathan Culler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Map of Misreading continues Bloom's determined attempt to incarnate and prolong Romanticism, to convince us that literature is essentially a heroic daemonization, centered on "the fearsome process by which a person is reborn a poet." The poet, or at least the post-Miltonic poet, is an indomitable Spirit who feels the curse of belatedness and takes arms against his predecessors, slays them by misreading, so as to create a space in which his own poetry can take place, as an antithetical completion of his precursors' supposed qualities. The theory of poetic influence itself is extremely valuable, and if this book adds little to The Anxiety of Influence it is because it so blatantly fails to live up to its...

(The entire section is 1133 words.)

Geoffrey H. Hartman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With an audacity and pathos hard to parallel in modern scholarship, [in The Anxiety of Influence] Bloom apprehends English literary history from Milton to the present as a single movement, calls it Romanticism, and even while making it exemplary of the burdens of Freudian or psychological man, dooms it to a precession which looks toward the death of poetry more firmly than Hegel does. For there is, in his augury, no compensation arising from the side of Science, Religion or Criticism. "The strong imagination comes to its painful birth through savagery and misrepresentation. The only humane virtue we can hope to teach through a more advanced study of literature than we have now is the social virtue of detachment...

(The entire section is 3469 words.)

Leon Wieseltier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

His theory of poetic influence has been the leitmotif of Bloom's writings for many years, but it is only recently that he has presented it in full-blown theoretical fashion. He is indefatigable. In 1973 he published The Anxiety of Influence, a frantically allusive and aphoristic manifesto which ran through the "ratios of revision" in a rather exasperating way. Shortly afterward came A Map of Misreading, in which Bloom expounded his views more congenially, and adorned them with some extremely fine textual explications. Kabbalah and Criticism is his latest meditation on the subject, and at least two more titles have already been announced. While hardly "the cardinal work in Harold Bloom's critical...

(The entire section is 1429 words.)

Christopher Ricks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bloom had an idea; now the idea has him. For, still asking himself what there is left for him to do, but unable to bring himself to leap off in full career from what has become a juggernaut-bandwagon, [in "Poetry and Repression" he] has nothing left to do but to say the same things about new contests and with more decibels. He is running out of prize-fights. Blake vs. Ezekiel; Wordsworth vs. Milton; Shelley vs. Milton; Keats vs. Milton (the Muhammad Ali of it all); Tennyson vs. Keats; Browning vs. Shelley; Yeats vs. A. N. Other … too many of these squarings are return-fights demanded by Bloom's promotion. And the decibels start to defeat their own purpose. Bloom's whole strenuous rhetoric of struggles and opponents...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism] was not conceived as a book, it does not read like a book, and there is no need to defend it as a book. Any collection of essays and addresses composed in the span of a few years by a single powerful mind will tend to return to the same questions, and to urge (even covertly) the same views; only in that sense is this a book. I have no objection to Bloom's calling his central subject to our attention by his one-word title; and his preface does remind us that, although his topics and audiences may vary, he is himself in the grip of a powerful myth of struggle which he recommends, yet again, to our attention.

The myth is the story of what Bloom now calls...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)

Marvin Mudrick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Brackets in the following excerpt do not signify editorial changes.—Ed.]

Harold Bloom's terminal case of transumption has been brought on by too much "strong reading," a morose exercise for which according to his statement Emerson and Freud bear part of the blame, and which Bloom doesn't scruple to characterize as "not less aggressive than sexual desire." Reading. Wow. Tell it to your local librarian. (Academic criticism is dead, of which Professor Bloom is the latest assassin and heir: The Breaking of the Vessels is his latest and most desperate book, a scant hundred pages, as thin as an instruction manual for a stationary bicycle but far more aggressive, the glummest and...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)