Bloom’s “The Best Poems of the English Language”

Further to Christopher Batty’s earlier post, I do not want to seem to be coming to Bloom’s defense any time he is mentioned here, and I have been reluctant to comment, but…

In Bloom’s introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language, he states, “this vast book is intended for every kind of personal use” (his emphasis). He later on the same page says: “Essentially, this is the anthology I’ve always wanted to possess. It reflects sixty years of deep and passionate reading, going back to my love of William Blake, Hart Crane, and of William Shakespeare and John Milton, that vitalized my life from my twelfth year onward.” This book is very much about Bloom and he admits as much on the first page of his introduction.

This is not to say that his name alone doesn’t endow the book with a certain power, Bloom-as-canonizer or Bloom-as-Pontiff. But, a close reading of the Introduction and “The Art of Reading Poetry” (included in Best Poems and published separately) shows that Bloom is speaking as Bloom and for Bloom:

One of the few gains from aging, at least for a critic of poetry, is that taste matures even as knowledge increases. As a younger critic, I tended to give my heart to the poetry of the Romantic tradition, doubtless spurred to polemics on its behalf by the distortions it suffered at the hands of T. S. Eliot and his New Critical academic followers: R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt among them. In my early seventies, I remain profoundly attached to the sequence that goes from Spenser through Milton on to the High Romantics (Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats) and then on to the continuators in Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, Lawrence, Hart Crane. With Chaucer and Shakespeare, these remain the poets I love best, but maturation has brought an almost equal regard for the tradition of Wit: Donne, Ben Jonson, Marvell, Dryden, Pope, Byron, and such modern descendants as Auden and Eliot (a secret Romantic, however).

Bloom is speaking about Bloom and for Bloom — his ideas and preferences have changed over time. The exegetical work that follows is Bloomian to be certain, but what else could we expect?

Literary critics — all of us, I imagine — make value judgments about literature. We make these judgments when we decide what to teach and what not to teach. Having just returned from a conference on the popular romance novel and pedagogy, I am keenly aware of the fact that when we design a syllabus, we are, in a sense, canonizing authors/texts (at least within the context of our seminar rooms and lecture halls). Even in teaching miserable texts and calling them miserable texts, we are acknowledging that there is some value in studying the text (likely to show students what a bad text does that good texts don’t do). The solution, I suppose, is that we could discard all value judgments, but I’m all too certain that the subjectivity of the reader will come out, we will decide if we like a text or not, we will call it good or bad.

All readings are deeply personal, and that is precisely the point. I don’t think Bloom denies “blind spots,” actually it seems he recognized that he had them and has matured with age. We all have “blind spots,” and that is, as Michael notes, Frye’s point — and Frye certainly had blind spots as well. All literary critics do. Bloom is at his most polemical in The Western Canon but, I think, if we read it closely, Bloom’s argument is less with a canon and more with an argument against cant, against the School of Resentment, and so on. He is frustrated that the text has been lost to ideological theorizations of texts. Now, that is yet another value judgment and some of us may agree that we should discard theory altogether, and others will want more of Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Foucault, and so on.

The point of all of this, if there must be one, I suppose, is that the literary experience is deeply subjective. This deep subjectivity is perhaps what makes the institutionalization of literature so problematic. How do we position literature in the academy and still maintain the academy’s faith in literature as an area of study? If literature is deeply personal, deeply subjective, how then can it be studied in an institutional setting? What is the role of the institution in the study of literature?

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8 thoughts on “Bloom’s “The Best Poems of the English Language”

  1. Joe Adamson

    Well, as you should know, Jonathan, Frye is very clear about the role of the teaching of literature and criticism in the university: it is central to the idea of a university. Read Bob Denham’s paper, “Common Cause: Frye on Education,” in the collection of essays that he recently published in the blog’s library (Robert D. Denham’s Essays on Northrop Frye). That will give you the gist.

    I think it is dead wrong to say that the teaching of literature can only be a subjective matter. Literature has a strong subjective element in it because it is the creation of someone’s imagination. But it has a strong objective element because it is based on literary conventions. But that doesn’t make it or the study of it subjective in the sense you mean. Literature is first of all a form of social communication, and like any social communication it is based on a set of complex conventions. Take a simple analogy, the linguistic analogy of conventions in language: the fact that we all agree to call a tree a tree, for example. If I perversely start calling a tree something else, let’s say “cat,” then I am being entirely subjective and communication problems will definitely arise. There is a lot of this perversity and miscommunication going on right now in many English departments, but God knows we should try our best not to add to it.

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  2. Jonathan Allan

    Thanks for the comment, Joe. I’m not suggesting that it is an either/or scenario. It seems to me that Bloom is also interested in literature as literature. The problem with Bloom, so far as I understand it, is that he is a canonizer which runs contra Frye. Indeed, Bloom recognises this in his introduction to the Anatomy: “As we turn into the new century, I wonder if I should summon Frye up at a séance, to ask him if he still feels that overt value judgments have no place in criticism? What would he say when told that Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and Lady Mary Chudleigh have usurped the eminence of John Milton and Andrew Marvell?” (xiii).

    I don’t think I am suggesting that literature is just subjective, but I do think there is something fundamentally subjective happening between a reader and a novel. It seems to me that there must be a recognition of the subjectivity of the author and the reader, and we must also look for objectivity in our work as well.

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    1. Michael Happy

      Hi Jonathan. I hope this doesn’t seem like piling on, but there are a couple of things I’d like to add.

      The first is regarding the quote you cite from Bloom’s intro to Anatomy: “As we turn into the new century, I wonder if I should summon Frye up at a séance, to ask him if he still feels that overt value judgments have no place in criticism? What would he say when told that Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and Lady Mary Chudleigh have usurped the eminence of John Milton and Andrew Marvell?” (xiii). There’s a lot wrong with these rhetorical questions, beginning with the tone of sneering dismissal, which Frye does not deserve, especially in an introduction to his own work. Such rhetoric is a telling symptom of the extent to which Bloom indulges himself with his pronouncements without any regard to anyone but himself. When he says stuff like this in the way he says it, he’s setting up for a response in kind, a justifiable example of which is, “I disagree. You’re wrong. So suck it.” Frye consistently points out that any assertion of truth only invites its opposite. Bloom does little more than lay bait for that sort of counter-productive yea/nay tussle, and that’s probably the best that value judgments can do over the long haul. In any event, if Frye were indeed summoned up in a seance, it’s hard to imagine that the afterlife would have changed his attitude toward value judgments, particularly if the afterlife is anything like Donne’s vision of it: a library where all the books lie open to one another. Because Frye believed in the “increasing catholicity of taste” of readers who do not limit their reading to subjective standards, he would undoubtedly have welcomed Margaret Cavendish and Mary Chudleigh to a canon that should always be expanding and becoming more rather than less inclusive. I’m pretty sure, therefore, he might have cocked an eyebrow at Bloom’s assertion that Cavendish and Chudleigh have “usurped the eminence of John Milton and Andrew Marvell.” I admit that my own much less tolerant subjective response is to roll my eyes and wonder why I am required to be subjected to such nonsense. “Usurped”? “Eminence“? Really? Must it be framed in such terms? Can’t we simply say that Cavendish and Chudleigh are now also read and studied just like Milton and Marvell? Must it be a contest where some “win” and others “lose”? Evidently it must if you’re Harold Bloom, but there is only one of those. However, inasmuch as Bloom is a recognizable type, he is a throwback to the 19th century where Men of Superior Taste and Discretion declared from atop a pedestal which works are worthy of our (that is, their) attention and which are not. It is a criticism of principals rather than principles. It is not really criticism at all; it’s just some guy’s opinion.

      It bears repeating that Frye understood very well that value judgments occur in criticism (God knows he made his own; it is unavoidable), it’s just that we cannot base any meaningful criticism upon them. The “subjective” is not fully communicable. What little there is communicable about such responses is not really subjective, but the scrap of something recognizable as a shared attitude and/or experience among other readers: “Mary Chudleigh really kicks ass.” “Well, duh.” It is the principle of communicability that is functional as criticism. The rest is often just barking and whining we can only do our best to understand. “What’s that, boy? You say Timmy’s fallen down the well?”

      Finally, with regard to the personal experience of literature, Frye does not ultimately exclude or devalue it. It’s just that it is, in the first instance, a pre-critical manifestation of the joy of the experience of literature to which criticism gives voice. However, Frye also points out that a more fully realized personal experience lies on the other side of criticism, something we return to as a fully liberated power we now possess. At that point, the experience of literature is no longer something simply to be expressed in critical terms, but rather enacted as the emancipated awareness of universally shared human concerns; what Frye calls the myth to live by rather than just a myth to live in. It is an access to power that belongs to everyone and not only to superior beings who take it upon themselves to tell the rest of us what’s what. I can’t see much in Harold Bloom except Harold Bloom. I have other interests and expectations he cannot even begin to address. But that’s me.

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  3. Jonathan Allan

    Michael, I want to spend time constructing a response and thinking through your comments. But, in my inbox today arrived a review of vol. 29 of the Collected Works — I am struck by the way the author, Graham Nicol Forst, of the review describes the volume:

    The title of the present volume is as misleading as one would expect who knows Frye’s interests and taste: it could as well be titled “Northrop Frye on Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats, and a Few Other ‘Serious’ Twentieth-Century Male European Authors.” Not one Canadian or woman author is more than briefly considered, and Frye’s criterion of “serious” writers excludes the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Carlos Williams, etc. No dramatists (other than Beckett and Eliot) are included, and the poets discussed present, hardly surprisingly, the most mythopoeic voices of twentieth century English-language literature.

    […]

    This volume reprints (one wonders why) dozens of Frye’s early Canadian Forum squibs on modern poetry. They are crankily judgmental and sassy; of a collection of T.F. Powys’ short stories, for example, Frye says that they “should be read in a room full of Russian-ballet decor and orange dragons on black curtains, beside a drink served by a breastless maid in bangs,” indicating that Frye had not yet hit stride as “the foremost living student of Western literature” as Harold Bloom was to call him.

    How will Frye be remembered? We now know, thanks to these twenty-nine volumes, that he will be remembered; but how will be remembered is clearly reflected in this collection: as a stubborn reaffirmer of the ripest seeds of Romanticism. Consider this, from “Religion and Modern Poetry”: “Our experience of poetry begins . . . in a willing suspension of disbelief, and bears fruit in a willing suspension of intolerance.”

    That is the legacy of Northrop Frye, for which the world can, as least in part, thank Alvin Lee, Jean O’Grady and the other tireless editors of these Collected Works.

    http://canlit.ca/reviews/fryes_legacy

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  4. Veronica Abbass

    “How do we position literature in the academy and still maintain the academy’s faith in literature as an area of study? If literature is deeply personal, deeply subjective, how then can it be studied in an institutional setting? What is the role of the institution in the study of literature?”

    The role of the institution is to make the study of literature less subjective and more objective. The universities and colleges’ roles are to counter the effects of the way literature is taught in high schools, where a personal response is encouraged. Reading may be personal, but literary criticism should not be.

    We should discard the theories of Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Foucault, and so on altogether, so that the study of literature is reading the literature, not reading about the literature. Furthermore, if university and college teachers chose to introduce the study of “popular literature” like Chick Lit, and they do, they should include literature from the canon to show how it compares and contrasts with popular literature.

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  5. Joe Adamson

    Thanks, Jonathan, for pointing to Graham Forst’s review. The first two paragraphs you provide are not typical; the last two are. The review is a glowing endorsement of the volume. I was a bit surprised by Graham’s take on the T. F. Powys review. The review was written for the Canadian Forum a year before the publication of Fearful Symmetry, so I don’t see how the remark could be a reflection of immaturity. On the contrary, it is a good example of Frye’s wit and gift for epitomization. If it can be called sassy, Frye never stopped being sassy. Thank God. And what is cranky about such a good-humored review of Powys’s work?

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  6. Jonathan Allan

    “We should discard the theories of Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Foucault, and so on altogether, so that the study of literature is reading the literature, not reading about the literature. Furthermore, if university and college teachers chose to introduce the study of “popular literature” like Chick Lit, and they do, they should include literature from the canon to show how it compares and contrasts with popular literature.”

    My immediate question is: why should we discard Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Foucault, etc.? I’m not suggesting we should keep them, but at the same time, I’m not prepared to discard any of them. Often critics help to open the literature to another interpretation of the work.

    And my second question is: what is the canon, who wrote it, and what is included in the canon? The second question would require, I think, a distancing away from Frye and toward Bloom (Allan and Harold).

    While on the one hand there is a distancing away from Frye, on the other, as Graham Forst’s review acknowledges, Frye was, at times, a rather canonical writer. The paradox with Frye is that while he wrote on canonical subjects, his readings (as the Annotated Library shows) were both canonical and non-canonical.

    Michael, I’m still pondering over your thoughts.

    Joe, thanks for putting the review in context.

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    1. Michael Happy

      Hi Jonathan. I found a little odd Forst’s suggestion that Frye was, as you summed it up, “a somewhat a canonical writer.” Frye certainly wrote about the canon as it then existed as his immediate cultural inheritance. He can’t be faulted for that; it’s what he had to work with. Besides, the implications of his critical theory are, if you like, trans-canonical, just as they are trans-cultural and trans-historical. On the other hand, Forst makes no mention of all of the (for its time) non-canonical stuff Frye references. Off the top of my head: Eskimo (as the people were referred to then) poetry, Icelandic sagas, African folklore, Hindu mythology, Chinese opera, Japanese puppetry and kabuki. There’s much more.

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