Woe to Poe: Inescapable Bloom

[Vincent Price as Prince Pospero in The Masque of the Red Death]

I thought I would post the following as a warm-up for the Frye centenary conference at the University of Toronto in October. This is the introductory part of the paper I am planning to give on Frye and Poe, and will doubtless end up in the trash bin, since this portion of the paper is largely a polemic directed at the unctuous Harold Bloom and a piece he wrote on Poe years ago now in The New York Review of Books. Bloom does not shoulder the responsibilities of the critic with much care. His review of a new edition of Poe’s collected works was essentially an act of literary assassination.

I hope to follow with the remaining parts of this draft of the paper in the next week or two. . .

It might surprise readers not entirely conversant with Frye’s writings that he should make such an important place in his writings for the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Surprising because critical responses to Poe’s work have been, as Frye notes, remarkably “schizophrenic” from the beginning. “There have been no lack of people,” as he puts it, “to say that Poe is fit only for immature minds; yet Poe was the major influence on one of the subtlest schools of poetry that literature has ever seen.” (CW 18:37) Part of this plentiful group of nay-sayers is Harold Bloom, self-appointed defender of the canon. Almost thirty years ago Bloom joined his voice to the chorus of Poe skeptics in a review of the two-volume Library of Congress edition of his works which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1984. Entitled “Inescapable Poe,” it is an astonishing piece of criticism, consisting of little more than one glib dismissive after another, all to the effect that if Poe is a figure in the canon of literature and criticism it is only for the most spurious reasons, and not, most certainly not the fault of Harold Bloom. Poe, he says, “cannot survive authentic criticism,” by which, one suspects, Bloom means his own, authentic or not. Whatever valuable lessons Frye’s polemical introduction to Anatomy of Criticism had to offer, Bloom ignores them all. Instead of working to expand the diverse contexts informing our understanding of literature, to expand our woefully limited mental and spiritual horizons, Bloom chooses to base his judgment entirely on his taste, or rather distaste, and makes no effort to illuminate the admittedly often difficult and challenging, but ultimately fascinating symbolic framework of Poe’s writing.

Evaluation, in Bloom’s hands, is an exact science. Rating Poe as an American poet of the 19th century–after first exempting Whitman and Dickinson from adjudication (they are not to be sullied by comparison)–he lists a dozen poets in their exact (Bloomian) order of importance. Poe fights for twelfth place with Sidney Lanier, both coming behind the alliterative and inglorious duo of  Tuckerman and Timrod. Poe may be a very uneven poet, but on vision and originality alone he should get the highest marks. Like Blake, he is a visionary writer whose individual poems must be read as parts of a larger interpenetrating and intelligible whole, a whole whose imaginative consistency is evident from Poe’s earliest writings, and whose symbolic undercurrents inform all of his later writings.  No effort is made by Bloom to clarify this context. Instead, he short-circuits any understanding by preemptively pronouncing judgment.

As for the tales, surely one of Poe’s acknowledged strengths, Bloom deems them no better than Roger Corman’s lurid and campy film versions, an intellectually dishonest judgment, to say the least, since they are little more than travesties, the tales only serving as the barest of pretexts. Poe’s prose style Bloom particularly singles out as unfit for human consumption, adducing as an example the melodramatic opening passage of “Ligeia.” It seems not to have occurred to Bloom that the first-person narrator’s portentous style might be consciously designed to fit the tale, as a number of very perceptive critics have pointed out.

To be fair, Bloom does check off one box:  Poe’s affinity for a certain type of mythic story-telling. But he immediately crosses it out by referring to the “dreadful universalism pervading Poe’s weird tales.” He  confesses, in fact, that he was haunted and traumatized by them as a little boy–a hypersensitive little boy, to be sure.  Poe’s “reductive” and “bizarre myths,” he assures us, would be much better handled by more stylistically gifted writers.

He then, perhaps most astonishingly, speaks contemptuously of Poe’s critical writings, including “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition,”  as completely unoriginal and contributing nothing to the history of criticism. Near the end of his review, Bloom invidiously compares Poe’s intellectual powers to those of Emerson, a writer whose influence on the literature and criticism of the last two centuries is almost imperceptible by comparison.

It is as if Bloom is somehow personally offended by the existence of Edgar Allan Poe, or at least of any claim he might have to literary stature and influence.  It is hard to treat Bloom’s sneering as a good example of the “authentic criticism” he claims Poe cannot survive. Everything has its place, but Bloom is not content and must pillory Poe and deny him any legitimate place in the literary universe, without making the least effort to ascertain what that place might be. The fact that Poe is “inescapable,” as the great evaluator snidely puts it–that he continues to be read and to be popular, and to fascinate and engross even the most sophisticated literary critics and theorists–he can only explain by the ineradicable existence of poor judgment, even among the highly educated. There is, it appears, no accounting for bad taste.
What a different view of Poe we find in Frye’s writings, and how bracing and liberating it is. Jean O’Grady’s invaluable index to the Collected Works shows clearly Frye’s extensive interest in the great American writer. Frye does in fact refer to him just that way. In his essay on Thomas Beddoes in Studies in Romanticism, he compares the romantic English writer’s interest in death and the grotesque to that of  “his great American contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe.” In the Late Notebooks he goes so far as to say that

[t]he greatest literary genius this side of Blake is Edgar Allan Poe—that’s why he’s regarded as fit only for adolescents, or French poets who don’t really know English.  I don’t apply this to the poetry, but there’s no prose tale, however silly, that doesn’t hit an archetype in the bullseye. . . . (CW 5:165)

Poe features perhaps most significantly in Anatomy of Criticism, where he is summoned at several key moments to illustrate various aspects of the structural poetics that Frye sets out in detail in that work. He is first invoked in the very good company of Bunyan, Richardson, and Dickens, not to mention Shakespeare and the Bible, as an example of the particular association of archetypes and myths  prevalent in “fairy tales and folk tales” with“primitive and popular literature”–literature, that is, as Frye defines these terms, “which affords an unobstructed view of archetypes.” .  . .

(To be cont’d . . .)

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4 thoughts on “Woe to Poe: Inescapable Bloom

  1. gene phillips

    There’s some irony in Poe being the target of Bloom’s snobbery, his lack of interest in the raw, often unsophisticated symbolism in Poe’s tales. It’s ironic because, according to some of the excerpts provided by Leslie Fiedler in LOVE AND DEATH, Poe himself was something of a snob, particularly toward the then-successful works of Fenimore Cooper. Yet Poe’s only finished novel was clearly his attempt to imitate the sensationalistic form of the adventure-story.

    However, Bloom, unlike Poe, has the advantage of having been exposed to much more debate about matters of symbols and archetypes, particularly as provided by You Know Who. So arguably his snobbery is more egregious.

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  2. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    Aldous Huxley’s parody of Poe by way of Miltonic blank verse really is hilarious. It points to one of the aspects of Poe most open to satire, his handling of highly dramatic material through ballad-inspired rhyme and meter. It’s the thing, in my experience, the hardest to get around when trying to convince a student or teacher of Poe’s value. The answer to the parody is that Miltonic verse can only exist as Miltonic verse, though there is some question whether Poe’s verse succeeds as such.

    The problem with allowing that aspect of Poe to dissuade the reader is that he is, in this respect, a partial victim of the entropic tendency in verse from the highly rhythmic to the colloquial and flat. It is difficult for a new, contemporary reader to attune the ear to this kind of verse. But the same is true, I think, for new readers of Shakespeare and Milton, for example. In the latter case, the Modernist aversion to latinate verse, or of the lumbering succession of subordinated clauses which Milton pulls off, does of fair job of prejudicing a reader against him. I’m speaking from my own experience here, but I also have the perspective of one who has taught, as a substitute teacher in Southern California, a variety of students at many different levels.

    When alien meters or verse principles are taken as heuristic ones, I believe they are, in the hands of an invaluable writer, found to be an innate element in the larger literary vision. I don’t know if Poe’s verse always pans out this way, but his styles in the prose stories certainly do, in my opinion. What Joe wrote regarding Ligeia is spot-on. Bloom’s use of an adjective like “weird” is certainly beneath him, or ought to be.

    I was substituting in a high school English class last year, and I found that the anthology textbook in use had three titles by Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Bells,” and the obligatory “The Raven.” Without commenting on the relative merits of these individual pieces, I think it does betray a lack of understanding regarding the expansive nature of his imaginative vision and the versatility of his genre writing. I would also venture that the “Introduction to Literature” anthology almost exclusively contained writing from the last thirty years, so it is likely that my expectations of variety and expansive vision were optimistically quaint.

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  3. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Frye admired Poe’s work right (write) to the end. In Words with Power, in the introduction Frye simply and brilliantly solves the critical aporia in The Purloined Letter: Does the letter refer to male or female genitalia? Frye’s answer: if using allegory, beyond the Freudian method, the letter is — what else — a symbol of a verbal message….that people try to kidnap but can’t because ironically it is right in front of them.

    This aptly describes Frye’s criticism, showing us what is right in front of us.

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  4. John Cowan

    What meter would you use for telling a highly dramatic story if not a ballad meter? It’s entirely in decorum for Poe to use it, as it was for Alfred Noyes to use it in “The Highwayman”. Huxley seems to have carefully chosen a bit of Paradise Lost that actually does tell a story — the myth of Proserpine — and so it works well in the “Ulalume” meter. The repetitions of both “Ulalume” and the parody are also essentially derived from and part of ballad structure.

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