Harold Bloom, “How To Read and Why”

Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Reading Bloom’s chapter on poetry. Fun but also frustrating, as he makes pronouncements which he does not substantiate. Either you take him on faith, feeling inferior for not being as smart as he is, or you simply wonder how he arrived at his conclusions, or … In any case not a satisfying sense of understanding.

For instance:

He reads “The Unquiet Grave” as concluding with the implication that the dead woman will grant her living lover the kiss he craves. Here’s the poem:

The wind doth blow today, my love
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may:
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.

The twelvemonth and a day being up
The dead began to speak:
“Oh who sits weeping on my grave
And will not let me sleep?”

“Tis I, my love, sits on your grave
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips
And that is all I seek.”

“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips
Your time will not be long.

“’Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen
Is withered to a stalk.

“The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away.”

Bloom has a number of interesting things to say about this poem, including the information that mourning over a year was considered unhealthy and dangerous. I’m hearing the line from “All Around My Hat”:

All around my hat
I will wear the green willow
And all around my hat
For a twelvemonth and a day
And if anyone should ask me
The reason why I’m wearing it
It’s all for my true love
Who’s far, far away

But one thing he asserts without argument or commentary: that the dead lover will give him the kiss (of death) he craves. The line “So make yourself content, my love,” refers, according to Bloom (103), to the kiss she is about to grant.

I can see this way of reading that line. “Make yourself content” as in relax, hold your horses, I’ll give it to you in just a minute. Then “Till God calls you away” acquires the “intense irony” Bloom claims for the poem. But it took me a while to get this way of reading it. And I wonder why he does not address the more obvious (to me at least) way of reading the poem, as a much more conventional admonition: “Make yourself content, my love, / Till God calls you away,” meaning, stop this unhealthy mourning and resign yourself to the suffering that is our lot in life (the withered stalk and heart, etc.) until God in his wisdom sees fit to end your life. Don’t take it upon yourself to do so.

Now, in writing all this out I’ve come up with a possible explanation of why Bloom does not address this. Perhaps in part for reasons of economy, but also for pedagogical reasons, analogous to the compression poets practice, he declines to explain but instead demands that the reader do exactly what I’ve just done, which is to puzzle over the problem until they’ve figured it out for themselves. All well and good, I suppose—if true—but it begs the question, which I would now reformulate as follows: Is not the ambiguity of these two possible readings itself an important feature of the poem, deserving of commentary? Here again economy is an obvious, though unsatisfying, partial answer. Another is that for Bloom the ironic reading is the better reading and so why waste time on the other one, even if it is more obvious. This throws me back on the first answer: Give the reader the essential idea, and rely on them to work out the explanations themselves.

Another instance: In reading “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Bloom remarks, apropos the nightmarish landscape through which Roland passes, that “the reader has grown skeptical. It appears to be Roland himself who breaks and deforms everything he sees…” (85).

On what textual evidence does he base this claim? Bloom points out a few moments where Roland’s observations or ideas betray a mind committed to its bleak vision: he “tries to summon up images of his forerunners in the quest for the Dark Tower, but remembers only dear friends disgraced as traitors” (83). His reaction to the one living creature in the landscape, the starving horse, goes beyond mere description to blame the victim for its suffering (82-3). These moments do suggest, as Bloom says, that “the reader ought to question what the childe sees” (83). But there is still some distance between this questioning and the absolute claim that Roland “breaks and deforms everything he sees.” Again, the reader is required to take the claim on faith, at least to the extent of assuming it as a hypothesis and seeking to falsify or confirm it. It’s not that I disagree with his interpretation—on the contrary, I think he’s right, as far as he goes—it’s just that I am frustrated by the limited support he provides.

I say “as far as he goes” because the danger in this way of putting things is that it risks encouraging an unwarranted distinction between Roland and the reader. If Bloom’s conclusion about the poem is valid (“There is no ogre; there are only other selves, and the self” [88]), the propensity to blast the landscape with the death within oneself is not limited to Roland, but one we all share, and Roland is us. Yes, the poem slyly encourages our questioning of Roland’s vision, but even more subtly alerts us to our own role in creating the landscapes we traverse. And from that perspective, Roland’s vision is no less real than anyone else’s.

(Earlier commentary, incidentally, anticipates Bloom’s argument. Mrs. Sutherland Orr in A Handbook to the Works of Robert Browning remarks that “half [the landscape’s] horrors are created by his own heated imagination, or by some undefined influence in the place itself” [273-4, my emphasis]. This reading at least leaves room for a more literal understanding of the landscape’s baleful quality—an understanding that may ultimately turn out to be naïve, but which criticism ought to acknowledge. Orr concludes (274), “But these picturesque impressions [of the landscape, etc.] had, also, their ideal side, which Mr. Browning as spontaneously reproduced; and we may all recognize under the semblance of the enchanted country and the adventurous knight, a poetic vision of life: with its conflicts, contradictions, and mockeries; its difficulties which give way when they seem most insuperable; its successes which look like failures, and its failures which look like success.” The version of the text at Project Gutenberg is taken from Dramatic Romances From the Poetic Works of Robert Browning, Introduction and Notes by Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, from the edition of Browning’s poems published by Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, New York, 1898. The introduction comments that “Interpreters have tried to pin [“Childe Roland”] down to the limits of an allegory, and find a specific meaning for every phrase and picture, but it has too much the quality of the modern symbolistic writing to admit of any treatment so prosaic.” That modern symbolism might well ultimately ask us to turn back to the speaker for the true source of the dreamlike landscape’s “horrors,” as Bloom suggests.)

Finally, Bloom makes (94) some truly breathtaking pronouncements about Dickinson, which he then proceeds not to defend at all. She “breaks with much of the Western continuity of thought and culture” and “contrasts in this with her greatest contemporary, Whitman, who … was an innovator primarily in form and in poetic stance. Dickinson, like Shakespeare and like William Blake, thought everything through again for herself.” He goes on, “So original is Dickinson that actually categorizing her is nearly as impossible as categorizing Shakespeare.” One page later (95) he comments, “So formidable an ironist is Dickinson that no part of that story [what Bloom earlier calls “her own drama”] can be interpreted at its face value.” This is followed by the full text of a single poem (#1260, “Because that you are going”) and a single paragraph of analysis (as opposed to nearly 4 pages on Whitman, whom he seems to find inferior to Dickinson), in which the irony, if any, is at best suggested obliquely and the “originality” is only alluded to. True, he argues that the poem’s “quarrel is neither with death nor God, but at first with the departing beloved, and then with all of the traditional wisdom of comforting bereavement” (97). Is this so original? In what way? Has no other poet rebelled against such platitudes? Wherefore these Olympian pronouncements? I leave tantalized but frustrated, and the argument above—in its flippant version, “figure it out for yourself”—does not suffice.

One thing about all this is that evaluative judgments lend themselves to such undefended (indefensible?) pronouncements, and of course Bloom is very concerned with evaluative judgments. The contrast with Erich Auerbach is instructive here: both have immense breadth and depth of knowledge, able to make sweeping claims like those cited for Dickinson, or Bloom’s remark that “Tom O’Bedlam” is “the greatest anonymous lyric in the language” (104), but in Auerbach you find very little of this concern to rank or evaluate (though it’s implicit in his choice of texts, and my memory could be fooling me.) That more objective stance is comforting, as it does not demand loyalty to a personal vision or set of values but instead rests itself on analysis that anyone, with sufficient patience, can at least in theory understand and so judge for themselves. This speaks to some of the controversy around Bloom and makes me sympathetic to his opponents and their whole project (inasmuch as they can be said to have a single project), strongly influenced by the sciences and concerned finally with a model of understanding derived therefrom. Much of the talk about “theory” is, I agree with Bloom, cant, misguided and wrongheaded and based on a misunderstanding of, one is tempted to argue, both science and literature, but the impulse is a good one in my opinion and can produce wonderful (here I’m evaluating: it’s really inescapable) insights, as in, say, Frederic Jameson or Priscilla Wald. It’s a question of whether one reads as a lover of literature or as an anthropologist, for whom the symbology of women’s underwear (to use one of Bloom’s provocative examples) may well be just as deserving of analysis as the work of Dickens or Browning. (To be fair, he says “the appreciation of Victorian women’s underwear replaces [my emphasis] the appreciation of Charles Dickens and Robert Browning” [23], which is not the same as making room for both.)

In any case, one grows wary and impatient, suspicious of his claims, and while I don’t want to reject him out of hand, in the kind of ideologically motivated reflex I suspect many might indulge—though maybe they’ve already done what I’m doing now, long enough to have lost all patience—I do begin to wonder.

Then again some of his appreciations are worthwhile whether I can defend them or not. Such is his reading of “Tom O’Bedlam,” in which effusive praise is, in my opinion, not  justified by the specifics he offers, but the praise nevertheless makes me want to look more closely at it, and the few specifics do help me see what he finds so praiseworthy.

One thought on “Harold Bloom, “How To Read and Why”

  1. Argument by Diktat – Book Reading Man

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