POE TO BLOOM: BOO! “NASTY & REPETITIOUS NIGHTMARES THAT LINGER EVEN NOW.”

Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the silliest screeds in the history of Letters, Harold Bloom’s review in the New York Review of Books (Oct 11, 1984) of Edgar Poe’s handsome Library of America 2 volume set, ‘Poetry & Tales,’  Patrick Quinn, ed. & ‘Essays & Reviews,’ G.R. Thompson, ed.

Bloom’s savage (and spooky) article is remarkable for two reasons:  its attempted ferocity and its summary of Modernist pedagogical history as a “conservative” critic abuses a timeless poet with crudely “radical” rhetoric.

In Part 1, Bloom uses Aldous Huxley to beat down Poe’s poetry, copying Huxley’s Miltonic parody of Poe, also found in “Understanding Poetry,” an anti-Poe textbook by the Fugitive New Critic Robert Penn Warren.  Bloom calls Warren “the most distinguished living American writer.”  Huxley’s 1930s charge that the French were wrong to admire Poe (!) was picked up by T.S. Eliot in his 1949 attack on Poe, and here in 1984 Bloom repeats it, as Poe’s verse is held up to ridicule.

Part 2: The prose is condemned as well, dismissed with the quotation of a single paragraph.  “Poe’s actual text does not matter.”  Bloom has a certain respect for ‘Eureka,’ which he feels is “Poe’s answer” to Emerson’s ‘Nature.’   But it’s science (Poe) v. rhetoric (Emerson)–they’re not comparable.   Bloom makes no attempt to cover Poe’s vast territory.   Instead, he  writes: “Whether Eureka or the famous stories can survive authentic criticism is not clear.”  Poe’s  stories are “best read when we are very young.” “Poe’s survival raises perpetually the issue whether literary merit and canonical status go together.”  “Mark Twain cataloged Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses, but all the exuberantly listed are minor compared to Poe’s.”  Strangely, even though Bloom feels Poe’s stories are “best read when we are very young,” Bloom confesses “Poe induced nasty & repetitious nightmares that linger even now.”

Bloom, in this half-deeply personal, half-frothily anglophilic essay, clutches the teddy bear of Emerson’s ‘self-reliance’ as ‘original sin’ (associated with Poe) moans beneath his bed.  Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, and D.H. Lawrence are brought in to help Bloom vanquish Poe, although Bloom terms Poe “inescapable.”  Bloom wants Poe out of the canon (and his bedroom) but the professor admits it will not happen.

In Part 3, Bloom’s assault now turns on crude cultural politics: “Poe, a true Southerner, abominated Emerson, plainly perceiving that Emerson (like Whitman, like Lincoln) was not a Christian, not a royalist, not a classicist.”   Lincoln was a Christian, Whitman and Lincoln could not have been more different, and Poe was anything but a royalist, and no more Christian than Emerson.  It’s difficult to tell whether Bloom is baiting a certain kind of reader, or writing in pure ignorance.   How a man so erudite could be so ignorant is perhaps something only Harold Bloom could explain.

Part 4 looks at the Freudian aspect of Poe’s novel, ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym’ and quotes Adorno calling Poe & Baudelaire “the first technocrats of art.”  It’s not long, however, before Bloom turns on his chainsaw again: “Poe is a great fantasist whose thoughts were commonplace and whose metaphors are dead.”  Poe’s “speculative discourses fade away in juxtaposition to Emerson’s, his despised Northern rival.”

Part 5:  Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ may have been read by Helen Whitman and Elmira Royster, and perhaps this is why these women did not marry Poe. (!)  Bloom, who seems to be looking to trade 3 Jesus Christ cards for one Emerson and one Whitman, writes, “…the northern or Emersonian myth of our literary culture culminates in the beautiful image of Walt Whitman as wounddresser, moving as mothering father…”

Part 6:  Bloom doesn’t like Poe’s criticism, either, and dismisses Poe with a couple of  obscure quotations.   Bloom champions, instead, the late Victorian criticism of Arnold, Pater, and Wilde.

Part 7: “Poe was savage in denouncing minor Transcendentalists.”   And Poe, according to Bloom, is racist–because “he would have loved”–published after Poe’s death–‘The Nigger Question’ by Thomas Carlyle.  (Emerson, whose ‘English Traits’ is explicitly racist, was Carlyle’s literary agent in the U.S.)   And one final, embarrassing cheer from Bloom for Emerson: “Poe, on a line-by-line or sentence-or-sentence basis is hardly a worthy opponent.”

Twenty-five years later, is the popular Poe still giving Bloom–and anglo-american ‘zine modernism–nightmares?

Thomas Brady

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1 Comment

  1. thomasbrady said,

    October 11, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Aesthetic modernism is a religion, and all who have fallen under its spell are uncomfortable with Poe, the artist and critic. George Bernard Shaw and Edna Millay are two 20th century writers who loved Poe, and it is certainly no accident that neither Millay nor Shaw–were very much of their times–bound themselves to the new aesthetic religion of (20th cen) Modernism.

    Bloom exemplifies the Modernist cult’s severity in his review of Poe, and particularly here in Bloom’s review of Poe’s review of a woman poet, in her mid-20s, S. Anna Lewis.

    Who is S.Anna Lewis? To Harold Bloom, she is a nobody.

    In the following, from his 1984 review of Poe’s Library of America works in the NY Review, Bloom haughtily dismisses the young poet and her critical admirer:

    “No, Poe as practical critic is a true match for most of his contemporary subjects, such as S. Anna Lewis, author of The Child of the Sea and other Poems (1848). Of her lyric, “The Forsaken,” Poe wrote: “We have read this little poem more than twenty times and always with increasing admiration. It is inexpressibly beautiful” I quote only the first of its six stanzas:

    It hath been said—for all who die
    there is a tear;
    Some pining, bleeding heart to sigh
    O’er every bier:—
    But in that hour of pain and dread
    Who will draw near
    Around my humble couch and shed
    One farewell tear?”

    And now Bloom is done. The quotation of a stanza with “sigh” and “tear” and “pining, bleeding heart” in it is enough to condemn S. Anna Lewis to oblivion.

    The Modernist aesthetic, which does not appreciate certain kinds of verse with a certain kind of music, nor, I suppose, Italian Renaissance art songs, with their heart-rending simplicity, nor the lieder of Schubert, leads Bloom to confidently reject, without comment, what he feels is self-evident to readers in the New York Review: they, certainly, will have nothing to do with S. Anna Lewis.

    But before we leave S. Anna Lewis, the poet, and Edgar Poe, the critic, perhaps we might look at Poe’s entire review, from ‘Essays & Reviews’ (Library of America):

    Mrs. Lewis has, in a very short space of time, attained a high poetical reputation. She is one of the youngest of our poetesses; and it is only since the publication of her “Records of the Heart,” in 1844, that she can be said to have become known to the literary world: — although her “Ruins of Palenque” which appeared in the “New-World” sometime, we think, in 1840, made a most decided impression among a comparatively limited circle of readers. It was a composition of unquestionable merit, on a topic of infallible interest. In 1846, Mrs. Lewis published, in “The Democratic Review,” a poem called “The Broken Heart,” in three cantos, and subsequently has written many minor pieces for the “American” and ” Democratic” Reviews, and for various other periodical works. In all her writings we perceive a marked idiosyncrasy — so that we might recognize her hand immediately in any of her anonymous productions. Passion, enthusiasm, and abandon are her prevailing traits. In these particulars she puts us more in mind of Maria del Occidente than of any other American poetess.

    * The Child of the Sea and other Poems. By S. Anna Lewis, author of “Records of the Heart,” etc., etc.

    There has been lately exhibited, at the Academy of Fine Arts in New York, a portrait of Mrs. Lewis, by Elliot, which is at the same time a forcible likeness and one of the most praiseworthy pictures ever painted. In fact, we have seen no thing better from Sir Thomas Lawrence; — it alone would suffice to place Elliot at the head of his profession in this country-we mean, of course, as a painter of portraits. This picture conveys a distinct idea of the personal authoress. She is, as we have already mentioned, quite young — probably not more than 25 or 26 — with dark and very expressive hazel eyes and chesnut [[chestnut]] hair, naturally curling — a poetical face, if ever one existed. Her form is finely turned — full, without being too much so, and slightly above the medium height. Her demeanour is noticeable for dignity, grace and repose. She goes little into society and resides at present in Brooklyn, N. Y. with her husband, S. D. Lewis, Esq., Counsellor at Law. We have thought that these succinct personal particulars of one, who will most probably, at no very distant day, occupy a high, if not the highest, position among American poetesses, might not prove uninteresting to our readers.

    The “Records of the Heart” was received with unusual favor at the period of its issue. It consists, principally, of poems of length. The leading one is “Florence,” a tale of romantic passion, founded on an Italian tradition of great poetic capability and well managed by the fair authoress. It displays, however, somewhat less of polish and a good deal less of assured power than we see evinced in her “Child of the Sea.” We quote a brief passage, by way, merely, of instancing the general spirit and earnest movement of the verse:

    Morn is abroad; the sun is up;
    The dew fills high each lily’s cup.
    Ten thousand flowerets springing there
    Diffuse their incense through the air,
    And, smiling, hail the morning beam;
    The fawns plunge panting in the stream,
    Or through the vale with light foot spring:
    Insect and bird are on the wing
    And all is bright, as when in May
    Young Nature holds high holiday.

    “Florence,” however, is more especially noticeable for the profusion of its original imagery — as for example:

    The cypress in funereal gloom
    Folds its dark arms above the tomb.

    “Tenel” (pronounced Thanail,) Melpomene, (a glowing tribute to L. E. L.,) “The Last Hour of Sappho,” “Laone,” and “The Bride of Guayaquil,” are all poems of considerable length and of rare merit in various ways. Their conduct as narratives, is, perhaps, less remarkable than their general effect as poems proper. They leave invariably on the reader’s heart a sense of beauty and of sadness. In many of the shorter compositions which make up the volume of which we speak, “(Records of the Heart”) we are forced to recognize the truth and perfect appositeness of the title we are made to feel that it is here indeed the heart which records, rather than the fancy which invents. The passionate earnestness of the following lines will be acknowledged by every reader capable of appreciating that species of poetry of which the essentiality and inspiration is truth. ”

    Here, then is the review which precedes the quotation of the poem to which Bloom gave us but one stanza.

    We meet Anna Lewis and learn something about her. She has published long poems, not merely one six stanza lyric, of which one stanza does not please Mr. Bloom–who does not review poetry himself (nor does he publish poetry) –this tradition Bloom really has nothing to do with;–further, Emerson, Bloom’s hero, unlike Poe, was not a reviewer, and New Critical modernism explicitly felt (see Vanderbilt University’s John Crowe Ransom’s ‘Criticism, Inc.,’ 1937) that amateurs who review are not really important: one ought to be a university-trained critic like Perloff, Vendler, or Bloom.

    Let us finish with Poe, as he quotes the entire poem of S. Anna Lewis, and gives his commentary:

    THE FORSAKEN.

    It hath been said — for all who die
    There is a tear;
    Some pining, bleeding heart to sigh
    O’er every bier: —
    But in that hour of pain and dread
    Who will draw near
    Around my humble couch and shed
    One farewell tear?

    Who watch my life’s departing ray
    In deep despair
    And soothe my spirit on its way
    With holy prayer?
    What mourner round my bier will come
    In “weeds of wo”
    And follow me to my long home
    Solemn and slow?

    When lying on my clayey bed,
    In icy sleep,
    Who there by pure affection led
    Will come and weep;
    By the pale moon implant the rose
    Upon my breast,
    And bid it cheer my dark repose —
    My lowly rest?

    Could I but know when I am sleeping
    Low in the ground
    One faithful heart would there be keeping
    Watch all night round,
    As if some gem lay shrined beneath
    That sod’s cold gloom,
    ‘Twould mitigate the pangs of death
    And light the tomb.

    Yes, in that hour if I could feel
    From halls of glee
    And Beauty’s presence one would steal
    In secresy,
    And come and sit and weep by me
    In nights’ deep noon
    Oh! I would ask of Memory
    No other boon.

    But ah! a lonelier fate is mine —
    A deeper wo:
    From all I love in youth’s sweet time
    I soon must go —
    Draw round me my cold robes of white,
    In a dark spot,
    To sleep through Death’s long dreamless night,
    Lone and forgot.

    We have read this little poem more than twenty times and always with increasing admiration. It is inexpressibly beautiful. No one of real feeling can peruse it without a strong inclination to tears. Its irresistible charm is its absolute truth — the unaffected naturalness of its thought. The sentiment which forms the basis of the composition is, perhaps, at once the most universal and the most passionate of sentiments. No human being exists, over the age of fifteen, who has not, in his heart of hearts, a ready echo for all here so pathetically expressed. The essential poetry of the ideas would only be impaired by “foreign ornament.” This is a case in which we should be repelled by the mere conventionalities of the Muse. We demand, for such thoughts, the most rigorous simplicity at all points. It will be observed that, strictly speaking, there is not an attempt at “imagery” in the whole poem. All is direct, terse, penetrating. In a word nothing could be better done. The versification, while in full keeping with the general character of simplicity, has in certain passages a vigorous, trenchant euphony which would confer honor on the most accomplished masters of the art. We refer, especially to the lines:

    And follow me to my long home
    Solemn and slow
    and to the quatrain:
    Could I but know when I am sleeping
    Low in the ground
    One faithful heart would there be keeping
    Watch all night round.

    The initial trochee here, in each instance, substituted for the iambus produces, so naturally as to seem accidentally, a very effective echo of sound to sense. The thought included in the line “And light the tomb,” should be dwelt upon to be appreciated in its full extent of beauty; and the verses which I have italicized in the last stanza are poetry — poetry in the purest sense of that much misused word. They have power — indisputable power; making us thrill with a sense of their weird magnificence as we read them.”

    Let us have Poe’s words one more time:

    “No human being exists, over the age of fifteen, who has not, in his heart of hearts, a ready echo for all here so pathetically expressed. The essential poetry of the ideas would only be impaired by “foreign ornament.” This is a case in which we should be repelled by the mere conventionalities of the Muse. We demand, for such thoughts, the most rigorous simplicity at all points. It will be observed that, strictly speaking, there is not an attempt at “imagery” in the whole poem. All is direct, terse, penetrating. In a word nothing could be better done.”

    Amen.