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The high priest

Harold Bloom’s unworldly notion of literature
May 2021, no. 431

Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The power of the reader’s mind over a universe of death by Harold Bloom

Yale University Press, US$35 hb, 663 pp

The high priest

Harold Bloom’s unworldly notion of literature
May 2021, no. 431
Harold Bloom, photographed in New Haven CT (Randy Duchaine/Alamy)
Harold Bloom, photographed in New Haven CT (Randy Duchaine/Alamy)

Listen to this article read by its author.


Harold Bloom died in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine. Always prolific, he continued working until the very end. Throughout his final book, he digresses at regular intervals to record the date, note his advanced age, and allude to his failing health. At one point, he reveals that he is dictating from a hospital chair.

Could a book composed under such circumstances be about anything other than death? Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The power of the reader’s mind over a universe of death, the prolix title of which combines an instantly recognisable line from Shakespeare with a less obvious reference to Milton, can certainly be read as Bloom’s attempt to bring his career full circle. In its pages, the venerable literary critic presents us with his final reflections on a select group of canonical poets (Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Lawrence, Frost, Stevens, Crane). He also, pointedly, returns to the subjects of his earliest critical studies (Shelley, Blake, Yeats) and includes a lone chapter on Freud, whose ideas he adapted into his idiosyncratic theories of literary influence and canon formation.

James Ley reviews 'Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The power of the reader’s mind over a universe of death' by Harold Bloom

Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The power of the reader’s mind over a universe of death

by Harold Bloom

Yale University Press, US$35 hb, 663 pp

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Comments (3)

  • I thank Professor Barbarese for taking the time to respond to my article. I am well aware that Bloom’s stance was grounded in his love of Romantic poetry and that his early criticism was forged in opposition to the anti-Romantic Eliotian orthodoxy that was pervasive at the time. I pointed this out in a review of an earlier book by Bloom, in this very publication (ABR, April 2016). There is no denying he was a singular figure; I am, however, inclined to take the fact that his ideas were shaped in opposition to the institutional culture he first encountered in the 1950s as confirmation my basic point. If the author of The Necessity of Atheism can be reinterpreted as a religious poet, then surely it is not too much of stretch to describe a critic who spent his entire adult life on the faculty at Yale disagreeing with his fellow academics as ‘institutionalised’.
    I am not an ‘academician’, which is perhaps why I am not at all frightened by Bloom’s ideas; I simply find them implausible. The breadth of his reading is not the issue, nor is it in question. My objection is the narrowness of his interpretative focus and the cloistered view of literature he advanced. I trust I am not misunderstanding Professor Barbarese when I take his claim about the undemocratic nature of art to be affirming the notion that all writers are not created equal. I suppose there is something a bit undemocratic about the fact most of us will never be as good at writing poetry as Shelley. But art is democratic in the sense that it is available to everyone and addresses a common reality. One can only imagine that the author of ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ would be astonished at the suggestion that poetry has no politics. As for Yeats’s claim that intellectual freedom and democracy are incompatible, I respectfully submit that it is complete nonsense.
    Posted by James Ley
    19 May 2021
  • I wonder how much of Harold Bloom's output, interminable if not immortal, James Ley actually knows. Bloom's earliest books - The Visionary Company, Shelley's the Mythmaker, and The Anxiety of Influence - are or were ground-breaking as well as rather gutsy to an American reader. Visionary Company included Hart Crane - famously dismissed by Blackmur - as the only American poet in a book containing readings of the canonical British Romantics. It not only in a sense reintroduced the culture to Romanticism but re-welcomed Crane to a conversation dominated by slavish worship of Modernism, especially TSE. I remember reading it when I was twenty, instantly confirmed in my own passion for Crane, the joy of one's youth (but of nobody else I knew at the time). Bloom's book on Shelley - my copy, alas, went missing long ago, and the book has never been republished - makes the case now routinely made by others that Shelley was among the great religious poets. As for Anxiety, whatever its idiosyncracy, it changed the vocabulary of literary criticism ('precursor', 'strong and weak' for 'good and bad', 'misreading', etc.) and extended the range of psychological criticism and especially of Northrop Fry's anatomies (Fry was Bloom's teacher). That book, weird as it is, has always been more important to poets and artists than to critics of literature, especially academicians who are frankly frightened by its central claim, not because it is incontestable but because it eliminates 'source hunting' from serious consideration (the reason for that other great oddity, Hugh Kenner's dislike of Bloom). And it's hard to see how this 'thoroughly institutionalized creature' was that at all. The institution could only contain him by isolating him safely from the rest of the institution (he was not an official member of Yale's English Department), but could hardly justify ridding itself of this brilliant nuisance, who taught his courses without a book, reciting from Shakespeare, Yeats, etc. As for his 'assertions' of the value of literature in a 'democratic age', that's simply not borne out by the range of his work's interests. Listen to Bloom on Cormac McCarthy and Pynchon, Morrison or Dickinson. Poetry has no politics, or if it has, it is not 'democratic'. Art is not a democracy. In his Autobiographies, and long before the muse of ugliness ruined his prose, Yeats says that 'intellectual freedom and democracy are incompatible', and whether it is applicable to the crises of the moment, crises of representation and identity, it is still worth considering.
    Posted by J.T. Barbarese
    17 May 2021
  • Yes, point well argued. In the final pages of his popular book on Proust, Alain de Botton puts the view that Proust concludes that even the finest books should be cast aside as spent objects, once the reader has taken from them all that they are capable of providing. I think this is apt - a little more scepticism is healthy. I think today we see literature less as something we learn lessons from, but rather a part of a layering of ideas, images and notions that interweave with our experiences to create a larger comprehension or perspective. Bloom's idea quoted here that books 'teach us how to go on living’ seems very archaic and even a tad embarrassing.
    Posted by Patrick Hockey
    04 May 2021

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