Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate
by Harold Bloom
Cornell University Press, 413 pp., $17.50
Harold Bloom’s new book is not only an interpretation of Wallace Stevens’s major poems but a sustained application of the theory of literary history which he first outlined in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). It may be useful to recite the theory before considering its bearing upon Stevens.
Bloom’s first books were powerful but relatively straightforward interpretations of the major Romantic poets. Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959), The Visionary Company (1961), and Blake’s Apocalypse (1963) were written on the understanding that the central act of Romanticism is the transformation of natural life into human life. The necessary mode of this transformation is “myth-making, the confrontation of life by life, a meeting between subjects, not subjects and objects.” The last phrases indicate that Martin Buber’s vocabulary of I-Thou and I-It relations helped Bloom to describe the mythopoeic mode not only in Shelley but in the Romantic poets generally.
I am not sure that he continues to find Buber’s terms inspiring. In the preface to the 1969 edition of Shelley’s Mythmaking he described his theme as “Shelley’s internalized quest to reach the limits of desire.” I take this gloss as a revisionist gesture on Bloom’s part, pushing the book away from Buber toward an idiom of desire and will. Bloom’s Yeats (1970) now seems a transitional book, mainly because its chapters on Gnosticism have more to do with Bloom than with Yeats. Gnosticism is marginal to Yeats, but central to Bloom in the development of a theory of literary history which owes more to certain Gnostic texts and the Kabbalah than to its official sources in Vico, Nietzsche, Emerson, and Freud. The gist of the theory is given in Bloom’s tetralogy: The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), and Poetry and Repression (1976).
Since the Enlightenment, according to Bloom, writers have suffered in one degree or another from a feeling of belatedness: born too late, they find everything already said and done; they cannot be first, priority has by definition, and the indifference of fate, escaped from them. Before the Enlightenment, there was no such anxiety; to Ben Jonson, art was merely hard work, a craft without shadow. Bloom concedes that there are some post-Enlightenment writers whose genius is compatible with nonchalance. Goethe, like Milton, “absorbed precursors with a gusto evidently precluding anxiety.” Nietzsche shows no sign of the Angst of influence in his relation to Goethe and Schopenhauer. But the shadow is nearly universal. Poets under that shadow are either strong or weak; weak if they merely idealize, strong if they wrestle with their precursor angels and define their genius by that struggle. Strong poets, challenging their precursors, misread them willfully so as to clear a space for themselves. Blake wrestles with Milton, Mailer with Hemingway.
The rules of wrestling are called tropes, they are the official gestures, turnings, strategies, defense mechanisms. Bloom calls them revisionary ratios and describes six of them under the …