Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom; drawing by David Levine

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 names clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades. Presumably there are far more than six; the available turns and swerves are as numerous, I suppose, as the tropes of Elizabethan rhetoric. But Bloom’s six make a working typology of evasions, a set of exercises by which the new poet, the “ephebe,” enters into a tense relation, at once cooperative and aggressive, with his precursor or precursors. Clinamen is the poet’s swerve away from his precursor, a corrective gesture to make change possible and desire continuous; without clinamen, the new poet is doomed to imitation and weakness.

Tessera names the gesture by which the new poet, retaining his precursor’s terms, uses them in an independent or heretical sense and thinks of himself as completing the work his precursor left unfinished. Kenosis is a break away from the precursor in a spirit of self-abasement, an emptying of the poetic self. In daemonization the new poet finds something in the precursor’s poem which he thinks the precursor did not know. Askesis is self-purgation performed in a special mood; the new poet separates himself from others, including his precursor, and thus attains to solitude. In apophrades the poet holds his poem open at last to his precursor, and we are compelled to feel that he has written the precursor’s poem, we find it suffused with his spirit. In Kabbalah and Criticism Bloom attempts to relate these revisionary mechanisms to the six active phases or behinot of the Kabbalah’s Sefirot.

It follows that the exemplary poem in post-Enlightenment literature is “the Wordsworthian crisis-poem,” which is obsessively turned upon the fear that the poet has lost his imaginative power. In recent books culminating in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate Bloom has been charting the scenes of crisis in particular poems, marking certain “Crossings” or representative crisis-moments, crucial places where the poet’s language leaps the gap “between one kind of figurative thinking and another.” He has distinguished three major Crossings—the Crossing of Election, which faces the death of the creative gift; the Crossing of Solipsism, which struggles with the death of love; and the Crossing of Identification, which faces death itself, total death. These crossings are sought in particular poems because Bloom’s theory requires them to be there. A major crisis is bound to be mediated through local crises, turns of fear.


The first Crossing is situated between irony and synecdoche, “or psychologically between reaction formation, where one defends against one’s own instincts by manifesting the opposite of what one both wants and fears, and turning against the self, which is usually an exercise in sado-masochism.” The second Crossing is between metonymy and hyperbole, “or defensively between regressive and isolating movements of one’s own psyche, and the massive repression of instinct that sublimely augments one’s unconscious or inwardness at the expense of all the gregarious affects.” And the third Crossing takes place between metaphor and metalepsis, or “psychoanalytically between sublimation and introjection, that is between substituting some labor for one’s own prohibited instincts and the psychic act of so identifying oneself with something or someone outside the self that time seems to stand still or to roll back or forward.”

Bloom finds these Crossings most clearly but not solely in Stevens’s long poems, especially The Auroras of Autumn and An Ordinary Evening in New Haven; and also in the poet’s career as a whole. He points to the Crossing of Election in the Stevens of 1915, “when his first strong poems were written.” The Crossing of Solipsism “lasted a long time in Stevens, but its crux was in 1921-22, and it was not resolved until 1934-36.” The Crossing of Identification “took place in 1942, and gave him Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” The later poems, especially The Auroras of Autumn in 1947 and The Rock in 1950, were resolved on the basis of formulations already reached in Notes. Sometimes, as in “Domination of Black,” the three Crossings occur in one poem: but not always. Two poems may place themselves at different points or stages along the path of crisis, with correspondingly different recourse to tropes and figures. If the chosen stage is late, presumably the earlier phases are taken for granted: the exact “moment” of the poem depends upon the conjunction of the poet’s will and the factors which have provoked it on this occasion. Generally, the Crossings seem to occur in the order in which I have given them.

I have referred to Bloom’s sources, but it is more accurate to speak of his models. In Poetry and Repression he asserts that “negative theology,” even where it verges upon theosophy, provides the likeliest discipline for revisionist or antithetical critics:

But so extreme is the situation of strong poetry in the post-Enlightenment, so nearly identical is it with the anxiety of influence, that it requires as interpretative model the most dialectical and negative of theologies that can be found.

Kabbalah, especially as mediated through the doctrines of Isaac Luria, provides “not only a dialectic of creation astonishingly close to revisionist poetics, but also a conceptual rhetoric ingeniously oriented toward defense.” And in Kabbalah and Criticism Bloom refers to “the Gnostic formulation that all reading, and all writing, constitute a kind of defensive warfare, that reading is mis-writing and writing is misreading.” Of course there are helpful texts nearer home. In several books Bloom quotes the passage in the Letter about Mallarmé in which Valéry, writing of influence, says that what a man does either repeats or refutes what someone else has done, “repeats it in other tones, refines or amplifies or simplifies it, loads or overloads it with meaning; or else rebuts, overturns, destroys and denies it, but thereby assumes it and has invisibly used it.” As for Vico, Nietzsche, Emerson, Pater, and Freud: Bloom’s recourse to these masters is frequent but opportunistic. My own guess is that his true precursor is Blake, and I find the first trace of Bloom’s revisionary ratios in his account of Blake’s distinction between States and the Individuals in those states. The chapter on Blake’s Milton in Blake’s Apocalypse could easily be translated into the idiom of The Anxiety of Influence.

Bloom’s aim is “not another new poetics, but a wholly different practical criticism.” He urges us to learn to read any poem, or at least any strong poem, “as its poet’s deliberate misrepresentation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or of poetry in general.” Criticism is either primary or antithetical. Primary criticism vacillates “between tautology—in which the poem is and means itself—and reduction—in which the poem means something that is not itself a poem.” Antithetical criticism denies both tautology and reduction, “a denial best delivered by the assertion that the meaning of a poem can only be a poem, but another poem—a poem not itself.” The precursor, according to antithetical criticism, admonishes his ephebe: “Be me but not me.” Bloom speaks of “my own addiction to a Romantic and prophetic humanism,” but generally he allows his commitments to issue between his lines.


I hope this synopsis of Bloom’s theory of poetry will be regarded as fair and decently accurate. Now I want to indicate some of the reservations I would find myself urging in a discussion with Bloom: some of these are so obvious that I would express them only if our discussion neglected to take them for granted.

One: Bloom presents literary history since the Enlightenment as one story and one story only, a struggle of gods and demiurges; the character of the struggle issues from obsession, trespass, defense, and revenge. The only narrative is a “family romance.” The story has nothing to say of time, history, the world, society, manners, morals, chance.

Two: Bloom’s interest in the poem expires with the disclosure of its plot; it concentrates upon certain disjunctive moments in the poem and insists upon finding there the local phases of anxiety and crisis. His practical criticism is not much concerned with the structure of an individual poem except as an embodiment of crisis; it has little to say of diction, the metres, rhythm, syntax, or tone, it is mainly concerned to isolate the defensive gesture which it anticipates. Like Desdemona, Bloom understands a fury in the words, but not the words; a fury of revisions and evasions directed against the precursor poem.

Three: much of this concentration arises from Bloom’s insistence that modern poets are either “strong” or “weak.” I cannot see much point in saying that the strong poets are Hardy and Stevens if this means, as it does, that Eliot and, say, Frost are weak. Eliot is weak, presumably, because his relation to Dante was not a Freudian struggle of son against father; it was rather a sustaining relation, based upon Eliot’s feeling that “there is no competition”:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

For Eliot, “trying to learn to use words” means wrestling with words, with the whole body of the language, rather than with Laforgue, Donne, Milton, Shakespeare, or Dante. Frost is weak, presumably, because his relation to Emerson and William James was not a family romance, a war between rival states of feeling. In A Map of Misreading Bloom seems to accept Emerson’s principle that literary energy, as Bloom phrases it, “is drawn from language and not from nature, and the influence-relationship takes place between words and words, and not between subjects,” but in practice by “language” he means not the whole body of speech, the thew and sinew of the language (to use Hopkins’s terms), but a precursor’s language; he ignores the pressure of the language which did not embody itself in the precursor’s poem. The relation between Blake and Milton is clearly remarkable, but it does not account for everything in Blake’s language, even in his Milton. Bloom’s theory is of far more limited application than he claims.

Four: to Bloom, poetry is not a form of knowledge but of action. I do not object to this view, but I think Bloom does not take its consequences seriously enough. The explanation is that he refuses to distinguish between will and imagination: will subsumes imagination in every case. Bloom wants to find in the poem an agon rather than a structure, so he forces the poem away from knowledge toward action, gesture, and desire. Imposing orders not as he thinks of them but as he has already thought of them, he prescribes one official plot, a crisis to be evaded, resolved, or transcended. The motto is given in the new book on Stevens: “where the will predominates, even in its own despite, how much is there left to know?” But knowing is not the point, despite Stevens’s desire “to make a new intelligence prevail.” Imagination, Bloom asserts, “as Vico understood and Freud did not, is the faculty of self-preservation.” But so is the will; there is no difference. Yeats, who insisted upon the difference, reflected sharply upon situations in which the will tries to usurp the work of imagination.

What is the difficulty with Bloom’s procedure? Simply this: if you allow the imagination to be subsumed in will, you set aside or relegate to some Limbo the association of imagination with creativity, the making of poetic objects, signs distinguishable from the poet’s self. The basic point here is that Bloom is not interested in the supposed autonomy of signs or structures. His theory of poetry requires the subordination of imagination to will because it reads the poem only as the figurative manifestation of self. The center of his interest is the self, the poet, the psychic drama disclosed in the poem. He is a psychobiographical critic, it appears, after all, interested in the poem not as artifact but as evidence. In his aesthetic there is no need to invoke the poetic imagination, since the will is always enough: nothing more than will is required for self-preservation.

Wallace Stevens can be the poet Bloom wants him to be only in the conditions Bloom ascribes to Schopenhauer’s account of the Sublime: that is, “when the objects of contemplation have a hostile relation to the will, when the power of objects menaces the will.” A strong poem beings when the poet’s will feels itself provoked or threatened by an object of attention, a situation in the world at large, a world not ourselves (“Today the leaves cry…”), a reified circumstance, the “stale intelligence” of others, an alien landscape, a “litter of truths,” but most of all by a precursor poem which tells the poet that he is too late. The will is the self in its resistance. Poetic history is reduced to the story of that resistance: the events in the story are tropes.

Five, and last of these reservations: to Bloom, the entire lexicon of tropes is nothing more than a set of defense mechanisms, and criticism is nothing more than a rhetoric of will. Tropes “are primarily figures of willed falsification rather than figures of unwilled knowledge: there is willed knowing, but that process does not produce poems.” In Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate Bloom says that “there are only two fundamental tropes, tropes of action and tropes of desire.” A trope is therefore the will, so far as it translates itself into a verbal act or figure of ethos; if the will fails to translate itself, it abides as a verbal desire or figure of pathos. The tropical life cannot take any other form.

Bloom’s new book is an elaborate exposition of his theory: the gist of his interpretation of Stevens is already available in A Map of Misreading, Poetry and Repression, and Figures of Capable Imagination, where Stevens is presented as “the authentic twentieth-century poet of the Sublime, surpassing even Rilke in that highest of modes.” The main object of the new book is to devise a critical procedure, based upon Stevens’s major poetry written between 1942 and his death in 1955, for describing “disjunctions or crossings in the rhetoric of poetry, because Stevens is the most advanced rhetorician in modern poetry and in his major phase the most disjunctive.” The richest evidence is in the long poems, especially Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, The Auroras of Autumn, and An Ordinary Evening in New Haven. In these poems the Supreme Fiction turns out to be not poetry, as Stevens said, but the poet, “a fiction of the self, or the poetic self as a transumption, an audacious trope undoing all previous tropes.” Stevens’s chief precursor is Whitman, but he also wrestles with Emerson, and exercises himself upon Schopenhauer, Valéry, William James, Santayana, and others.

His agon is the one story of crisis, but it may be regarded as a drama in three acts. In the first act, lest he be charmed or deceived by illusions, the poet reduces the object of attention to what he calls the First Idea, the condition in which the object is merely what it is in its essential poverty. The idea is such because without the poet a sense of the poverty of the object would be impossible; the willed reduction makes the object an idea. This marks the first act of will, and it is deemed to be candid and ascetic. The second act is the discovery that the First Idea is intolerable, the poet cannot live with it, its poverty is monstrous: it is not even the ground of our beseeching, it is not the Truth because if it were we would be content to live with it as animals live with nature. So in the third act the poet reimagines the First Idea, resorts to it again in his full plural humanity, transforms it by a flick of feeling, turns it into an acceptable fiction; acceptable now because he has made it, knowingly and willfully.

What intervenes between the first alien object of attention and the ultimate fiction is the poet’s feeling, desire, defense, transgression, will; to the post-Nietzschean Bloom, these are the essential qualities of human life under the shadow of belatedness. Tropes are old strategies, turns which have proved themselves useful: the new poet uses them again, like a dancer going through the official steps but giving them the nuance of his will and grace. Bloom’s version of this drama in three acts recites Emerson’s terms to say that “Fate in Stevens is the First Idea, Freedom is the realization that the First Idea cannot suffice, and Power or Will is a finding of what may suffice, a revision of the First Idea.” The entire book gathers evidence for this reading.

Does this involve distortion of Stevens to make the story come out right? Even if it does, Bloom has already taken out insurance by asserting that misreading and misprision are essential to the strong reader wrestling with his strong poet. But if you decline to be charmed by this assertion, you are likely to report that the book is best, soundest, wisest when it glosses those poems in which the power of objects menaces Stevens’s will: “Esthétique du Mal,” “The Man on the Dump”; or poems like “Domination of Black” in which Bloom’s rhetoric of will and crisis shows that urbanity on the surface is consistent with turbulence beneath. The book is sullen when it has to admit that there are poems in which Stevens’s will is gratified rather than threatened by the power of objects: “Evening without Angels,” “Nomad Exquisite.” In such poems the mind lays by its trouble and relents. Bloom seems bored or embarrassed by the peaceful poems, mostly in Harmonium, and in a hurry to see the war taken up again. But it is remarkably invigorating to see Bloom’s terms deployed upon a poet like Stevens who often seems offensively bland. This is Bloom’s major skill, or the most formidable consequence of his theory, that the reader of Stevens is forced to register turbulence in poems which seemed to have no other design upon him than to caress him out of thought.

The same reader, however, if he finds himself swerving or clinamening away from Bloom’s interpretation, is likely to recall other things that have been said of Stevens and insist upon reciting them. Let me quote three. Bloom’s criticism, I have remarked, is not much interested in Stevens’s words except as stage directions for an internal drama, but another reader has argued that “if any poems have been simply confected from words, words shaggy, smooth, humdrum, exotic, words stroked and smoothed and jostled, words set grimacing, they would seem to be Stevens’s poems.” Fine: and here is another sentence: “you will search Stevens’s canon in vain for human actions with agents good and bad.” And a third extends the second: “In Stevens’s world there are no actions and no speeches, merely ways of looking at things.”

Now I am not asserting that these three sentences speak the deepest truth about Stevens, but I think it a limitation in Bloom’s criticism that it would not allow itself to say, or even to think, any of them. He would veto the first because it would testify to an interest in Stevens’s diction and syntax, in the principles by which he chose words and put them together, an interest likely to divert the reader from the agon in progress. Bloom would find the second sentence beside the point and its Aristotelianism irrelevant because, according to his interpretation of Stevens, there is only one human action, one agent, the poet himself in the throes of belatedness. The third sentence, “merely ways of looking at things,” would be alien to Bloom because it imprisons Stevens in problems of epistemology, a Vaihinger in verse. I have quoted the three sentences, from Hugh Kenner’s A Homemade World, partly to resist Bloom’s rhetoric, an urgent motive because readers of Bloom find it hard to assure themselves that they have minds of their own; and partly to bring forward again some themes which Bloom’s antithetical criticism would suppress.

There are wonderful perceptions in Bloom’s new book: that goes nearly without saying. I do not know any other critic of Stevens who would say of the comic heroine of the poem “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay” that “she represents what Stevens now knows to be the most dangerous element in his own poetic mind, the Snow Man tendency that says no to everything in order to get at itself.” I assume that a lively reader would ask Bloom to describe the danger and to explain why it does not constitute yet another revisionary ratio. Bloom’s arguments must be met with the vigor they deserve. One hint, to end with: the word “evade” is crucial to his rhetoric, and indeed to his entire theory of modern poetry. Where Hugh Kenner and many other readers are bored with Stevens’s long poems and cry out, “Ideas, ideas!” Bloom answers: “No, Stevens never stays philosophic for very long; he is himself only when he is most evasive.” And watch out for the same verb two hundred pages later, when Bloom says that “Stevens was a man ‘to whom things spoke,’ as they spoke to Wordsworth and to Ruskin, but he emulated Ruskin more than Wordsworth in seeking to evade this speaking.” Evasion plays no part in knowledge, and is a scandal to epistemologists, but it is crucial if you want to escape or refute your fate. This is Bloom’s theme.

This Issue

September 15, 1977