Saturday, 2 February 2013
Harold Bloom's Last Poems
In his days as an important literary theorist in the 1970s, Yale critic Harold Bloom showed no discernable interest in William Morris. In that decade he elaborated a complex psychoanalytical account of the ‘anxiety of influence’ between poets in the Romantic tradition. If you were thinking through the relations between Shelley and Wordsworth in Bloomian terms, you would need a whole arcane terminology of clinamen, tessera, kenosis, askesis and apophrades at your disposal. Bloomianism in those days was a strange but exhilarating theoretical system.
More recently, however, Bloom has abandoned literary theory to become one of the crustiest conservative critics around, cantankerously devoted to ‘the western canon’; and as he has done so, oddly enough, his interest in Morris appears to have grown. In The Anatomy of Influence (2011) he remarks that ‘Sigurd the Volsung, the marvellous verse epic of William Morris, has few readers that I have met, but I go back to it every year or so’ (p.173); and in his intriguing anthology Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems (2010) he represents Morris by the last page or two of Sigurd, in which Gudrun kills Atli and then commits suicide.
A ‘last poem’ for Bloom is either one that definitively sums up the overall impulses of a poetic career or one which is literally the last text that particular poet wrote. I’m not convinced that his chosen pages from Sigurd work as the former, and if we want the latter we will have to turn to the poem ‘She and He’, which Morris wrote in early January 1896 and immediately posted to Georgiana Burne-Jones. That strange, intense work, with its bitter ‘farewell to hope’ in the last line, gives little sense of consolation or completeness as its author entered the final year of his life.