Review: Take Arms Against a 
Sea of Troubles

Harold Bloom's last book is an urgent, posthumous self-elegy to a career-long love affair with poetry


Take Arms Against a 
Sea of Troubles by Harold Bloom (Yale University Press, £25)

The author refers to himself as “Old Bloom at 90”. In fact, this eminent American professor of literature died last year just short of that age, and this, his last book — weighty and sonorous, rather as Harold Bloom himself was in life — is an urgent, posthumous self-elegy to a career-long love affair with poetry. 

Bloom returns to his greats, those whom he discerns to be “transumptive”, who remake the world as from the beginning, who force you to surrender because they are “foundational”, transmuting man’s book into God’s. The longest of his devotions is to Shelley, a favourite from youth, on whom he wrote a thesis that became his first book. What he says is not new, but enriched. From the hospital bed where he lies stricken with heart disease, Bloom pours out his passion for Shelley, and the others with whom he conversed for more than 70 years. 

Here come Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Blake. And, passing more swiftly, Byron, Browning and Tennyson. After his revered Walt Whitman (“grandeur in his capacity to love… almost miraculous empathy”) Bloom moves on through Wallace Stevens, Lawrence and Yeats to linger over another god on his canonical Olympus, Hart Crane — “the poet of American myth, as Whitman was before him”. 

Eccentrically, he makes a nod to a sole prose writer: “Sigismund Schlomo Freud”, whom he dismisses as a scientist (“Freud’s defence against antisemitism”) but hails as “the major literary essayist since Montaigne”. And, finally, Bloom arrives at a bravura chapter on “Dante/Centre” as opposed to “Shakespeare/ Circumference”. The Freud interlude stands out as the solitary, proper essay in a work that otherwise resembles anthology-cum-commentary. The mode is discursive, digressive, reminiscent, repetitive in the best sense — and leitmotival, though Bloom would reject that Wagnerian term. At the end, Bloom’s own term for his book — “reverie” – feels completely ratified. Some is dictated when he can no longer sit at his desk at Yale, the physical world closing in. There are echoes of the lecturer speculating, enthusing, evoking, responding, growing sceptical. 

Occasionally, voices of students can be heard;  more often, those of celebrated colleagues — Paul de Man (“The trouble with you, Harold, is that you do not believe in truth”), Northrop Frye, G. Wilson Knight, even the dogmatic F. R. Leavis, who stalked out of the room when a young Bloom, then on exchange at Cambridge, had the temerity to oppose his pronouncement that Shelley had “no firm grip on the actual”. 

The normally generous Harold Bloom stoops here to settle a couple of scores — “Leavis is all diluted T. S. Eliot and hardly even a period piece in 2019”. But a larger point is made: it is not “the actual” per se that “Old Bloom” has come to value most — and surely not on the verge of his end. He still seeks what is in the “frontier” between worlds, that shadowy space from which Shelley and Yeats and the erratic Blake derived their visions; in myth, dream and “dreaming awake”. Here, critic becomes reader, whose commentary begins in appreciation, Keats’s concept of “negative capability” and awe, or even love. 

Tenaciously curious, ever self-revising, Bloom cannot stop trying to assess his visceral, elemental responses. His last book becomes, more than any before it, a magnificent meander through the flames and the breezes, by the waters and over the earth of those creations, intimations and thoughts that most matter. 

There will be few grand streams-of-consciousness like this in the future. A golden age of the academic has passed and with it one of the most luminous and subjective of its spirits — a soul at the end in pursuit, it may be said, of the ultimate absence that Dante, after Ezekiel, seeks to inscribe as “aerial clarity” —“celestial light”.

Stoddard Martin is a critic, writer and publisher

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