In the fall semester of 1966, when I was a sophomore at Yale College, I enrolled in Harold Bloom’s course on English Romantic poetry. As the youngest person ever to receive tenure in the English department, Bloom was already a legendary figure, and so his class had more than 200 students. This was an era when, believe it or not, Yale students considered the humanities, and especially literature, the prestige area of study. Those majoring in the sciences, or doing anything that led directly to a career other than university teaching, found themselves apologizing for wasting their gifts. The prevailing view of literature was romantic, and Bloom taught that all literature worthy of the name was romantic at the core.
At the same time I was also taking a class on the later 18th-century—the age of Dr. Johnson—from Martin Price, and the contrast between these two eminent professors could not have been greater, all the more so because both of them explicated William Blake. Price was all nuance, finesse, and subtlety. He taught us to appreciate a well-turned sentence, not just for its own sake but because style is a key to an author’s way of seeing the world. So that we could savor style, he assigned relatively few pages a week. Bloom did the reverse. No one could read all the poems on his syllabus. Bloom seemed to assume that we had already read the corpus of English literature and were now just refreshing our memory. He saw writers not as craftsmen, not even as thinkers, but as visionaries and prophets seeing into the essence of things.
I learned in Price’s class that in the 18th-century, the word “enthusiasm” was a term of abuse, referring to religious enthusiasts. Dr. Johnson defined it as “a vain belief in private revelation.” Going from Price’s class to Bloom’s, I could not help reflecting that Bloom seemed to be an enthusiast in both senses of the word. He apparently imagined that through the poets he had penetrated to the gnostic essence of things. His inspired readings resembled vatic utterances.
Like so many other students in the class, I was sometimes mystified, sometimes elated. No one better conveyed—in fact, embodied—the love of poetry. But if I had been asked what exactly I had learned from his lectures, the answer would have been: not much about the poems, but a great deal about how to teach. These lessons in pedagogy were both positive and negative. I constantly recall them, and they have shaped my teaching ever since.
The positive lesson was that the most important thing a teacher can convey is a deep love of literature and an understanding that it offers insights, wisdom, and experiences to be found nowhere else. Nothing could be further from Bloom than the usual ways in which most students are taught literature today. Most learn mechanics: let’s find symbols. Others are instructed to see the work as a mere document of its times. And many are taught to summon the author before the stern tribunal of contemporary beliefs so as to measure where she approached modern views and where she fell short. (Bloom was to name such criticism “the school of resentment.”) Each of these approaches places the critic in a position superior to great works, which makes it hard to see why it is worth the effort to read them. Bloom instructed us to do the opposite: presume that the poets are wiser than we are so we can immerse ourselves in their works and share in their insights. Then the considerable difficulty of reading Milton or Spencer or Shelley makes sense.
I learned a few negatives as well. In his famous preface to his dictionary, Dr. Johnson contends that, wherever possible, words should be defined by simpler, more familiar ones. Bloom routinely violated this dictum. To gloss a poem by Blake or Keats, he would recite from memory a poem by Wallace Stevens, who is a lot harder to interpret, not to mention the impossibility of comprehending a poem without seeing it on the page. Whole lectures passed without our understanding anything. However, when Bloom glossed Wordsworth, whose poems he did not especially like, his lectures brought out unsuspected depths and earned standing ovations.
Bloom’s final exam has also served me as a model of what not to do. We were asked to identify—not interpret—10 out of 10 quotations from his two-volume anthology of English romantic poetry. Far from picking famous lines from important poems, he selected obscure verses from minor works, some by poets we had not even covered (William Lisle Bowles?). I left the exam convinced that I had failed, since I could identify only three quotations, two of which I had just stumbled on the night before. Imagine my surprise to discover that I had done better than anyone else and so received an A! I reflected: no good exam tries to trip people up. Any good teacher should recognize that since students spend a considerable amount of time preparing for a final, the exam should be designed not just to test knowledge but also to see that the act of preparing is an intrinsic part of the learning experience.
As my career progressed, and I worked out my own ideas, Bloom often served as a point of reference. I realized that my vision on crucial questions was the exact opposite of his, and so I sometimes used his ideas to clarify my own. What would Bloom not say? Where Bloom valued the transcendent, the visionary, prophetic, and promethean, my favorite authors—Tolstoy, Chekhov, George Eliot—and my favorite literary scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin, stressed the deep wisdom of the ordinary. Bloom opens his anthology of English romantic poetry with a quotation from Yeats: “The poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment, the hero in defeat. The desire that is satisfied is not a great desire, nor has the shoulder used all its might that an unbreakable gate has never strained.” By contrast, Middlemarch ends with Eliot’s reflection that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Bloom’s poets looked into the mists of distance, my novelists detected what was hidden in plain view. As I formulated my own concept of “prosaics,” I realized that these two contrasting visions both allowed us, in Blake’s words, “to see a world in a grain of sand. … And eternity in an hour.”
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