Harold Bloom on Wallace Stevens, Young Love, and Old Age
"I am aware of being in the elegy season."
As I near the end of my eighties, I am aware of being in the elegy season. The majority of my close friends from my own generation have departed. I am haunted by many passages in Wallace Stevens, and one that I keep hearing centers his extraordinary poem, “The Course of a Particular”:
And though one says that one is part of everything,
There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.
Throughout his final poems, Stevens listens for the voice he heard before the world was made. Though he is not preoccupied with occult and Hermetic modes of speculation, in the manner either of William Butler Yeats or of D.H. Lawrence, he hears voices. Falling leaves cry out, houses laugh, syllables are spoken without speech, the wind breathes a motion, thoughts howl in the mind, the colossal sun sounds a scrawny cry, and the phoenix, mounted on a visionary palm tree, sings a foreign song. Sleepless like many other old men and women, I too dream what Stevens calls a heavy difference:
A little while of Terra Paradise
I dreamed, of autumn rivers, silvas green,
Of sanctimonious mountains high in snow,
But in that dream a heavy difference
Kept waking and a mournful sense sought out,
In vain, life’s season or death’s element.
When that saddens me too much, something in my spirit turns to a more intimate Stevens:
The cry is part. My solitaria
Are the meditations of a central mind.
I hear the motions of the spirit and the sound
Of what is secret becomes, for me, a voice
That is my own voice speaking in my ear.
Chocorua to Its Neighbor
Frequently at dawn, when I am very chilly and sit on the side of my bed, knowing it is not safe for me to go downstairs by myself in order to have some morning tea, I find deep peace in Stevens at his strongest:
To say more than human things with human voice,
That cannot be; to say human things with more
Than human voice, that, also, cannot be;
To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is acutest speech.
Can human things be said with more than human voice? Stevens was a kind of Lucretian skeptic, as Shelley, Walt Whitman, and Walter Pater had been before him. Yet, of those three, only Pater would have agreed with Stevens as to whether we could hear a primordial utterance. Even Stevens had his openings to a transcendental freedom:
Upon my top he breathed the pointed dark.
He was not man yet he was nothing else.
If in the mind, he vanished, taking there
The mind’s own limits, like a tragic thing
Without existence, existing everywhere.
William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and, rather more skeptically, Hart Crane all were informed by the ancient tradition of Hermetism, the Greco-Egyptian speculation from which the Renaissance Hermeticism developed. In that original speculation, which was inaugurated by a small group of pagan intellectuals in Hellenistic Alexandria during the first century of the Common Era, a story is told of how the first Adam, called Anthropos, is exalted as a divine being. Here is a crucial passage from the Hermetic discourse called “The Key”:
For the human is a godlike living thing, not comparable to the other living things of the earth but to those in heaven above, who are called gods. Or better—if one dare tell the truth—the one who is really human is above these gods as well, or at least they are wholly equal in power to one another.
For none of the heavenly gods will go down to earth, leaving behind the bounds of heaven, yet the human rises up to heaven and takes its measure and knows what is in its heights and its depths, and he understands all else exactly and—greater than all of this—he comes to be on high without leaving earth behind, so enormous is his range. Therefore, we must dare to say that the human on earth is a mortal god but that god in heaven is an immortal human. Through these two, then, cosmos and human, all things exist, but they all exist by action of the one.
Translated by Brian P. Copenhaver
That is Hermetism at its most exalted. Darker is the account that brings together the Fall and the Creation as one event. I turn here to the most famous text of Hermetism, “Poimandres,” where our primal catastrophe is elegantly chronicled:
Having all authority over the cosmos of mortals and unreasoning animals, the man broke through the vault and stooped to look through the cosmic framework, thus displaying to lower nature the fair form of god. Nature smiled for love when she saw him whose fairness brings no surfeit (and) who holds in himself all the energy of the governors and the form of god, for in the water she saw the shape of the man’s fairest form and upon the earth its shadow. When the man saw in the water the form like himself as it was in nature, he loved it and wished to inhabit it; wish and action came in the same moment, and he inhabited the unreasoning form. Nature took hold of her beloved, hugged him all about and embraced him, for they were lovers.
Because of this, unlike any other living thing on earth, mankind is twofold—in the body mortal but immortal in the essential man. Even though he is immortal and has authority over all things, mankind is affected by mortality because he is subject to fate; thus, although man is above the cosmic framework, he became a slave within it. He is androgyne because he comes from an androgyne father, and he never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.
Translated by Brian P. CopenhaverWhen I was very young, I read poems incessantly because I was lonely and somehow must have believed they could become people for me.
In Hart Crane’s “Voyages II” there is a paean to “sleep, death, desire,” a celebration of the great erotic relationship of the poet’s life. Nevertheless, “Voyages V” admits that the truth of this love is a matter of instants and must end in separation:
Draw in your head, alone and too tall here.
Your eyes already in the slant of drifting foam;
Your breath sealed by the ghosts I do not know:
Draw in your head and sleep the long way home.
There is a kind of gentle resignation in Hart Crane as he confronts erotic loss. Ultimately I think that stems from the Hermetist version of the Fall as a narcissistic reverie that concludes in a catastrophe. Many of us, remembering the now remote erotic attachments of our youth, scores of years back in time, find that involuntarily we remain haunted by a voice we heard emanating from the beloved that seemed timeless and therefore permanent. There is some link that binds together the making of a poem, the illusions of recall, and the tenuous expectation that somehow we will hear again the voice that preceded the instauration of a cosmos forlorn and vagrant through which we blankly wander unable to distinguish what was and what we strain to find again.
Our experience of a lost voice may come to us in solitude or in the presence of others, whether or not they are related to our past sorrows. When I was very young, I read poems incessantly because I was lonely and somehow must have believed they could become people for me. That vagary could not survive maturation, yet the quest persisted for a voice I had heard before I knew my own alienation. Over the decades I learned to listen closely to my students for some murmurs of those evanescent voices. Since these young men and women are two-thirds of a century younger than I am, I do not seek in their tonalities my own nostalgias. Yet I believe that the teaching of Shakespeare or of Moby-Dick can be an awakening to the ancient Gnostic call that proclaims a resurrection preceding our deaths.
In my experience, there are a few visions or surging voices that break through the rock of the self and free something that is both spark and breath, in a momentary knowing that seems to be known even as it knows. When I ask myself who is the knower, I have intimations that a primal sound, cast out of our cosmos and wandering in exile through the interstellar spaces, may be calling to me. There is nothing unique in my experience, as was particularly clear to me in the years 1990 to 92, when I seemed all but endlessly in motion, lecturing at American universities and colleges in the South and Southwest. I accepted speaking engagements only there, when I could get away from Yale, so as to do amateur research listening to people of many sects and persuasions, who I learned to call American Religionists. I recall vividly after a quarter-century how many told me they had already been resurrected, and knew they had walked and talked with the Jesus scarcely mentioned in the New Testament, who passed 40 days with his faithful after the Ascension.
At 60, I both respected and was baffled by so many urgent confessions of women and of men that they had touched the flesh of a living Jesus, who walked with them and spoke of everyday matters. Now, in my high 80s, I understand better what was so dark to me a quarter-century ago.
I listen for a primordial silence as well as voices coming down from a sphere within and beyond the rock of the self. When Hamlet concludes by murmuring, “The rest is silence,” he intends both an acceptance of oblivion and a longing for what Hermetists call the Pleroma or Fullness. Valentinus the Gnostic sage concluded his “Gospel of Truth” by telling his congregation that it did not suit him, having been in the place of rest, to say anything more. For him too the rest was silence.
Excerpted from Possessed by Memory by Harold Bloom. Copyright © 2019 by Harold Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.