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Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles

The Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death

Harold Bloom (View Bio)
Hardcover: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles

This dazzling celebration of the power of poetry to sublimate death—completed weeks before Harold Bloom’s passing—shows how literature renews life amid what Milton called “a universe of death.” Bloom reads as a way of taking arms against the sea of life’s troubles, taking readers on a grand tour of the poetic voices that have haunted him through a lifetime of reading. “High literature,” he writes, “is a saving lie against time, loss of individuality, premature death.” In passages of breathtaking intimacy, we see him awake late at night, reciting lines from Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Montaigne, Blake, Wordsworth, Hart Crane, Jay Wright, and many others. He feels himself “edged by nothingness,” uncomprehending, but still sustained by reading. Generous and clear-eyed, this is among Harold Bloom’s most ambitious and most moving books.

"In 16 dense, erudite, and surprisingly intimate essays, Bloom offers a sweeping overview of major Western poets, from Homer to contemporary African American Jay Wright, whom Bloom praises as 'among the best American poets of whatever origin or complexion.' As well as celebrating beloved writers, Bloom also reassesses his own work. 'If you live ninety years,' he admits, 'you will be a battered survivor. Your own mistakes, accidents, failures at otherness beat you down.' To assuage those feelings, he advises, 'Rise up at dawn and read something that matters as soon as you can.' He reconsiders his argument in The Anxiety of Influence, analyzing ways in which writers respond to their predecessors. Now, he reveals, the anxiety of influence 'seems to me literary love tempered by ambivalence, as all love is." Throughout, Freud looms large as 'a major essayist in the tradition of Montaigne and Emerson, and not as a supposed scientist'; not as 'the master of dream interpretation (where I doubt him) and certainly not the would-be therapist (talking cures) but the pessimistic seer of the human condition.' Bloom’s visceral connection to poets results in vivid, vigorous portraits, whether of poets he knew—Auden, Frost— or those he has read for so long that 'it scarcely seems reading anymore.' As he writes of Wallace Stevens, 'I am now perpetually on oxygen yet still have the sensation that I breathe the clear air of Stevens.' Early on in this astute collection, the author marks his terrain: 'What you read and how deeply you read matters almost as much as how you love, work, exercise, vote, practice charity, strive for social justice, cultivate kindness and courtesy, worship if you are capable of worship. The mind is an activity and will decay into dark inertia if not sustained by the sustenance of reading.' Reading, this stirring collection testifies, 'helps in staying alive.'" — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)