Thursday, April 2, 2015

Bloom on Dickinson’s “Our Journey had advanced”

On page 16 of Harold Bloom’s Wallace Stevens, The Poems of our Climate, he wrote, “Here is Dickinson’s version of demonic romance, her Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came:

    Our journey had advanced –
    Our feet were almost come
    To that odd Fork in Being’s Road –
    Eternity – by Term –
    Our pace took sudden awe –
    Our feet – reluctant – led –
    Before – were Cities – but Between –
    The Forest of the Dead –

    Retreat – was out of Hope –
    Behind – a Sealed Route –
    Eternity’s White Flag – before –
    And God – at every Gate –

I don’t recall ever having read this poem, perhaps because I have an extremely poor paperback copy of Dickinson’s Complete Poems, printed in 1960 with such good glue that the books snaps shut if I give it half a chance.  But what does Bloom mean by “demonic romance.”

        . . . Names in my ears
        Of all the lost adventurers my peers, --
    How such a one was strong, and such, was bold,
    And such was fortunate, yet each of old
        Lost, lost! One moment knelled the woe of years.

    There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
        To view the last of me, a living frame
        For one more picture!  In a sheet of flame
    I saw them and knew them all.  And yet
    Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
        And blew.  ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.’   

This is the ending of Browning’s poem and the closest I could come in it to Dickinson’s, but I’m not convinced.

Further in Bloom’s book (page 17) he writes, “The connection with Stevens is that he and Dickinson, more than any other Americans, more than any other moderns, labor successfully to make the visible a little hard to see.”  Bloom gives credit to Geoffrey Hartman for this idea and I can see why Bloom would like making something hard to see, for at some level realizing that taking a poem and reducing it to prose is simply wrong.  Bloom knows this but he can’t escape doing it.  On the other hand if he can take the meaning and make it, or have Dickinson and Stevens make it “hard to see” then he is, I imagine, heading in the right direction.  “Hard to see” and therefore poetry, but not impossible for one with as fine a mind as Bloom’s own to with due diligence manage to “see.” 

On page 18 Bloom writes “. . . Dickinson declines to translate into definite meaning.  Eternity ought to be time without term.  ‘Term’ as a word goes back through the Latin terminus (boundary, limit) to a root meaning ‘to get over, break through,’ as in the Sanskrit tirati, which means ‘crossing over.’  Etymologically, a term is thus a crossing or transgression, and I think this is one of the many instances of Dickinson’s romancing of the etymon.  But all the meanings of ‘term’ are in play in ‘Eternity – by Term –,’ including 1) a limited period of time; 2) a space of time assigned a person to serve, whether in office or in prison; 3) a point in time, at the start or end of a period, or a deadline; 4) a word with a precise meaning; 5) the logical or mathematical meaning, as in propositions or equations; 6) the pillar that marks a boundary, or emblem or Terminus, Roman god of limits. . . .”

“The next two lines metonymize, with our pace troping for our consciousness and our feet for our being.  ‘Awe’ is one of Dickinson’s prime tropes for Fate or ethos raised to apocalyptic pitch. . .”

As Bloom addresses the third stanza his search for precise meaning is frustrated further: “The third stanza begins in a bewildering perspectivism of metaphor, where the trope is the ‘Sealed Route’ of “Retreat,’ which carries quite contrary significations.  It can mean that Dickinson has no hope of turning back, because the Road is sealed off.  Or it can mean that a meditative retreat is available because of hope, in that the Route back to life could be unsealed by Apocalypse.  Either way, meaning in the sense of thought or wholeness in invested in the Crossing of Identification that follows, which is, however, as ambiguous or as much an aporia as the rest of the poem.  It is not possible to decided whether ‘Eternity’s White Flag’ is a surrender to belatedness or a banner of transumptive victory, which means that the ‘Before’ would then take on a temporal as well as a spatial sense.  Nor can we know whether the God ‘at every Gate’ is there as welcomer or as Covering Cherub, the blocking anger.  Whether death is being projected or introjected depends upon our reading of the crisis, and at least our notion of crossings helps us to see how acute the mental dilemma is that Dickinson finally requires us to confront.”

Comment: I could almost forgive Bloom if he helped me appreciate Dickinson’s poem more than my earlier reading of it, but he didn’t and I can’t.  He strove mightily to reduce her poem to prose, to so encompass it with definition and finite lists of possibilities that nothing is left over to be mere poetry; which I find dismal and in the end unacceptable. 

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