“Setting aside the ancients, the two indispensable European poets have to be Dante and Shakespeare,” writes American literary critic Harold Bloom in his final book, completed just weeks before he died in 2019.
Published by Yale University Press on October 13, the book borrows a famous line from Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy for its title: Taking Arms Against a Sea of Troubles. Bloom reads as a way of “taking arms” against a sea of life’s troubles. “High literature,” he writes, “is a saving lie against time, loss of individuality, premature death.”
The book ranges over writers from Milton to Walt Whitman, but the excerpt shared below comes from the concluding chapter, which focuses on Dante and Shakespeare.
Dante, poet and man, is obsessive. This is particularly true in the Latin meaning of the word: besiege or be besieged. Shakespeare’s protagonists sometimes are obsessive or besieged. Yet they can and do change. Leontes emerges from his madness. Prospero acknowledges Caliban, this thing of darkness, as his own. Falstaff dies, plucking at flowers and singing the twenty-third Psalm.
Dante or Shakespeare? We need not choose. Who are we to choose? They choose us or pass us by. When I think of Dante the man, I think of his pride. Originally it meant courage. At twenty-four he fought with courage as a cavalryman in the Battle of Campaldino ( June 11, 1289). He showed even more courage when he entered into the abyss of himself and thus conceived the Commedia. We know much more about Dante than we do about Shakespeare. Who, meditating on Shakespeare, would think first of the poet-dramatist’s pride? Ben Jonson proclaimed his own pride, even in such theatrical failures as Catiline His Conspiracy (1611) and Sejanus His Fall (1603). We have nothing to tell us how Shakespeare regarded his own achievement. Can you compose Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra without rejoicing in them? Perhaps it is better we not know.
There is always surmise. Dante changes his scholars. Shakespeare changes most, if not all, of us. Shakespeare, always Ovidian, is change. In the Commedia only Dante changes. An unchanging fiction does not give pleasure. Dante overcame this by composing an autobiography of the inward self. Freccero rightly finds precedence in the Confessions of Augustine. Virgil was Augustine’s model. That can seem odd in 2020, but we now underread Virgil. The plangency of his images of voice, whether Dido’s or Turnus’s or even Aeneas’s, is the undertone of his troubled and highly self-conscious secondary epic. All is suffering.
Dante does not seem to have wondered why an imperial epic gave its sympathy to the losers—Dido, Turnus, Camilla—as much as to Aeneas, the victor. There is a legend that the dying Virgil requested the Aeneid be destroyed, perhaps because he regarded it as unfinished. It may be that he had lost faith in the Emperor Augustus.
Some aspects of the Commedia mean little to most of us: the messianic possibility of Henry of Luxembourg; the Church’s depravity under Pope Boniface; the cruelty of the dominant faction in Florence. But then the fervent declarations of royal patriotism in Shakespeare also resonate as hollow. You can shrug them off as they come. You cannot do the same with Dante. Prophets make us uncomfortable if they do their job. Dante is a master at rendering the secular reader uncomfortable indeed.
He is too strong to be argued with. Either become his partisan or yield up reading the poem. If his argument were to be regarded as his glory, you could read him only as you read Augustine or Freud, accepting tendentiousness as the price of brilliance. But Dante is the poet of his language and in some ways needs to be read as we read Chaucer and Shakespeare. He sings a center, a song of the answerer, and demands piety of his reader.
This is and is not limitation. One of his greatest gifts is to flesh out belief until it becomes a passion. I once told John Freccero that his best essay was “Manfred’s Wounds and the Poetics of the Purgatorio,” where he writes, “In God’s book, Manfred’s brow is clear”:
God’s book has no marks that are subject to misinterpretation; Manfred’s wounds, however, might have been taken as signs of his damnation when read from a purely human perspective, without benefit of their radiant smile.
It is a kind of textual miracle that Dante intimates we need not read from a merely human perspective, but can read as Augustine did, transmuting man’s book into God’s. Pragmatically we have to read the Commedia as though it were God’s book. Still, even the strongest of books—be it Tanakh, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Montaigne—cannot become God’s book without political and spiritual imposition. Dante walks a fine line. The Commedia is and is not Scripture. Dante insists he tells the truth. Certainly he tells his truth with a completeness and vividness almost unmatched in literature, “almost” because there is Shakespeare.
T. Eliot once wrote, in The Sacred Wood (1928), that he preferred Dante to Shakespeare “because it seems to me to illustrate a saner attitude towards the mystery of life.” As an observation this is not literary criticism but religious polemic.
I rather doubt that Shakespeare took up attitudes toward that ghastly phrase “the mystery of life.” He was not interested in solving our problems. Rather he showed that each of us was her or his own problematic malformation of truth too elusive to be possessed.
Excerpted from Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles by Harold Bloom. Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission by Yale University Press.