Debate on Canon-Formation and Harold Bloom’s Defence of the Canon

Essay, 2016

9 Pages


Debate on Canon-Formation and Harold Bloom’s Defence of the Canon

Siddhartha Singh

Sr. Assistant Professor & Head

Department of English,MMPG College,

Kalakankar,Pratapgarh, India.


The contemporary academic world is intensely involved in the debate on the process of canon-formation (I am limiting my focus on the western literary canon). Sometimes, some of these theorists demand to open the canon since they see some politics behind the canon. Such an offence on the canon, sometime it may be right, aims to reduce the canonical stature of an author of genius to the level of either an historian or a propagandist. The present paper shall seek to explore in brief a historical evolution and criteria of the canon-formation. It will further analyse the contemporary debate on canon-formation and Harold Bloom's defence of the canon.

Key terms: Canon, Anxiety of Influence,Originality, Strangeness, Aesthetic-str ength

In Plato’s ideal state the literary canon is impossible. Because of the rift dividing philosophy (hailed as the only authentic form of knowledge) and poetry, Plato is so hard on the poets that he expels them on moral grounds from his ideal state. Aristotle defends poetry and manipulates Plato’s terms and raises the value of poetry as superior to philosophy. Longinus adds a greater dimension in aesthetics by sublimating the self of the poet as a determinative function. They set "standards of sublimity" of imagination and thought. (Altieri 53) The Theological criticism of the Middle Ages defines theology as poetry of God and raises poetry to the status of theology in order to save poetry from current dogmatic religious threats.

Trevor Ross informs us that William Covell, a Cambridge don, says in 1595 that English Universities should canonize their authors in order to raise England’s status at home and abroad as a symbol of literary eminence. (Ross 87)Ross points out that "canon-making in this period was primarily intended to enhance the value of literature in the vernacular and to help foster the English literary system". (Ross 91) Ben Jonson’s 1610 Folio Works is the first self-consciously canonical edition of an author’s works in English literature, which marks a change in thinking.

The Restoration era makes a change in canon. To Dryden the best authors touched on "permanent verities of nature and human experience" which therefore—also meant that the works would enjoy longevity, i.e. another criterion for literary value. (Ross 166) Addison’s annotated version of Milton’s Paradise Lost, published in the Spectator, converts the idea of learning into cultural capital. (Ross 224-228) Greenwood’s The Virgin Muse (1757) provides the first example of an anthology to be taught as literature and it began to be considered as something to be taught. (Ross 230-232)

Alexander Baumgarten brought the term "aesthetic" into critical discourse in 1735 and David Ruhnken used the term "canon" for the first time to mean a selected group of works in 1768. Literary history emerged as a discipline in the eighteenth century marked by Samuel Johnson’s Lives of Poets (1779), and Thomas Warton’s History of English Poetry (1774). The instances provide evidence that the eighteenth century "inaugurated the formation of the literary canon." (Ross. 247)

Jonathan Kramnick also claims that the canon comes into existence in the middle of the eighteenth century. Kramnick informs about three works which attempt to canonize Shakespeare. William Dodd’s book The Beauties of Shakespeare places Shakespeare as the equivalent to the classical poets. (Kramnick 120-124) Charlotte Lennox creates a translating Shakespeare entitled Shakespeare Illustrated.(Kramnick128-131)Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare is a landmark in Shakespearean criticism.

Wordsworth’s "Preface" to The Lyrical Ballad (1800), the manifesto of romanticism, propounds new critical standards of poetic language and the self of the poet. It consequently opens the canon for the new poets. Coleridge’s subtler critical standards, in Biographia Literaria, reach to a new height of "organic unity" of the poet’s self. Shelley, himself acting as a prophet poet-critic, emphasizes the prophetic role of the poet in "Defence of Poetry". The Defence adds another dimension to the canonical value of great poets like Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. Keats’ idea of "negative Capability"— with special reference to Shakespeare— serves as a touchstone of the genius of a poet.

Mathew Arnold by 1857 emerges as a cultural determinant of literature and gives a shift to the criterion of canon-formation with his threefold concepts of (a) Grand Style, (b) Touchstone and (c) Poetry as criticism of life.

The Twentieth Century sees the rise of new and different critical methods of "close reading", especially in the wake of Russian Formalism and New Criticism. With this rise begins modern literary theory. The first half of the century witnesses Eliot’s dominance in the World of academics. The second half of the century witnesses a burst of close reading practices.1

T.S.Eliot draws a literary map in which the Metaphysical poets and dramatists are suddenly upgraded; Milton and the Romantics are rudely toppled; selected European products including the French symbolists are imported. (Terry Eagleton 33) John Guillory carefully delineates how the ideological concerns of T.S. Eliot culminate in his creation of a revisionist canon. It operates by elevating the importance of the metaphysical Poets at the expense of the established poets of the traditional canon¾ Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Yeats etc. (Guillory 179-186)

There comes another significant change during the nineteen twenties and the thirties. The rise of English studies—the most civilized pursuit—is considered immensely superior to law, science, politics, philosophy or history. With a boldness which breaks the traditional barriers Leavis' Scrutiny redraws the map of English literature. Terry Eagleton gives a detailed analysis this map of the English studies (Eagleton 28), which includes Hopkins, Henry James, Conrad, Eliot and Lawrence and excludes Joyce and Woolf.

Bloom’s antithetical stance excludes Hopkins, Henry James, Conrad, Eliot and Lawrence to include Joyce and Woolf in The Western Canon (1994). Opposing this canon and the process of canon-formation of this academic hegemony, Bloom turns the tables and starts redrawing the map of the canon. He rejects any orthodox cosmology and sets the Romantic vision of "myth-making" and "visionary Imagination" of the poet as canonical paradigms.

Bloom’s criterion for canon-formation takes a definite shape by the publication of The Anxiety of Influence (1973). Bloom proposes that "poetic meaning is always concerned with struggle for poetic survival". (Poetry and Repression 106) With this assumption he offers a different use of poetry to "strengthen us by teaching us how to talk to ourselves, rather than how to talk to others". (Wallace Stevens 387) This becomes a strong parameter for the Bloomian canon in The Western Canon, where he draws a map of twenty-six great Western writers, Shakespeare and Dante at the top of the map.

The most important fact in this phase of Bloom’s career is that he is intensely involved in refuting the historical, social and political approaches to literature. These approaches, following Foucault, contends that literature has always served political power and that the canon has been a construct for similar ends.They argue that the process of canon-formation has expressed the interests of the dominant class to the exclusion of women, homosexuals and non-Europeans. Like the Biblical canon the literary canon has been closed to all but dead White phallocentrists, and must be forced open. Bloom lumps together the various critical schools, which derive inspiration from this approach as the School-of-Resentment (it includes Marxist, Feminist, Deconstructionist, Structuralist, Lacanian and New Historicist). Bloom defends canon formation on some reasonable grounds.

In the process of canon—formation Bloom boasts that he "tried to confront greatness directly; to ask what makes the author and the works canonical." (The Western Canon 3) Bloom finds that "originality" and "strangeness" make the author canonical. He defines originality in terms of literary imagination, figurative language and its vicissitudes. He adds—“Fresh metaphor or inventing trope always involves a departure from previous metaphor, and that departure depends upon at least partial turning away or rejection of prior figuration.” (The Western Canon 9)

The basic assertion is that poetic influence need not make poets less original. In fact the anxiety to write differently stimulates new tropes. Bloom defines that “Originality becomes a literary equivalent of such terms as individual enterprise self-reliance, and competition". (The Western Canon 20) He proposes that fierce originality is one crucial component of literary genius. This idea of genius as a rule of canon is best exemplified by Bloom in Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (2002). He defines genius as our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellect or imaginative power to create. (Genius 7)Thus genius is capable to make the work "strange"2 from other work to assert its originality.

"Originality" in the sense of strangeness, is the quality, that more than any other makes a work canonical." (The Western Canon 36) Canon, for Bloom, is testing the strength of the will-to-figuration, "the motif for metaphor" as Nietzsche defines “the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere—the desire to write greatly is the desire to be elsewhere".(The Western Canon 43)

Here Bloom is anti-Foucault since Foucault would define the canon in terms of the "Will-to power". Foucault opines that power, in the form of knowledge, is an ideological construct, which brings inequality through discourse. Jonathan Culler sums up the point: “Power/Knowledge has produced, for example, the situation where you are defined by your sex”. (Culler 81) Bloom differs from Foucault on the role of knowledge For Bloom knowledge is liberation. Here the difference lies at the very basis of the use of the term knowledge. Foucault connects it with power or contemplates it as an instrument to maintain power at the macro level. Bloom uses it in a microcosmic sense of a deep solitary spiritual self, which produces the vision to create and comprehend the universal truth.

For Foucault since "Power/Knowledge" creates canons, canon is definitely male. The three volumes of Foucault’s History of sexuality (1978, 1984) dislocate how gender has been traditionally conceived as a stable, ontologically grounded cluster of acceptable identities. Foucault argues that sexuality and sexual practices have been the objects of disciplinary power/knowledge. Power/knowledge has "scientifically" constructible ideals of propriety by exercising and rendering unwelcome sexual practices those earlier ages had no trouble accommodating. (Rivkin and Ryan 351-52) If the canon is a construct of power/knowledge, inevitably it is repressive in order to maintain the power structure. J. Hillis Miller defines the term "repressive" in connection with the canon:

By "repressive" I mean for example forcing a Latino or Thai in Los Angels, a Puerto Ricon in New York, an inner city of African-American in either city to read only King Lear, Great Expectation and other works from the old canon and to read them for a "content" and according to theological assumptions that are prescribed beforehand. The Latino, Thai, African-American or Puerto Rican is assumed to be a "brute" until she or he can be turned as much as possible into that white middle–class male for whom the canon was intended. (Miller 391)


1 See Julian Wolfreys, Readings: Acts of Close Reading in Literary Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

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Dr. Siddhartha Singh (Author), 2016, Debate on Canon-Formation and Harold Bloom’s Defence of the Canon, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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