Posts Tagged ‘D.H. Lawrence’

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

September 14, 2011

Harold Bloom

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (178)

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral.

D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (180)

When Kurt Vonnegut was working on Slaughterhouse-Five, he told movie-producer Harrison Starr that it was going to be an anti-war novel.

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr quipped.

Vonnegut found the comment amusing, agreeing that wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers.” This knowledge did not dissuade Vonnegut from completing his masterpiece because he realized that no work of art could ever rectify the human situation, and only the silliest sort of fool creates a work of art hoping somehow to fix the world. (This is what logicians refer to as assigning an irrelevant goal.)

But literature has its uses. And W. H. Auden notwithstanding, poetry makes all sorts of things happen. Great works of art render our world a lot more beautiful and slightly less confusing.

Harold Bloom, one of America’s most acclaimed literary critics, has released a curious collection of musings on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet entitled Poem Unlimited. According to Bloom, “of all poems” Hamlet is the “most unlimited,” and, as a “meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death,” the play “competes only with the world’s great scriptures” (3).

Bloom has long been an idiosyncratic critic, cocksure about his own brilliance and emphatic about the singular authenticity of his opinions. His general predisposition towards even the most revered literary figures is often miserly in terms of handing out approbation. For example, Bloom dismisses Matthew Arnold’s oeuvre in one sentence: “Arnold, long admired both for his poetry and for his literary criticism, was not particularly good at either” (The Best Poems of the English Language 684).

And like the notoriously fussy Mikey from the Life Cereal advertisement of my youth, when Bloom finally comes across something that pleases him, he really likes it.

Hamlet remains our world’s most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality. (7).

Of course, Bloom is hardly the first critic to gush over Hamlet.

It is perhaps not necessary to emphasize the quality of the prose in Hamlet. Here are passages which represent the highest point Shakespeare ever reached in this medium….it is the excellence and the importance of the prose which separates Hamlet from, and in many ways above, all the other plays (George H. W. Rylands, Words and Poetry 159).

So Bloom, a devout secularist who considers “Bardolatry” to be “only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare,” is ecstatic about Hamlet (7). This play’s the thing for Bloom, and its eponymous hero is the pinnacle of literary achievement, eliciting rapturous bellows of praise from the usually cantankerous critic:

[Hamlet] himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed (7);

Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling…fathered by himself (9);

Hamlet becomes the freest artist of himself in all literature (51);

We cannot play upon him: he is cleverer than we are, and more dangerous (54);

[T]he likes of] whom we have scarcely encountered before (82);

[H]e is more intelligent than you are, whoever you are (88);

[H]e is a mortal god in an immortal play (90);

Hamlet is the truth, insofar as any hero of consciousness can be (96).

Thus inebriated in adoration, Bloom almost completely ignores the enigma at the core of Hamlet’s personality which has confounded and infuriated critics for centuries: Yes, Hamlet is a devilishly clever young man, full of all sorts of wonderful words. But he is also cruel, capricious, and ditheringly indecisive. Indeed, the very expression “playing Hamlet” is a synonym for indecisiveness.

No one could seriously question Bloom’s assertion that Hamlet is a font of fabulous words. But if, as D. H. Lawrence argues, the moral function of art is paramount, then there is no escaping the fact that Hamlet is an abject failure as a man. If Hamlet had simply killed Claudius (the man who murdered Hamlet’s father), so much senseless death and mayhem could have been avoided. The Polonius family—who, whatever their faults, were decent, loyal and loving human beings—is utterly destroyed due to Hamlet’s vacillating stupidity.

Unlike Hamlet, Laertes has no need to navigate a sea of words in order to determine the right course of action. Hamlet himself speaks of Laertes as a “great gentelman,” and Hamlet admires the “bravery of his grief.” Furthermore, the similarity of their plight is not lost on Hamlet, who says of Laertes, “by the image of my cause, I see/The portraiture of his.”

Yet Harold Bloom will have none of it: “Laertes is too absurdly slight to be Hamlet’s ‘second self,’ as many critics aver (104).

Along with Laertes, the other heroic figure in Hamlet is Horatio. According to Hamlet, Horatio is

A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commedled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As i do thee.

Again, Bloom is unwilling to listen, not even to Hamlet:

Though critics have asserted that Hamlet finds qualities in Horatio that are absent from himself, they are plainly mistaken. Hamlet is so various that he contains every quality, while Horatio, totally colorless, has none to speak of (15).

Alan Lerner jested that “The French don’t care what they do actually/As long as they pronounce it properly.” Similarly, Harold Bloom doesn’t care what Hamlet does, actually—whom he berates, whom he stabs, whom he has murdered, whom he brutishly badgers to the point of suicide, how many ways he contradicts himself, how many people die for his indecisiveness—as long as Hamlet collocates his lovely words better than anyone else.

by Richard W. Bray


July 17, 2011

Arnold Bennett wrote for money; he also wrote about money. It might seem incongruous that someone who earned and spent great sums of cash would suggest that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake is a symptom of human depravity, yet this is clearly the case. In Anna of the Five Towns and Riceyman Steps the soulless appetite for wealth leads to isolation, depression, poverty, hunger and death. For Ephraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward, the compulsion to hoard money perverts their sensibilities and hampers their ability to connect with their fellow human beings. Furthermore, Tellwright’s daughter Anna suffers from her misbegotten notions about propriety and class and she is in some respects imprisoned by her wealth. Even Henry Mynors, the sole representative of the clergy in either of these two novels, is far more interested in the accumulation of riches than in the salvation of souls. Titus and Willie Price, moreover, are utterly destroyed by Tellwright’s lust for their property.

Are we to believe, then, that a man who lived as lavishly as Arnold Bennett hypocritically promoted the notion that the love of money was indeed a root cause of human misery and injustice? The answer is yes and no. For although Bennett believed that there was nothing innately wrong with acquiring money, he felt that it was indecent to stockpile it. For Bennett, money was for spending, and its true value lay in the worldly pleasures it might purchase.

The servant Elsie, by far the most sympathetic character in either Anna of the Five Towns or Riceyman Steps, represents a stark contrast to Tellwright and Earlforward in her attitudes about money. However, Bennett is not implying that working people are inherently superior to the wealthy because the rich are automatically corrupted by their money. This would contradict not only Bennett’s chosen lifestyle, but also his artistic instincts. He was no Marxist; there are immoral paupers and decent prosperous folks in both of these novels. But the reader can easily discern a relationship between goodness and one’s attitudes regarding money. Elsie exists on a higher moral plane than Tellwright and Earlforward because she is unafraid to spend what little money she has, which makes her capable of enjoying life in ways that they never will.

Arnold Bennett made no secret of the delight he took in the many blessings that money can provide. As a financially successful writer, he took full advantage of the benefits afforded to the wealthy in his day: He owned a yacht, traveled frequently, and took meals in the finest restaurants. For Bennett, the sin was not in the accumulation of wealth, but in the depraved desire to amass it for its own sake. Tellwright’s inability to express love for his daughters is a function of his miserliness. This is quite a contrast to the Suttons, who are magnanimous towards their children in the allocation of both love and money.

It is in the character of Elsie that Bennett best expresses his beliefs regarding the relationship between wealth and morality. She is loyal, humble, industrious, and almost preternaturally nurturing, and her lack of concern for money is displayed when she risks her livelihood by nursing Joe back to health inside Earlforward’s house. In contrast to Elsie, Anna Tellwright is unwilling to confirm the love she feels for Willie Price when she chooses to marry Mynors. Anna, who is just as tireless and faithful to her obligations as Elsie, is nevertheless handicapped socially and emotionally. It is clearly Anna’s relationship to her wealth which prevents her from acting upon her emotions the way Elsie does.

It was an appetite for riches rather than the love of words which originally motivated Arnold Bennett to write fiction, and during his lifetime, those who viewed Bennett as more mercenary than artist were particularly scornful of his work. One critic summed up his career as “a flagrant case of literary capitalism” (Lucas 9). Bennett, who in his own words, “wanted money in heaps,” began writing, and continued to write, “for an uncomplicated commercial motive” (Simons 16; Barker 41). This is not surprising; much of his childhood was spent in poverty. Yet it is absurd to suggest that this distinction makes his work less important than that of so many of his contemporaries who had the luxury of inherited wealth.

The important issue is not whether Bennett’s enjoyment of lucre somehow invalidates him as an artist, but how his feelings about money contributed to his artistic outlook. Materialism and the accumulation of money constitute one of the most prominent themes in his writing, and perhaps critics can justifiably accuse him of hypocrisy for not allowing certain of his wealthier characters to enjoy the blessings of riches as he did. But this does not negate his social commentary. “Arnold Bennett’s attitude to money and to mere material things is a criticism of life and of the modern materialistic age” (Simons 86).

Bennett’s revulsion for those who would simply hoard their money is elucidated in the form of two emotionally constipated men, Efraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward. It is impossible to isolate the emotional detachment of these two rich misers from their need to accumulate wealth. Tellwright, who “belonged to the great and powerful class of house-tyrants,” is an overbearing presence who dominates the lives of his two daughters (Anna 112). Perhaps the most affluent man in town, he is nonetheless committed to a life of severe frugality: He does his own household masonry, denies Anna money for decent clothes, and serves his guests, his children and himself meager portions of food. “Mr. Tellwright carved the beef, giving each of them a small piece, and taking only cheese for himself” (Anna 67). Tellwright’s rigid asceticism is a manifestation of his misanthropy. This hard, unforgiving soul erupts when Anna forgets to buy him bacon, the only occasion when her conduct has been less than perfect.

The male creature’s terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart. Then, when he had eaten one piece of bacon, and cut his envelopes, the miser began to empty himself of some of his anger in stormy tones that might have uprooted trees (Anna 67).

Tellwright’s outburst over this incident, entirely out of proportion to Anna’s oversight, demonstrates his lack of humanity. By referring to Anna as “the miser’s daughter” Bennett is emphasizing the connection between Tellwright’s hostility and his money-grubbing. Unfortunately for Tellwright, he is incapable of deep introspection:

If you had told him that he inflicted purposeless misery not only on others but on himself, he would have grinned again, vaguely aware that he had not tried to be happy, and rather despising happiness as a sort of childish gewgaw. (Anna 113)

The perversity of Tellwright’s lust for money is most evident in his treatment of Titus and Willie Price. He confides in Anna that the demise of their business is inevitable, yet he chooses to milk them for all they are worth in the meanwhile. Anna, who now owns the Price’s property, acquiesces to her father’s greed, but the episode exacts a grave emotional toll on her psyche:

Here were she and her father, rich, powerful, autocratic; and there were Willie Price and his father, commercial hares hunted by hounds of creditors, hares that turned in plaintive appeal to those greedy jaws for mercy (Anna 75).

The few pounds wrestled from the Prices before their imminent downfall is a pittance compared with Anna’s net worth. The mindless accumulation of wealth is Tellwright’s only source of gratification, and it is also, not coincidentally, the part of himself which he chooses to share with daughter.

by Richard W. Bray


July 15, 2011


Ephraim Tellwright is no mere caricature, and despite his monstrous behavior towards the Prices, he is presented as a three-dimensional character:

Tellwright is a fascinating creation….He is a domestic tyrant and a miser, flinty, quickwitted but utterly insensitive….The impressive thing about Bennett’s handling of him, however, is that there is absolutely nothing of aricature in the study of Tellwright. Nor is he sentimentalized. Instead, Bennett sets himself to record the life of a man who is quite without music in his soul (Lucas 44).

This lack of “music in his soul” deprives him form enjoying many of the experiences which make life meaningful, such as fellowship, religion, laughter, romantic love, all of which Tellwright has chosen to shun. The collection of capital is his only form of solace.

Neither Henry Earlforward nor Ephraim Tellwright is a stock character—the heartless skinflint. But unlike Tellwright, Earlforward, though miserly in the extreme, is capable of human affection. He is very fond of Elsie and genuinely in love with his wife Violet. Also in contrast to Tellwright, Earlforward is equipped with “other qualities one rarely associates with greed for riches: kindness, patience, almost indolence, and also, in certain matters, a comparative innocence” (Lafour 192). Yet Earlforward and his beloved Violet are destroyed by his unwillingness to provide them with sufficient food and timely medical attention. Ultimately, his craving for money outweighs any other motivation. He is “a man of some delicacy and tact. But his passion for hoarding money overrules all other considerations in his life” (Lucas 195). Earlforward is “a miser, but he is not a monster”(Douglas 411). Nevertheless, his appetite for lucre is hideously irrational, “a secret passion [which] fought against love” (Steps 121).

Henry Earlforward’s love of money manifests itself in his irrational affection for cash. He keeps his money in a safe at home, forfeiting the interest and security he would receive from a bank because he likes to be near it. Currency has a carnal attraction for him. “He never kept a dirty note for more then a few days….And the cash was so beautiful to behold” (Steps 201). Cash is something that Earlforward “gazed at passionately”, and it is no coincidence that he dies in front of his “sublime safe” (Steps 227;362).

Earlforward has a powerful revulsion for both eating and sexual contact, and the hunger for money clearly serves as his only sensual pleasure. Earlforward “ate little, but he would seldom hurry over a meal” (Steps 161). His repugnance at the consumption of food is further exhibited by his practice of picking his teeth, as though compelled by a need to eliminate all remnants of the act of eating. “He loved to pick his teeth, even after a meal which was no meal” (Steps 161). As there is no evidence in the novel that his marriage is ever consummated, we are led to conclude that Earlforward’s craving for cash has supplanted his ordinary carnal appetites.

But Earlforward pays an enormous price for his inability to express his hunger in a more conventional manner. His love of money leads to ruin: “The story of miserly greed moves on like a Greek Tragedy, and eventually engulfs Earlforward and his wife” (Simons 266). Earlforward pays a far greater price for his tightfistedness than Tellwright. Tellwright forsakes intimate human contact, but he is allowed to live into old age. In Riceyman Steps Bennett is more explicit about the ultimate cost of miserliness which precipitates Earlforward’s annihilation:

Avarice is as a blight on his physical and moral life. It is the cause of ruin and death, not power and prosperity. It is a cancer in his mind as well as in his flesh eating into his very substance (Lafour 193).

In stark contrast to her employer, “Elsie possesses an instinct for savoring whatever experience unexpectedly comes her way” (Wright 153). Her hearty fondness for food and her lusty relationship with Joe demonstrate that she, like her author, knows how to appreciate life. “(S)he has indeed the appetite for life that her employers singularly lack” (Lucas 203). Elsie discovers considerable delight in the paltry accommodations which her position with the Earlforwards affords her. A salary of twenty pounds a year is, to her, “an enormous sum” (Steps 111). And she found even greater pleasure in the bedroom they provided her:

But do not suppose that the bedroom had no grand, exciting quality for Elsie. It had one. It was solely hers. The first bedroom she had ever in all her life had entirely to herself….It was a balm to her grief. It was a retreat into which undisturbed she could enjoy her grief (Steps 110).

Due to her ability to appreciate life’s simple pleasures, Elsie is freer than Anna Tellwright who has difficulty finding fulfillment despite, or more likely in some way because of, her substantial inheritance. If happiness is the art wanting what you have rather having what you want, then Elsie is undeniably wiser than Anna. Anna’s inheritance of 50,000 pounds brings her no real satisfaction:

…we are told that Anna “felt no elation of any kind (over the vastness of her new fortune)….For Anna is a person who experiences little elation, ever. Indeed, the novel is about how she more or less misses out on life. She has no way of realizing the possibilities love and money have to offer her (Lucas 40).

Although Anna and Elsie share a similar devotion to duty, one surmises that Anna is motivated more by the fear of her tyrannical father than by any inborn desire to serve others. She spends her life wondering why her choices are so complicated instead of simply acting upon the freedom which her fortune would allow her. She would have faced societal derision had she chosen Willie Price over Henry Mynors, but the only thing preventing it is her own sense of etiquette. Elsie knew no such inhibitions. When Joe is sick, she sneaks him into her employer’s household in order to nurse him back to health, risking public scorn. Elsie is immune to such social forces because her need to care for others cancels out all other factors. Instead of being bogged down by questions of propriety, Anna simply does what she feels is right. “Elsie never asked the meaning of life, for she was dominated by a tremendous desire to serve” (Steps 29).

Riceyman Steps was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, and Bennett was thrilled that it earned him his first literary award. His creation of Elsie in particular has been lauded over the years as one of his greatest triumphs. For example,

Bennett’s greatest and noblest characters are the simple, self-sacrificing and humble. Such is Elsie, the young war-widow who spends every day of her life in toil….Our author has made Elsie Spricket the noblest character in Riceyman Steps (Simons 260).

It is important, however, that we remain cognizant of the fact that Elsie’s greatness is not a function of her poverty; none of the other working class characters in the novel come close to approaching her heroism. Her boyfriend Joe, for example, is certainly no moral giant. And the household of the “french-polisher’s wife” where she rents a space on the floor next to one of the children is certainly not a representation of virtue. Except Elsie, the adult inhabitants of the house were always unhappy save when drinking alcohol or making love” (Steps 68).

Just as poverty is no guarantee of righteousness in Bennett’s novels, affluence does not necessarily exclude one from achieving worldly fulfillment. The Suttons in Anna of the Five Towns are in no way made to suffer for their wealth. On the contrary, they are a loving, well-adjusted family because, like their creator, they are happy to exploit the benefits of their wealth. As hosts, they offer a conspicuous contrast to the penurious Tellwright.

The board was richly spread with fancy bread and cakes, jams of Mrs. Sutton’s celebrated preserving, diverse sandwiches compiled by Beatrice, and one or two large examples of the famous Bursley pork-pie (Anna 87).

Like Arnold Bennett, the Suttons know that money is for spending.

Today Arnold Bennett and many of his “Edwardian” contemporaries have been relegated to the far reaches of the literary canon. They have been displaced not because their work is without quality, but because, in contrast to the “Modernists” who supplanted them, they seem to be lacking particular qualities. Bennett doesn’t give us Forster’s flair for pithy social observation, Lawrence’s monomaniacal obsession with the phallus, Mansfield’s subtlety, or Wolfe’s poetry. But he was a fine craftsman who knew how to develop character. He remains worthy of critical attention. Perhaps in a hundred years or so his work will again become fashionable.

by Richard W. Bray


Barker, Dudley. Writer by Trade: A Portrait of Arnold Bennett. New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Bennett, Arnold. Anna of the Five Towns, 1902. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

_____. Riceymen Steps. New York: George H. Doran, 1923.

Douglas, James. “The Miser and the Maid,” 1923. Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage. Ed. James Hepburn. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Lafour, Georges. Arnold Bennett: A Study. New York: Haskell House, 1939.

Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. London: Methuen, 1974.

Simons, J. B. Arnold Bennett and His Novels: A Critical Study, 1936. Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Press, 1969.

Wright, Walter F. Arnold Bennett: Romanitic Realist. Lincoln, NB: Nebraska UP, 1971.