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The Yale of My Day
Harold Bloom and the “Orc Cycles”

I was never a scholar and so I rarely was able to get into a class with one of the great professors. For one thing, they weren’t teaching that often; for another, requirements and outside activities would have made it difficult for me to secure a berth in any of their classes until senior year, which was when by great, good fortune I was accepted by Harold Bloom for his honors seminar.

There were about 15 of us in his class, all honors students except me. Professor Bloom was already a renowned scholar of immense insight and intelligence; a man whose erudition was as intimidating as his appearance. He was a big man, militantly out of shape, with a pale, pasty complexion and heavy, doughy jowls which he would distractedly knead while he struggled to find the exact phrase to explain the image the poet under study had intended.

We had started off with Blake, and for two weeks Bloom had spoken to us, lectured us, cajoled us; he kept alluding to “Orc cycles”—something which, evidently, had great significance and which we needed to be well aware of if we were going to have any understanding of Blake at all. I was left with the feeling I had missed a critical class: the one in which he explained what an Orc cycle was. No one else seemed confused, so I didn’t dare ask. Instead, I desperately tried to follow his teachings just as, years later, I would find myself desperately trying to follow my non-English-speaking Swiss in-laws, picking up only every fourth or fifth word, hoping to God that a simple straightforward declarative sentence would drop in time to make the whole paragraph clear. Finally, at the end of the second week’s classes, I gathered the nerve to ask one of my fellow seminar members if he had any idea what an Orc cycle was. Utter relief bathed my classmate’s features: “You mean,” he said, “you haven’t understood any of this either?”

The two of us took a quick poll of the rest of our seminar, scholars all; not one of them had the faintest idea what Bloom had been talking about thus far that year. I was elected to break the news to Bloom at the opening of our next meeting.

“P-p-professor Bloom,” I stammered. “The class has asked me to. to ask you if you might tell us what, exactly, an 'Orc cycle' is.”

Bloom’s fingertips lifted to his face, his nails dug great creases in his jowls; and then, rumbling like Star Wars’s “Jabba the Hut,” he set about explaining. But even as he was telling us I knew I still didn’t understand. That I never would understand! And the whole Blake segment of that class would probably have been a washout had I not run into Bloom mid-week at an exhibition of Blake drawings in New York. He saw me; I saw him. He was with a woman, and I did not intrude. But even if he had been alone, I was so in awe of his intellect that I don’t think I would have approached him. It was enough to bask in the reflection of Bloom’s genius even if no mortal hand or eye could frame his fearful symmetry. But, God, the Blake drawings were crazy, wonderful, breathtaking, fierce; and I know I would never have bothered to see them had not Professor Bloom’s passion for Blake made me want to make the effort.

I did my senior thesis for Bloom on Wordsworth: something uninspiring about innocence as a literary device. But then, I had understood Wordsworth: all those lambs, daffodils, clouds, lakes, bridges without an Orc in view. My paper came back with a gentlemanly “C” and in Bloom’s precise handwriting, his one simple straightforward declarative sentence: “Your style is frequently barbaric!”  the end





The Yale of My Day

Young Lords and Lower Classes

Distant Thunder

New Haven On Stage

From White Shoe to Combat Boot

Defying Dink

Vietnam On Our Mind

Of Reading, and a Wink

A Confusion of Lures

Chronicling a Cauldron

Surviving “Grim Professionalism”

Diary Daze

A Not Unwelcome Senselessness

When the World Barged In


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