The Medieval Review 11.05.30

Donoghue, Daniel, James Simpson, and Nicholas Watson. The Morton W. Bloomfield Lectures, 1989-2005. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2010. Pp. xv, 273. $50. 978-1-58044-146-9 (hb). $25. 978-1-58044-147-6 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Michael P. Kuczynski
Tulane University

I met Morton Bloomfield, who was Professor of Medieval Literature at Harvard between 1961 and 1983, only once. The occasion was a lunch arranged by my dissertation director, George Kane (late Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), who taught during the early 1980s a summer paleography seminar for Harvard. I was at the Houghton Library to see some manuscripts of Middle English verse when George said he wanted to introduce me to "a great man." Through two early books, an encyclopedic study of The Seven Deadly Sins (1952) and the more polemical Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse (1962), I had already come to admire Bloomfield as a critic. Bloomfield the person, in conversation, turned out to be even more compelling: forthright with his scholarly opinions but at the same time cordial and intellectually generous. He came across as the kind of scholar-teacher one imagines, according to the older phrase, influencing rather than "impacting" others.

The strength of Bloomfield's reputation is indicated by the existence of the biennial Morton W. Bloomfield Lecture itself, inaugurated by the Harvard English Department and Bloomfield's family in 1989, only two years following the great man's death. The extent of his influence may be measured by the impressive roster of Bloomfield lecturers through 2005, whose contributions, elaborated beyond their original oral performances, have now been published by the Medieval Institute Press. The book, expertly edited by three of Bloomfield's successors at Harvard, Daniel Donoghue, James Simpson, and Nicholas Watson, concludes with a full roster of contributors (273). Suffice it to say that, among them, nine of the thirteen are emeriti at some of the most prominent institutions of higher learning in America and England; the remainder are currently senior faculty who hold prestigious academic posts, still performing at the top of their game, channeling Bloomfield's intellectual currents for yet another generation of students.

The disciplinary variety represented by these lectures is noteworthy: they range in their concerns from theoretical approaches to the subjects of poetics and allegory (George Kane and Jill Mann, respectively), through topical discussions of Augustinian precepts and eschatology (Giles Constable and Richard K. Emmerson), to minute philological considerations that arise from reflections on particular medieval lyrics and skaldic verse (Richard Firth Green and Roberta Frank). In every case, the contributions reflect a seriousness of focus and lightness of rhetorical treatment that echo the combination of erudition and self-effacement several of the lecturers note in Bloomfield's own personality and publications. These lectures were delivered not only by literary critics--Bloomfield's closest disciplinary colleagues--but also by art and cultural historians and literary theorists. That is, the contributions reflect as a group the broad achievement and relevance of Morton Bloomfield's career. (The book contains on pp. 271-72 a useful bibliography of Bloomfield's publications for the years 1981-1993 assembled by one of the editors, Dan Donoghue, as supplement to a bibliography for the years 1939-1981 compiled by George Brown for a 1982 Bloomfield festschrift, which was also published by the Medieval Institute.)

None of the lectures is merely a tribute. In true Bloomfield spirit, there are always new facts being discovered and ideas advanced, within the context of impeccably handled arguments. Several of these lecturers observe that Morton Bloomfield's scholarship was both traditional and innovative. As Fred Robinson notes in a biographical memoir of Bloomfield reprinted here from the American Philosophical Society Year Book (xi-xv), his research and teaching were built on the firm foundation of an extensive and densely annotated card-file system, but could rise to the heights of convincing speculation.

Siegfried Wenzel's lecture, "Monastic Preaching in the Age of Chaucer," recalls by way of its clear taxonomy of sermons Bloomfield's own penchant for classification. It also concludes with an observation that demonstrates how scholars indebted to Bloomfield find their investigations continuing to confirm, posthumously, his intuitions: "The material I have here surveyed certainly bears out [Bloomfield's] hunch that in the 1370s and 80s English Benedictine monasticism was anything but a dead institution and spent intellectual effort" (57).

Anne Middleton's lecture, "Piers Plowman, the Monsters, and the Critics," takes on no less daunting a subject than the simultaneous fascination and intractability of Langland's visionary poem for modern critics, a textual paradox that mimics, embarrassingly (this is Middleton's word), the medieval poet's own difficult relationship to his literary and theological materials. "If Chaucer could grudgingly be allowed by critics to have left his last work in some respects unfinished," Middleton observes, "Langland would remain to literary- historical hindsight the poet whose project was not simply under continual renegotiation but interminable" (97). The confident yet open ended nature of much medieval poetry (not only Piers Plowman), Bloomfield sometimes found himself defending against overly tidy exegetical critics, who sought to hem in these texts by interpretive paradigms derived from the Patrologia Latina. Middleton's contribution to the Bloomfield lecture series inherits some of its trenchancy from these earlier Bloomfieldian efforts.

One may be forgiven, I hope, in reviewing a memorial volume, for singling out a few contributions that bring to the fore with particular definition the spirit of the individual being remembered. I found myself especially engaged, for instance, by Kathryn Kerby- Fulton's lecture, "The Place of the Apocalyptic View of History in the Later Middle Ages and the Legacy of Morton Bloomfield," not only because of its detailed connection with Bloomfield's own work on medieval apocalypse, but also on account of its long personal head note concerning Bloomfield's reflections, during a meeting with her, on his identity as a Canadian and a Jew--the latter point being touched on likewise, although less directly, by Bernard McGinn's contribution, "Jewish Sages and German Schoolmen." In the same head note, Kerby-Fulton also reports Bloomfield's surprising revelation that "the title of his book, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse, was not his own, but rather one the press imposed in an effort to boost sales, over his strong protestations" (116). Kerby-Fulton does not record, one suspects because Bloomfield did not share it with her, his preferred title. As she argues, however, the story makes good sense, in light of Bloomfield's "measured, circumspect approach to the intricate question of the poem's genre, and the complexity of apocalyptic genres themselves, [which] never squared with the bold title" (116).

Derek Pearsall, himself emeritus at Harvard and thus close kin to Bloomfield, summons up the man's spirit suggestively in his lecture on "William Langland, William Blake, and the Poetry of Hope." For Pearsall, Bloomfield's Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse "is present as what Blake would have called an Emanation of the Body of this talk" (201), the lecturer's point both of inspiration and aspiration. Pearsall's analysis of crosscurrents between Langland and Blake, two poet-prophets, demonstrates the related medieval and modern aspects--that is, the timely and timeless dimensions--of Piers Plowman. The same twin significance of Piers was one of Bloomfield's regular critical concerns. Pearsall's argument is marked by a Blakean insistence on "minute particulars" (215), attention paid not only to the important overarching themes of prophecy and vision that connect Langland and Blake, but to specific phrases and images in Piers Plowman and in Blake's texts, especially his most Langlandian poem, Jerusalem. Moreover, Pearsall also captures by way of his subject one of the features of Bloomfield's character that I noticed immediately during my meeting with him in the 1980s: his essential optimism concerning the vocations of scholarship and teaching, their persistent individual and social value.

True optimism, Langland and Blake both understood, is always tinged with melancholy. In their enthusiasm for the ideal, optimists cannot help but to confront the conflict between our capacity to imagine it and inability to achieve it. This is the striking theme of George Kane's lecture, the very first in the Bloomfield series, on "Poets and the Poetics of Sin." As one of his oldest friends and colleagues, Kane takes us back to Bloomfield's origins as a scholarly force in two ways: by recalling in detail his early association with the man, a fellow veteran of World War II, at University College London in 1949; and by amplifying Bloomfield's interest in the medieval "pathology of the moral life in the Christian terms of sin," as this theme is explored by two major medieval poets (1). Chaucer does not loom large in the other lectures assembled in this book, although he certainly had a central place in Morton Bloomfield's research and teaching. So it is apt that Kane, during the first Bloomfield lecture, should link Chaucer and Langland in commemorating his old friend, from whom following their initial encounter, Kane says at the start of his talk, he "learned directly" (1).

That George Kane is the only Bloomfield lecturer collected in this engaging book to have a dagger before his name (he died in 2008) adds a special poignancy to his observation that Morton Bloomfield, once the two friends and colleagues parted immediate company, "often seemed to be standing beside me while I tried to come to terms with medieval literature" (1). No one scholar is capable of traversing as vast and varied a landscape as that of medieval literary history on his or her own. One of the finer aspects of our profession is the sense of spiritual kinship one can acquire, over time, with the great scholars and teachers of the past. They become our companions, in life and in death, on the magnificent journey. The Morton W. Bloomfield Lectures, 1989-2005 succeeds both as a testament to that kinship and as a means of extending this salutary companionship to others, including--as Larry D. Benson ventures to hope, in his introduction to this book--future Bloomfield lecturers.