It has all been said before. This concept is literary theorist Harold Bloom’s mantra in his book The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom outlines a model where beginning poets struggle to achieve immortality because established poets have already written everything worth reading. Even if it is true that original thought is no longer obtainable, the reality behind Bloom’s paradigm of poetic anxiety might be more complex than he anticipated. This complexity is highlighted in Molière’s School for Wives, a work that talks back to Bloom’s overly simplistic model of literary reception and poetic innovation. This play introduces an alternative situation that complicates Bloom’s model by exploring the relationship between the unimaginative, weak poet and the naïve, individual reader.
It seems appropriate to explore School for Wives with a Bloomian lens because of Horace’s use of language to woo Agnes. On a basic level, he is a poet, crafting language to attract Agnes. His efforts are purely linguistic, and as we know from the comedic scene shared between Arnolphe and Agnes in Act 2 Scene 5, Horace does not use physical affection to charm her. Because of this language focus, Bloom’s theory is a relevant conversation to engage with in Molière’s text.
When applying Bloom’s model to School for Wives, it is important to understand the concept of the weak and strong poet and how Horace fits into these roles. In Bloom’s model, the strong poet has created space for himself by misreading works of previous influences, while the weak poet can only imitate these works. Horace is a weak poet; the language he uses to win over Agnes is cliché and unimaginative. He woos her with statements like, “She is my heart’s desire” (1.4.341) and “I want to be with her, until death do us part” (5.2.1419). Although genuine, Horace’s attempts at romantic language are merely imitations of well-known phrases crafted by poets long ago. Because of his inability to create an innovative space for himself, Bloom would deem Horace as a weak poet.
If Horace is the poet who uses language to appeal to Agnes, then Agnes is the reader, because she is the recipient of the poet’s work. If School for Wives were to follow Bloom’s model exactly, then Horace would not have succeeded in his efforts to court Agnes because his attempts were not innovative. In other words, the poet would not have persuaded the reader that his creation is worthwhile because the reader would be aware of the previous works the weak poet imitated. However, Agnes chooses to marry Horace over Arnolphe regardless of his cliché language. Agnes’s choice is the key detail that transforms School for Wives into a vessel for dialogue that complicates Bloom’s theory.
The conversation School for Wives engages in with Bloom’s theory revolves around this question: What happens when readers—recipients of poetry—are unaware of previous influences? Bloom’s model groups individuals into one mass of readership, and the model assumes that this mass is a well-read crowd. However, most readers have not read the entire collection of the world’s greatest works. Most individual readers are almost as ignorant as Agnes. Because Agnes was isolated from the world, limited to the confines of the convent and Arnolphe’s estate, she is unlike the mass of readers that Bloom anticipated because she is ignorant of the works that Horace imitates. Horace’s words are not original, but they are tantalizingly new to Agnes. Her fascination with Horace’s speech is apparent when she says:
He swore his love for me was endless; in a word,
He said the sweetest things you have ever heard.
I’ve never listened to such words as that before.
And when I listen, I just seem to long for more. (2.5.559–562)
She notes the sweetness of his words and the alluring quality of his speech, but the most significant point she makes is how she has “never listened to such words as that before.” Agnes’s ignorance—not Horace’s innovation—has granted Horace a space of his own.
This concept of the naïve reader talks back to Blooms overly simplistic model. School for Wives’s exploration of the consequences of an ignorant reader questions Bloom’s theory of poetic competition. No longer are weak poets fighting against strong poets for readership; the imitations weak poets produce can captivate readers, just as Horace’s clichés enchanted Agnes. Horace’s ability to entice readers with old material is evident when Agnes says, “I’ve been entranced by what he has to say” (Molière 4.4.1518). School of Wives reminds Bloom that the populace is easily “entranced”; they do not have such strict requirements for poetic greatness as Bloom does.
In fact, this idea of a more inclusive and democratic readership supporting the imitations of unestablished poets seems to be popular among modern-day theorists. Linda Hutcheon and Siobhan O’Flynn, authors of A Theory of Adaptation, suggest that works adapted from previous texts actually create their own space in the realm of poetics. They propose that “an adaptation has its own aura, it’s own presence in time and space, its own unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (6). The content from which a weak poet produces text does not need to be purposely misread in order for the weak poet’s work to be successful. The unestablished poet creates a space for himself solely in the act of writing his own adaptation. With this mindset, Bloom’s theory of poetic anxiety seems misplaced, and School for Wives’s examination of Horace’s success solidifies this modern school of thought.
Even if it has all been said before, School for Wives reminds poets that it might still be worth saying. Although Bloom suggests that original thought generated from misreading a previous text is the only way a poet can gain immortal glory through successful readership, an investigation into Horace’s romantic victory with imitative language highlights some holes in Bloom’s model. The events in School for Wives indicate that a weak poet is, as Hutcheon and O’Flynn termed, not secondary to the strong poet—just second. Horace’s clichéd courtship reminds Bloom that glory is no longer reserved for only the innovators; it is attainable for the imitators too.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. 1651–1659. Print.
Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Moliére. The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays. 2001. EBSCOhost. Web.