Barefoot into Reality

Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers

by J. Hillis Miller
Harvard, 384 pp., $7.95

The ideal review of Poets of Reality by J. Hillis Miller would be a careful correlation of two reviews, one written by a literary critic and one written by a professional philosopher. Since few persons are equally in possession of both disciplines Mr. Miller enjoys a certain advantage. The literary critic is likely to be awed by the philosophy and the philosopher is likely to be impressed with the criticism. This is not to serve warning of an unfavorable judgment. The book has considerable value and an important thesis that deserves careful consideration. It is sometimes strikingly original, and at least one of the essays or chapters is brilliant. But the criticism and the philosophy are not always perfectly at ease with each other, and there are vaporous moments when the discussion of poetry reaches towards abstraction while the metaphysical statements seem vaguely impressionistic. Such moments occur often enough to render the argument a little intangible at times. The result is a book that is unnecessarily difficult to read.

Mr. Miller gives us extended studies of six twentieth-century writers: Joseph Conrad, Yeats, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. He is concerned to show how, under their almost extravagant differences, all of them have participated in what I suppose might be called a literary revision of the ontological assumptions of post-Cartesian, and especially romantic, poets. His central argument begins with the plight of the nineteenth-century writer:

Writers of the middle nineteenth century…tend to accept the romantic dichotomy of subject and object, but are no longer able to experience God as both immanent and transcendent…. What was once a unity, gathering all together, has exploded into fragments. The isolated ego faces the other dimensions of existence across an empty space. Subject, objects, words, other minds, the supernatural—each of these realms is divorced from the others, and man finds himself one of the “poor fragments of a broken world.”

The Victorians were unable to rectify this situation, largely because they persisted in a dualistic way of thinking and apprehending reality. God, the unifying ground of subject and object in the old system, had absconded, and not even Tennyson and Father Hopkins could call him back again. Nietzsche was more honest and announced that God was dead. Without God as the unifying ground, the foundation of everything, man turned inward for an alternative and made his consciousness the foundation of everything that existed. All objects became mental objects, and man found himself trapped in his own mind and in a universe which exists because his thoughts confer existence upon it. Of this situation Mr. Miller writes:

When God and creation become objects of consciousness, man becomes a nihilist. Nihilism is the nothingness of consciousness when consciousness becomes the foundation of everything. Man the murderer of God and drinker of the sea of creation wanders through the infinite nothingness of his own ego.

This kind of absolute subjectivism is like the descending spiral of a whirlpool rushing into the “eye …

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