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” of its own annihilation. The only solution is for the artist somehow to escape into a real world which is more than a projection of his consciousness. But since the subjectivism of modern man has become the condition of his existence, escape is monstrously difficult. However, Mr. Miller believes that his chosen poets demonstrate there is still hope:
The act by which man turns the world inside-out into his mind leads to nihilism. But this can be escaped only by a counterrevolution in which man turns himself insideout and steps, as Wallace Stevens puts it, “barefoot into reality.”…To walk barefoot into reality means abandoning the independence of the ego. Instead of making everything an object for the self, the mind must efface itself before reality, or plunge into the density of an exterior world, dispersing itself in a milieu which exceeds it, and which it has not made.
The romantic conception of the self which voraciously draws the universe of objects into its vortex, remaking everything in its own image, Mr. Miller believes, is closely related to the world of modern technology which also remakes the world in the images of man’s ideas. While the domination both of the “subjective” self and of technology is so complete that man finds it hard to conceive of a different state, it was not always so. During the historical “imperialist” phase of technological expansion and development there were dark places on the earth where the primitive terror still lurked. Utilizing in art these peepholes into the buried darkness which is the substratum of all society and of personality itself, Joseph Conrad was able to reveal the radical falsity of human action and of that collective effort we call civilization. This was essential in helping modern poetry escape its subjective prison, for: “Only if the nihilism latent in our culture would appear as nihilism would it be possible to go beyond it by understanding it.”
Mr. Miller’s chapter on Conrad serves as an approach to his five poets. One cannot help being distressed by his insistence on exploiting that very aspect of Conrad that has often drawn the fire of his better critics. Some years ago F. R. Leavis, regretting Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery,” went ahead to say: “He is intent on making a virtue of not knowing what he means. The vague and unrealizable, he asserts with a strained impressiveness, is the profoundly and tremendously significant.” This element in Conrad not only enters into Mr. Miller’s own argument but colors altogether too much of his prose, as in the following inscrutable passage:
The heart of darkness is the truth, but it is a truth which makes ordinary human life impossible. It is the absorption of all forms in the shapeless night from which they have come. A man who reaches the truth is swallowed up by a force which invades his reason and destroys his awareness of his individuality. To know the darkness is to know the falsity of life, and to understand the leap into emptiness man made when he separated himself from the wild clamor of primitive life.
Mr. Miller, then, argues that Conrad’s art, by revealing (in Conrad’s own words) that “one’s own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown,” makes possible for later writers a retreat from darkness back into the light of an objective world.
Of the chapters which deal with the poets, the one on Eliot is by far the best. In the essay on Williams Mr. Miller refers to Eliot as an example of “the academic mind, dry and abstract, imposing its dead forms on life,” but if this is an expression of his real view the prejudice does not intrude into his study of Eliot’s work.
Eliot’s earlier poetry was written when he was deeply under the influence of F. H. Bradley. Although the monistic base of Bradley’s philosophy might (one would have thought if there is truth in Mr. Miller’s thesis) have provided an escape hatch from the extreme subjectivism of the modern writer, Bradley proved a peculiar case. For him, each individual (or finite center, to use Bradley’s term) is completely enclosed within the opaque, impenetrable circle of his own consciousness. As Miller summarizes it: “Each man seems destined to remain enclosed in his separate sphere, unable to break out to external things, to other people, to an objective time and space, or to God. All these exist, but as qualifications of the inner world which is peculiar and private to the self.”
The way in which this idea of the incommunicado ego, unable to communicate with others, influenced Eliot’s early poetry is apparent at once. When one recognizes that Prufrock is a “finite center” one makes a significant critical perception about the poem, and simultaneously senses something of the horror concealed in Bradley’s system. Eliot’s problem from the first was to establish lines of communication between “finite centers,” and this was a task in comparison with which interplanetary communication seems elementary. Mr. Miller’s account of how Eliot managed to do this, evolving a complex theory of poetic creation in which emotive images were made to vibrate in resonance not only with the deepest centers of the buried self, but to command across the unfathomable gulfs sympathetic vibrations in the responses of others, constitutes a brilliant display of critical analysis and insight.
The vibrating emotive images are only the first step in his description of the elaborate strategy developed in Eliot’s earlier essays in which, to achieve universality within the closed circle of one’s own consciousness, Eliot ingeniously turned his mind inside-out into a collective consciousness he labelled “the mind of Europe.” It is impossible to follow Miller’s unfolding of this process here, but at the moment of Eliot’s apparent triumph in escaping from the subjective self, Miller draws us up sharply: “This triumph is really defeat. The quality of the mind of Europe is exactly the same as the experience of the solitary ego. Though Eliot has expanded his mind to include all history he is within the same prison, the prison of the absence of God….”
In other words, at this mid-point in his career Eliot was still in the position of most nineteenth-century writers, for God remained an object of consciousness rather than its sustaining foundation. Eliot’s conversion to Christianity occurred between The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday. With his conversion he accepted the idea of Incarnation. This acceptance of Incarnation is crucial in Mr. Miller’s analysis of Eliot as a “poet of reality,” for with this idea he necessarily rejected the idealism that had imprisoned him in a subjective world. Incarnation constitutes “a reversal which recognizes that time, nature, other people, and God are external to the self…. Only when he sees the emptiness of collective subjectivism can he find the humility to see that existence is outside himself and not the same as his understanding of it.”
Several of the other essays contribute more heavily to the general sense of Mr. Miller’s central thesis. Among these the one on Wallace Stevens is the most satisfactory. The one subject that Stevens took for his poetry, the relation between the imagination and reality, is at the very heart of Miller’s argument. The essay demonstrates that the relative values Stevens attached to the imagination and reality were not constant, but shifted like light and color in his “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” “It is impossible to find a single systematic theory of poetry and life in Stevens,” Miller writes, and herein, one suspects, resides the perpetual vitality of a large body of poems every one of which is written on the same subject.
Mr. Miller is interesting on the relation between Stevens’s poetry and modern painting, and on his rarefied but moving concern with being in his later poems. One is pleased that he singles out one of Stevens’s finest but neglected poems, “Chocorua to Its Neighbor,” for special recognition. But a note that has been faintly sounded from time to time begins to grow more insistent. To cite a single sentence that exemplifies it: “Poetry can take only one step farther into reality, and that is to make language itself into a substance.” Naturally Mr. Miller knows this is impossible but he begins to talk a little queerly whenever the subject comes up, no doubt as a means of preparing the reader for his final chapter on William Carlos Williams.
Stevens has a habit of speaking as if he regretted having to use words in his poems instead of the things signified by the words. There are a number of possible legitimate theories of aesthetic reality behind Marianne Moore’s famous reference to “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” but one knows that she never meant a poem is a vivarium. If Stevens had really wanted to make a poem out of, say, a primrose, an amethyst, a glass eye, and a coronet he would have become another Joseph Cornell and not one of the major users of words in this century. To maintain that a poet really resents the limitations of his medium is either to suggest that the man is no poet or that oneself subscribes to literary occultism. That poetry and language should be on the move towards the light and circulating air of objectivity is fine, and Mr. Miller gets the exodus from a subjective underworld off to a splendid start. But before his book is quite finished one has the impression that words are not expected to be words any longer, but should sprout feathers and fingernails.
Up to and including the chapter on Stevens, Miller’s book has been illuminating and generally persuasive, even though one may have made a number of reservations along the way. But what is meant to be the climactic essay on Williams impresses me as a misfortune. Unfairly, it even tempts one to revise downward one’s estimation of the book’s central thesis. Mr. Miller’s thesis that modern poetry moves into and apprehends reality in a new way unquestionably possesses validity, though precisely how much is not absolutely settled by his book. Discreetly employed it is capable of contributing, perhaps largely, to an understanding of modern poetry, but it is also the kind of thesis that easily betrays one into inflated statements and judgments.
We learn that at the age of twenty, by a deliberate decision which he mentioned in a letter to Marianne Moore, Williams deserted his private consciousness and resigned himself to objective existence, thereby bypassing the arduous labors of Eliot and Stevens and so getting virtually a lifetime’s start on them in which to bring his genius to unprecedented perfection. Of this electric moment in and out of time Mr. Miller declares:
The resignation to existence which makes Williams’s poetry possible is the exact reverse of the Cartesian Cogito. Descartes puts everything in question in order to establish the existence of his separate self, an existence built on the power of detached thinking. Williams gives himself up in despair and establishes a self beyond personality, a self co-extensive with the universe. Words, things, people, and God vanish as separate entities and everything becomes a unit.
The lack of polarity described in this statement may explain what Mr. Miller calls in another place “a strange lack of tension in his work.” In a vocabulary different from Mr. Miller’s it may also explain why Williams is the dullest poet of any importance America has produced in this century. To justify the claims Miller makes for Williams, poetry would indeed have had to move into a different dimension of reality than the one I assume it still more or less occupies. But as it is precisely Mr. Miller’s point that in Williams’s poetry the transition into a new dimension has been accomplished, disagreement or discussion is perhaps futile.
Mr. Miller submits poem after poem to sustained technical analysis the effect of which, for me at least, is only perversely to reveal the nullity of the work he is examining. Mr. Miller once again wheels out that creaking old red wheelbarrow from “Spring and All” of which he writes:
The wheelbarrow…does not stand for anything or mean anything. It is an object in space dissociated from the objects around it, without reference beyond itself. It is what it is. The aim of the poem is to make it stand there for the reader in its separateness, as the words of the poem stand on the page.
If the reader is inclined to ask why one shouldn’t go out in the chickenyard and look at the wheelbarrow itself, Mr. Miller is not unaware of the difficulty, but his answer is singularly hollow: “The poet must make use of the referential meaning of words to relate them to physical objects as a springboard from which they may leap into a realm of imagination carrying with them the things named in a new form.” I do not know what this means, or rather among several possible meanings that occur to me I can discover none that is ever likely to illuminate one’s knowledge of a poem or enrich one’s response to it.
Many years ago the late R. P. Blackmur wrote of Williams’s poetry: “Observation of which any good novelist must be constantly capable, here makes a solo appearance: the advantage is the strength of isolation as an attention-caller to the terrible persistance of the obvious, the unrelenting significance of the banal.” That seems to me a critical judgment substantial and durable enough to cast its shadow in any dimension of reality, however new or strange.
January 20, 1966