POETS OF REALITY: Six Twentieth-Century Writers.
By J. Hillis Miller. Harvard University Press. 369 pp. $7.95.
The formidable subject of J. Hillis Miller’s Poets of Reality is “the recovery of immanence,” whose loss, in his The Disappearance of God (1963) he has so brilliantly and persuasively recorded. Together the two books form an inner history of the transition from romantic to modern literature. His practice in both books is to set forth the “configuration of themes” that constitutes a writer’s particular universe, and by keeping the number of writers to five or six (in the first book de Quincey, Emily Brontë, Arnold, Browning and Hopkins. In the second, Conrad, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams) he achieves a good balance between particular description and a general thematic unity that binds his writers together.
Immanence is intelligible meaning that inheres in what we perceive, meaning that is available here and now rather than there and away in some distant realm.
Miller argues that the romantic heritage of the nineteenth century leads directly to the unendurable impasse, exemplified in the final tragedies of Arnold and Hopkins, of a solitary ego confronting a disintegrating world from which immanence and God have receded.
It is against this stark background that Miller sees the twentieth-century poets of reality doing their work, thanks in great measure to Conrad, whose sheer courage earns him a chapter and a poetic vocation. Conrad portrays the absurdities of the romantic ethos, and in doing this he is a nihilist who shows that romantic dualism is untenable because God, its original sustainer, has not only disappeared but for all practical purposes has also died. Miller argues that for Conrad the uninterrupted “stuff” of reality is darkness; what passes for the world’s ethics, civilization and truth is merely “the extermination of the [world’s] source”–darkness. Conrad achieves the seemingly impossible in being able to see the world as it is, as pure quality and without interpretation, but the expense of such a vision is the unpleasant realization that conventional ideas of space and time, matter and spirit, must be rendered as incompatible dimensions. Man, who lives in both dimensions, is the victim of an irreconcilable, even impossible, dualism. Miller’s choice for the personification of this insight is the Professor, that terrifyingly clear-headed ascetic, who in Thc Secret Agent can “neither make a secure place where men can create their own culture, nor can he bring the darkness of madness and despair into the world as the foundation of a viable city of man.”
The Professor’s is a mind that “caresses the images of ruin and destruction,” a mind that has plumbed nihilism so thoroughly as to make some new departure imperative for others. In the movement of modern literature built upon the example of Conrad’s bravery, as well as on his sense of the darkness in which objectivity and subjectivity are dissolved, Miller begins to discern what, in R.P. Blackmur’s incomparable phrase for Anna Karenina, is a dialectic of incarnation. Each of the authors Miller discusses is seen to begin at a “starting point” that is both a special awareness of actuality and a moment of radical self-consciousness. He then works his way through a series of relative solutions to the problem of reconciling the mind to the world, and finally ends where he began, with his sense of actuality enriched by his partnership in it, his poetry thus incarnates reality because reality is now seen as a dimension of “co-presence” where mind, the world, and an underlying being shine forth.