The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens

The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens

by Joseph Hillis Miller


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This series of readings, explores the functioning of moments in poems when the medium--language--becomes an issue.

Originally published in 1985.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691609508
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #14
Pages: 470
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Linguistic Moment

From Wordsworth to Stevens

By Joseph Hillis Miller


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05442-1


From Stevens to Arnold to Wordsworth

In an essay describing the changes in Occidental thought associated with the names of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, Michel Foucault has said: "Interpretation finally became an infinite task. ... From the nineteenth century on, signs enchained themselves in an inexhaustible network, itself also infinite, not because they rest on a resemblance without edges, but because there is an irreducible gulf and opening." Foucault relates this opening of an abyss of interpretation to the "rejection of beginning" in Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. For all three, it is impossible to go back in the activity of interpretation to an unequivocal starting place serving as the foundation of everything that follows. Whenever the interpreter reaches something apparently original, a genetic source behind which it seems impossible to go, he finds himself encountering something that is itself already an interpretation. The apparent source refers to something still further back, and that to something behind it, ad infinitum. "There is nothing absolutely primary to interpret, because at bottom all is already interpretation, each sign is in itself not the thing which offers itself to interpretation, but the interpretation of other signs."

Belief in the interpretative power of origins or in the interpretative power of what is merely further back in history nevertheless still has great force today. One form of this belief is that familiar scheme of literary history whereby the earlier is assumed to be the simpler, so that the complex later can be explained as a diversification of the simple earlier. This chapter will test that hypothesis by investigating assumptions about the grounding and function of poetry in Wallace Stevens, in Matthew Arnold, and in William Wordsworth. Each is taken by synecdoche as exemplary for his period. This chapter makes a swing backward from modern to Victorian to Romantic, which will be followed by a slower moving forward in time back toward the present in the circular trajectory this book follows.

Nobody doubts that Wallace Stevens is complex, nor that one form in his work of that abyss of interpretation of which Foucault writes is the way many of his poems are poems about poetry. They contain within themselves discussions of what they are and of what they mean. They enact or embody in themselves that function of poetry about which they explicitly talk. This self-labelling opens an abyss of interpretation not so much through the slipping away of an apparently solid origin as through the effacement of extra-linguistic reference initiated by the apparent act of self-reference. The language of the poem both performs its function and defines that function, in a self-mirroring that seems to make the poem a self-sufficient entity. This entity already contains signs and other signs interpreting those signs, both the textual origin and the commentary on that origin, so that the critic's work is already done for him, just as a manhole cover with the words Manhole Cover cast in its metal (I have seen such a one in London) does not seem to need our labelling to have a name. The manhole cover seems to be saying: "You do not need to name me. I have named myself." Words in such a poem about poetry perform a double function. They are both text and commentary. The words are both the manhole cover and the words Manhole Cover. The poem constantly pulls the rug out from under itself, so to speak, blows its cover. It constantly deprives itself of that origin or ground with which it seems at the same time to provide itself.

A poem like "The Man with the Blue Guitar," moreover, does not express and exemplify a single theory of poetry. For Stevens, the theory of poetry is the life of poetry, and nothing is more problematic than the theory of poetry. Stevens' poetry is not merely poetry about poetry. It is a poetry that is the battleground among conflicting theories of poetry. The poet tries first one way and then another way in an endlessly renewed, endlessly frustrated, attempt to "get it right," to formulate once and for all an unequivocal definition of what poetry is and to provide an illustration of this definition.

The various theories of poetry that generate in their conflict the vitality of Stevens' poetic language are not modern inventions. They are not tied to a particular time in history. Nor is it an accident that just those theories are present and that the poet cannot choose among them. The conflict among three theories of poetry is as old as our Western tradition. It goes back to Plato and Aristotle, and behind them to their precursors. It may be followed through all the languages and cultures that inherit the Greek tradition. The conflict among these three theories of poetry is woven into the fabric of our Western languages. It is present in the fundamental metaphors and concepts of our speech. To use any version or dialect of that speech is to be caught in an interplay among terms that makes it impossible to adopt one theory of poetry without being led, willy-nilly, to encounter the ambiguous inherence within it of the other two. The three theories are not alternatives among which one may choose. Their contradictory inherence in one another generates the meditative search for "what will suffice" in Stevens' poetry.

One theory of poetry operative in Stevens' work is the idea that poetry is imitation, mimesis, analogy, copy. Truth is measured by the equivalence between the structure of words and the structure of nonlinguistic reality. Poetry is a mirroring or matching at a distance. The structure of the poem should correspond to the structure of reality. Things as they are on the blue guitar must reflect things as they are in nature. This Aristotelian concept of poetry as imitation has had great force through all the centuries since Aristotle, for example, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century theories of realism in narrative fiction. It is by no means absent in a "sophisticated modern poet" like Stevens.

Already in Aristotle, however, the notion that poetry is imitation was inextricably involved with the notion that poetry is also unveiling, uncovering, revelation, aletheia. Poetry is not a mirror but a lamp. The words of poetry are that within which the truth comes to light. This theory assumes that reality, things as they are, is initially hidden. Language is what discovers things, that is to say, reveals them as what they are, in their being. Martin Heidegger's Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes is a distinguished twentieth-century essay exploring the idea that art is aletheia, but a key passage in Aristotle's Poetics already turns on the conflict between poetry as imitation and poetry as revelation. "Poetry in general," says Aristotle, "seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. ... The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general. ..." Imitation, argues Aristotle, is natural to man, part of man's nature, therefore part of nature, not opposed to it as the lie to the truth. Imitation is not only natural to man. It is also natural for him to take pleasure in it. He takes pleasure in it because he learns by it. He learns by it the nature of things as they are. In the case of that species of mimesis called poetry, imitation in words brings things as they are into visibility. In poetry the logos, as being or ground, comes into the open by way of the logos as words. The logos, as the hidden one, is revealed and expressed in the logos as the many, in differentiated form, in dramatic action or as trope. The Greek word logos, it will be remembered, means mind, intelligence, message, idea, word, ground, measure, order, ratio, proportion, being. Stevens shows great fertility in translating the play of thought in this word into English terms, as in "The Idea of Order at Key West," or in "The Man With the Blue Guitar," or in "A Primitive Like an Orb."

Poetry, according to this second theory, is an act. It is the act of the mind seeking a revelation through the words and in the words. Poetry is a revelation in the visible and reasonable of that which as the base of reason cannot be faced or said directly.

This means that the poetry of imitation, of the logos captured in language, is at the same time the annihilation of the logos as the hidden one. Being vanishes, dispersed into its representation. This annihilation cannot be shown directly, though it is the source of all poetry, for the moment of the origin of language cannot be shown in language. It is illogical, incompatible with the logos. This annihilation, in the root sense of a transformation into nothing at the moment of greatest illumination, is a crucial instant in Stevens' experience of the power of the poetic word. For him the "nothing that is" always stands between the poet and the subject of his poetry. Both imagination and reality are liable at any moment to turn into this nothing, what Stevens calls "the dominant blank, the unapproachable" (CPSt, 477). "Reality is a vacuum" in one of the Adagia. In stanza 12 of "The Man with the Blue Guitar," the poet in his strumming picks up "That which momentously declares / Itself not to be I and yet / Must be. It could be nothing else" (CPSt, 171). In "The Snow Man," Stevens speaks of "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" (CPSt, 10). It seems that what is most logical, the logos itself, "being," in Stevens' traditional name for it, turns into the illogical and into non-being when the poet tries to face it directly.

Aristotle's example of something that should not be shown directly on the stage because it is irrational is Oedipus' ignorance of the circumstances of the murder of Laius, his predecessor and unknown father: "Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational [alogon] cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element in the Oedipus [sic, but the play not the person is meant] of Sophocles" (Butcher trans., p. 57). For Stevens too, poetry has something to do with murder, even with parricide. In stanza 26 of "The Man with the Blue Guitar" he speaks of "the murderous alphabet" (CPSt, 179).

In stanza 19 what it means to say the alphabet is murderous is made explicit in a definition of poetry as a mortal combat between son and father:

    That I may reduce the monster to
    Myself, and then may be myself

    In face of the monster, be more than part
    Of it, more than the monstrous player of

    One of its monstrous lutes, not be
    Alone, but reduce the monster and be,

    Two things, the two together as one,
    And play of the monster and of myself,

    Or better not of myself at all,
    But of that as its intelligence,

    Being the lion in the lute
    Before the lion locked in stone.

    (CPSt, 175)

For Stevens too, imitation is natural to man. The imagination is then part of nature, "one of the forces of nature," as Stevens says in the Adagia (OPSt, 170). In imitation, nature is assimilated into language, which means that language is part of nature, too. In poetry the logos, "being," comes to be in language. Poetry is the "intelligence" of nature, the knowledge of it, the inherent reason in it, that is, its logos. Stevens is not satisfied to produce poetry that is adjacent to nature or merely part of it. He must "reduce the monster," engulf him, appropriate the monster entirely to himself. When the two have become one, then poetry will not be about nature but will be the "intelligence" of nature speaking directly. Only then can the poet be himself in the face of the monster. Poetry is the destruction of things as they are when they are played on the blue guitar. It is the transference of things as they are into language, that is, into what they are not, into their metaphors. In poetry the red of reality is transformed into the blue of imagination. Poetry is the defeat of the lion in the stone by the lion in the lute.

In one of his letters Stevens provides a commentary on stanza 19 of "The Man with the Blue Guitar": "Monster = nature, which I desire to reduce: master, subjugate, acquire complete control over and use freely for my own purpose, as poet. I want, as poet, to be that in nature which constitutes nature's very self. I want to be nature in the form of a man, with all the resources of nature = I want to be the lion in the lute; and then, when I am, I want to face my parent and be his true part. I want to face nature the way two lions face one another — the lion in the lute facing the lion locked in stone. I want, as a man of imagination, to write poetry with all the power of a monster equal in strength to the monster about whom I write. I want man's imagination to be completely adequate in the face of reality." The Oedipal drama, the son's battle to the death with his father, muted in stanza 19 itself, emerges openly in the commentary in the letter. The poet must face his "parent" nature and appropriate his sexual power, "be his true part." Only in this way can man's imagination be completely adequate in the face of reality.

There is still a third theory of poetry present in Stevens' poems. This is the notion that poetry is creation, not discovery. In this theory there is nothing outside the text. All meaning comes into existence with language and in the interplay of language. Meaning exists only in the poem. "The Man with the Blue Guitar" is poetry about poetry. It is metapoetry, a poetry of grammar, in which what counts is the play of words among themselves. Words are repeated, grammatical forms change and alter, and the same word is verb, adjective, noun, in turn. Words become themselves the subject of the discourse, as when, naming the way the blue of imagination is heated to incandescence by its marriage with reality, Stevens speaks of "the amorist Adjective aflame" (CPSt, 172). "The Man with the Blue Guitar" is poetry about poetry in the sense that the poem itself is the action about which it talks. The pervasive metaphor of a man playing the guitar names the action of the poem as it progresses from stanza to stanza. The subject of the poem is the poem itself as an activity. The words about guitars and tunes are the materials of a poem that accomplishes what the metaphor only talks about. Language is always referential. There must be real guitars in order for there to be a word guitar. Nevertheless, the word guitar in this poem, in its interplay with all the other words, effaces in its poetic operation any real guitar. As the word guitar is absorbed into its interaction with other words and comes to draw its meaning from that interaction, any referential base tends gradually to disappear and to be abolished. Even the guitar of Picasso, which seems as if it might be referred to by the central image, is finally irrelevant. This may explain why Stevens in a letter told Poggioli, gently but firmly, that he did not want Picasso's Man With a Guitar on the cover of Poggioli's translation into Italian of a group of Stevens' poems. Contemplation of Picasso's painting is no more, and no less, help in understanding "The Man with the Blue Guitar" than a visit to Dorsetshire is help in understanding Hardy's The Return of the Native. The action of the poem is inside the poem.


Excerpted from The Linguistic Moment by Joseph Hillis Miller. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • PREFACE. Between Theory and Practice, pg. xiii
  • CHAPTER ONE. From Stevens to Arnold to Wordsworth, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER TWO. Wordsworth, pg. 59
  • CHAPTER THREE. Shelley, pg. 114
  • CHAPTER FOUR. Browning, pg. 180
  • CHAPTER FIVE. Hopkins, pg. 229
  • CHAPTER SIX. Hardy, pg. 267
  • CHAPTER SEVEN. Yeats, pg. 316
  • CHAPTER EIGHT. Williams, pg. 349
  • CHAPTER NINE. Stevens, pg. 390
  • POSTFACE. Between Practice and Theory, pg. 423
  • INDEX, pg. 435

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