In this book, critic James Olney explores the work of three seemingly disparate precursors of modernism - Whitman, Dickinson and Hopkins - and establishes a set of criteria by which any reader might judge and better appreciate a poem. Considering the language of the poets' times, their unique ways with language, and what he calls the "nearly historical language" of poetry, Olney arrives at three properties that form a kind of common ground in poetry, regardless of the cultural context of the era in which a poem is written. These properties are a heightened rhythmisation of language, an elevated figurativity of language, and a highly personal, distinctive eccentricity that shapes both the poetic vision and the technical means used to express it. In three chapters, each focusing on one of these properties, Olney shows how three poets shaped these elements in distinctive ways. "Dickinsonian" verse, he notes, displays a metrical regularity reminiscent of hymns. It is also a thoroughly metaphorical poetry that works through figures of similarity and resemblance, and it reveals an unmistakable economy and a "darting quicksilver" elusiveness.
Whitman's highly rhythmic, but entirely nonmetrical, poetry is dominated by figures of correlation and connection. His verse, pervaded by an insatiate desire to annex the human world and universe to himself, has a sense of being never-ending. Hopkins's poems are markedly rhythmic and even metrical, but not according to any traditional or inherited system of metrics. Figuratively mixed, they are highly wrought poems that observe the strictest formalities in order to subjugate unruly and explosive emotions. Throughout his discussions, Olney quotes extensively from the poetry of all three figures and also conveys much about the effect of their personal lives on their work. In plain terms that neither obfuscate nor overshadow his subjects, Olney helps us to understand better the ways in which poets defamiliarise our world and make us see it anew.