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Miles, Josephinefree

(11 June 1911–12 May 1985)
  • Robert L. Gale

Josephine Miles

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Miles, Josephine (11 June 1911–12 May 1985), poet and educator, was born in Chicago, the daughter of Reginald Odber Miles, an insurance businessman, and Josephine Lackner Miles. Her father's work occasionally took the family to southern California, where the dry air of the nearby desert alleviated her chronic arthritis. After graduating from high school in Los Angeles, where she studied Greek and Roman classics, Miles studied at the University of California, Los Angeles (B.A., 1932), and at the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in the philosophy of language (M.A., 1934; Ph.D., 1938). Her dissertation, “Wordsworth and the Vocabulary of Emotion,” was published in 1942. Appointed to the Berkeley faculty in 1940, she rose from instructor (1940–1941) to assistant professor (1941–1947), associate professor (1947–1952), and university professor (1972–1978).

Miles's dissertation foreshadows the type of criticism she would pursue during the course of her career: she analyzes the frequency of Wordsworth's word usages, relates his diction to his era, and discusses that era's general notions of style and his own views on style. The dissertation was reissued in The Vocabulary of Poetry: Three Studies (1946), to which Miles added a study of changing object-emotion interconnections in nineteenth-century poetry and of major adjectives in English poetry from Sir Thomas Wyatt to W. H. Auden. Continuing her tabulation approach, Miles concentrated on key '40s decades in The Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1540's to the 1940's (1951; with a new introduction, 1965). In Eras & Modes in English Poetry (1957; rev. and enl., 1964), perhaps the most significant example of her approach to poetry, she replaces chronological and historical divisions by demarcating “eras” via distinctly changing “modes”—i.e., diction, rhythm, syntax, and form. While adducing wide-ranging evidence, she emphasizes key figures from John Milton to William Butler Yeats. Most reviewers found Eras & Modes stimulating, but others were puzzled because it combined detailed generalizations in some places with undue brevity elsewhere. As Miles explained in 1965, her purpose in these studies—to which she added Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, and Modern Language in English Poetry: A Tabular View (1960)—is “to explore more systematically the full variety of the temporal span of five centuries, and in the spatial extension to America, discovering the levels [i.e., continuity] between the extremes [i.e., poetic individualities].” In Poetry and Change: Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, and the Equilibrium of the Present (1974), she continues this analysis of poetic language. Her range of reading is astounding; her purpose, to show that repetitions, recurrences, and patterns of key words constitute a kind of history of abiding values. She finds her evidence in the proportions of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, and she categorizes sentences thus created as clausal (or predicative), phrasal (adjectival), and balanced (classical). She does not ignore variety; for example, major words in Geoffrey Chaucer are “wine” and “young”; in Ben Jonson, “friend” and “grow”; in Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “dreary”; in Browning, “blood”; in Wallace Stevens and Edna St. Vincent Millay, “own”; and in E. E. Cummings, “mountain.”

More generally useful, perhaps, are Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment (1948; rev. ed., 1958) and The Poem: A Critical Anthology (1959). The volume on literary judgment, which Miles coedited with Mark Schorer and Gordon McKenzie, is an anthology of essays from Plato to the twentieth century, presenting a variety of principles and of texts analyzed. The Poem, edited by Miles alone, organizes the works of a hundred poets to show structure, sound, and substance and to present first-person, second-person, and third-person poems and poems of statement; the volume concludes with poems by five of her favorites: Donne, Alexander Pope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, and Yeats.

Miles never slighted her professional responsibilities, even though her first love was probably writing poetry. She combined teaching, publishing, editing, and creative writing in an exemplary manner. Some of her first mature poems appeared in Trial Balances (1935), a collection featuring several young poets, edited by Ann Winslow. Lines at Intersection (1939), her first book, asserts the significance of ordinary events in a fifty-poem cycle from dawn through the day to the next morning. Poems on Several Occasions (1941) cyclically celebrates birth, love, and death and dramatizes the meaningfulness of the seemingly trivial. In Local Measures (1946), she continues to find significance in small, everyday matters. Given her interest in analyzing poetry, Miles not surprisingly begins with Local Measures to write poetry about poetic technique. Poems, 1930–1960 (1960) reprints earlier poems, including some from Prefabrications (1955), and also offers new ones that express doubt, disbelief, and surprise that old psychological safeguards are disappearing—although perhaps only temporarily. A cause of dismay, she revealed later, was her fear that McCarthyism was threatening intellectual freedom and creativity. Kinds of Affection (1962) and Fields of Learning (1968) demonstrate her theories concerning, respectively, metaphor (attempts by figurative expression to dissolve denotations that separate) and what T. S. Eliot called “tradition and the individual talent” (as poetry moves through generational stages, the individual poet chooses subjects and a style to reflect and teach his era).

An excellent introduction to Miles's creative work is To All Appearances: Poems New and Selected (1974). It contains a selection of 106 poems from eight of her books and thirty new ones, the best of which is “Views from Gettysburg.” In it she conflates historical images with present-day observations, citing both students and authors who recognize these intersections, and implicitly invites readers to extend the historical continuum projected by the poem with images from their immediate experience. “Walk over the plain ground / to parley …,” Miles tells us in a call for the continuing renewal of “civil life” inspired by a place, Gettysburg, once synonymous with civil strife.

In Coming to Terms (1979) Miles offers poems summarizing her career; she images her retirement as a post-voyage landing. Her final volume, Collected Poems, 1930–83 (1983), also presents many new works, in which she asserts that her public and private lives constitute one life and advises good-natured readers likewise to have big political and cultural concerns influence their personal decisions and vice versa. As though to validate her advice, Miles participated in many local Berkeley poetry groups, delighting and inspiring scores of admirers. Miles died at her home in Berkeley.


Most of Miles's papers are at the libraries of the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of Michigan, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale University. Critical essays on Miles are Robert Beloof, “Distances and Surfaces,” Prairie Schooner 32 (Winter 1958–1959): 276–84; Denis Donaghue, “The Habits of the Poet,” Times Literary Supplement, 25 Apr. 1975; and Lawrence R. Smith, “Josephine Miles: Metaphysician of the Irrational,” Pebble, no. 18-19-20 (1979): 22–35. Louise Bogan republished her 1956 review of Miles's Prefabrications in A Poet's Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation (1970). Brief essays on Miles's poetry are included in James Dickey, Babel to Byzantium (1968), and Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953, repr., 1972); they object, respectively, to her obsession with small subjects and to her dry, minimalist style. Miles's typical verse has regularly been compared to that of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Obituaries are in the New York Times, 17 May 1985, and the Los Angeles Times, 18 May 1985.