"The Poetics of Epiphany" is a nice, well-argued book of thoughtful literary criticism. It follows somewhat in the tradition of Robert Langbaum, but handles the same theme of literary epiphany in one large, sustained, cohesive argument rather than in a variety of multifarious essays (as in Langbaum's The Word from Below: Essays on Modern Literature and Culture). Both approaches have their strengths, of course, but the overarching consistency of this book is impressive even if Nichols doesn't quite possess the same level of eloquence and flair in style. The prose is clear and dependable all the same, free of the excesses of impenetrable jargon that mar much work in literary studies nowadays.
The focus of Nichols' extended discussion is made plain enough by the rather straightforward title, of course: literary epiphany, an aesthetic experience that imbues the ordinary bits and pieces of one's experience (especially in nature) with an aura of significance, a spiritual sense of wholeness and unity as powerfully felt as it is fleeting. The modernist novelist James Joyce is known for having articulated and described this phenomenon and made it the basis of his literary craft, and so Nichols first explores the origins of this concept in William Wordsworth and his "spots of time" in the nineteenth century and then begins to trace its evolution through the works of Coleridge and Shelley, Browning, Tennyson and Hopkins, and finally to Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Seamus Heaney (among others). Throughout the book, the author is able to keep on track and stay focused while at the same time showing an uncanny ability to tease out major and minor differences and particularities in emphasis and approach to literary epiphany among these various writers and so clarify them for the reader. There is nothing perfunctory or monotonous in these chapters--Nichols has clearly given a great deal of careful thought to this subject, and it really comes across. If you believe that literature is more than just a Foucaldian power trip, that it is deeply meaningful and spiritually significant (possibly even religious, as with Hopkins and Eliot), then you'll without doubt find this book as interesting and edifying as I did. Highly recommended.