COMING OF AGE AS A POET:
Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath.
By Helen Vendler. Harvard Univ. Press. 174 pp. $22.95
Literary critics don’t come much more eminent and established than Helen Vendler. A beloved teacher of poetry and a principal architect of the reputations of countless contemporary poets, notably 1995 Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, she holds not only a select University Professorship at Harvard but a poetry reviewing slot at The New Yorker. From these twin platforms Vendler disseminates a fairly traditional vision of poetry, one that stresses the poet’s private aesthetics and the quest for a personal language to reflect inner experience. Those who complain that postmodern and “political” approaches have taken over the study of literature would be hard pressed to name any postmodernist whose cultural authority rivals Vendler’s.
This latest book returns to familiar territory. Of the four poets it treats—John Milton, John Keats, T. S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath—Vendler already has written copiously about Plath and Eliot and has published a book-length study of Keats’s odes. Her concern in these essays, originally delivered as lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, is to pinpoint what the four poets had to accomplish at the outset, the problems of form and diction each had to solve before writing that initial “perfect” poem, the first one to last down the years and embody the poet’s mature style. If we can understand this, she writes, “then we can begin to appreciate all that any young poet has to master in order to write a poem that will endure.”
Though this sounds like a tight focus, in practice Vendler treats her topic loosely. The poems she picks as “perfect” are, not surprisingly, very well known—Milton’s “L’Allegro” (1631), Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1911), and Plath’s “The Colossus” (1959). She uses them to discuss such disparate matters as Milton’s capacity for extending a poem in space and time, Keats’s many variations on the sonnet form over the course of his career, Eliot’s repressed upbringing, and the unfairness of criticism that questions Plath’s status as a major poet. Throughout, Vendler tracks her poets’ struggles toward adulthood, because, “for a writer, achieving emotional maturity is inseparable from achieving linguistic maturity.”
The result is a collection of pleasing if not especially striking insights into canonical poems and poets. Vendler is particularly good on how her favorite poets play with structure and how they wrestle with a poetic form—the Petrarchan sonnet, say—until it becomes theirs. Some of the close readings scintillate more than others; a few of the analyses (notably of “Chapman’s Homer”) feel a trifle shopworn, as if they have been used for years as classroom examples.
Indeed, the volume’s only real weakness is a certain wobble in its sense of the intended audience. Parts read like an introduction, for a nonreader of poetry, to some of the underlying mechanisms that make the form tick, while others, particularly portions of the Milton essay, seem to assume an audience well versed in scholars’ disputes. Since the introductory tone predominates, this little volume is best taken as an invitation to the unversed reader to follow Vendler into wider fields.