It is virtually impossible to review one of Helen Vendler's books without commenting, if only in passing, on her formidable reputation. For those identified with an array of critical and literary schools‑‑deconstructionists, as well as Language Poets, New Historicists, and Queer Theorists‑‑Vendler has long served as an icon of interpretive conservatism: as the "Queen of Formalism," to borrow a phrase from Frank Lentricchia (204). From certain perspectives, this hostile view of Vendler can indeed be seen to be justified--perhaps most notably from the perspective of her influence on the shape of the contemporary poetic canon. Vendler would likely respond to such criticism by maintaining that what others take for conservatism amounts merely to moderation and balance. I, for my part, will contend that, whatever the particular merits or demerits of Vendler's activities as one of the gatekeepers of the contemporary poetic canon, there is no denying that she has much to teach us about the art of poetry in a larger sense. This is true even for those who would find it impossible to proceed, as Vendler regularly does, with an open disregard for the role that social and political contingencies play in the unfolding of literary history. Vendler's neglect of such contingencies does not negate the significance of her work, a significance that has never had much to do with literary scholarship in a broadly historical, theoretical, or sociological sense. In Coming of Age as a Poet, Vendler continues to work in the unabashedly formalist vein for which she is known. Although the book advances a relatively ambitious thesis about the process of poetic maturation, the thesis turns out, in the end, to be of only secondary importance. The value of the book lies not in its attempt to provide an account of how poets come of age but, rather, in its salutary illustration of the enduring value of careful and conscientious close reading.
Based on a series of lectures that were given at the University of Aberdeen in May of 2000, Coming of Age as a Poet is, despite its brevity, a work of impressive scope. By choosing to discuss four poets from profoundly different backgrounds and periods--Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath‑‑Vendler engages in a range of chronological coverage that is today rarely found in academic criticism. Her declared purpose in examining these writers is to identify the moment at which each of them wrote "his or her first 'perfect' poem‑‑the poem which first wholly succeeds in embodying a coherent personal style" (1). For Milton, this magic moment comes with "L'Allegro"; for Keats, with "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"; for Eliot, with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"; for Plath, with "The Colossus." In each of these cases, Vendler informs us, the writing of this first fully personal poem marks the acquisition of a hard‑won maturity: "[t]o find a personal style is, for a writer, to become adult" (2).
In her repeated insistence on using "perfect" as her key term of poetic evaluation, Vendler adopts a rhetoric of a sort that has rarely been seen in American literary criticism since the death (in 1968) of Yvor Winters, a critic whose canon is considerably narrower than Vendler's, but who nevertheless shares with Vendler the desire to evaluate poetic achievement using language drawn from the realm of moral‑‑and even of spiritual‑‑value. In her discussions of poetic perfection, Vendler makes it clear, for instance, that she is looking for something "almost superhumanly accomplished" (3). In a manner that is consistent with this quest for a poetic version of divine perfection, she repeatedly insists on intertwining moral and aesthetic qualities so as to reveal what, in her discussion of Keats, she terms "the aesthetic and ethical nature of literature" (51). This desire to fuse ethics and aesthetics would appear to be what motivates her valorization of maturity as the true mark of poetic accomplishment. What she never fully clarifies is whether or not she considers the act of "coming of age as a poet" to be related, in any decisive way, to the act of coming of age as a person.
When Vendler speaks of "coming of age," does she want us to understand her to be referring to a symbolic maturity that is achieved solely in the realm of poetic composition? Or does she instead want us to understand her to be referring to a more fully embodied maturity that is achieved not only in the realm of poetic composition but also in the realm of everyday existence? One gets the sense that Vendler would like to be able to endorse the second of these options, but that she recognizes the problems that would be posed by a complete fusion of poetry and personality. There is, for example, a great deal of biographical evidence that would lead one to assume that the act of composing "Prufrock" did not enable Eliot‑‑at least, during the period of his first marriage‑‑to be able to live a personal life characterized by anything resembling the degree of "emotional maturity" (96) that Vendler claims was required of him in order to attain a high level of poetic achievement. And, as Vendler clearly recognizes, the case of Plath poses still greater difficulties. But, although Vendler seems aware of the potential dangers of conflating the symbolic order of poetry with the disordered chaos of quotidian reality, Vendler nevertheless invites this conflation by repeatedly treating the writing of a poet's first great poem as if it were best understood as the sublime poetic equivalent to such comparatively mundane rites of passage as the obtaining of a driver's license or the earning of a college degree.
In making this observation, I do not mean to be flippant. Instead, I wish simply to call attention to the extent to which Vendler's evocations of poetic perfection rely not on transcendental categories but on socially mediated forms of classification. As it happens, Vendler herself implicitly acknowledges the degree to which the recognition of poetic maturity is contingent upon institutional factors. For Vendler, a particularly significant mark of value is the presence of a poem in major anthologies, which would appear to be a pivotal aspect of what, in her introduction, she terms "literary staying power" (3). In the case of Keats, for example, Vendler notes that he "enters the anthologies with a sonnet‑‑On First Looking into Chapman's Homer‑‑which has become the most famous of his early poems" (43). The same criterion of value is applied to Plath's "The Colossus"; Vendler reminds us that this "is still the earliest poem that most anthologists of Plath include" (117). In making such appeals to the contingencies of institutional modes of evaluation, Vendler undermines, to at least some extent, her repeated insistence that, in identifying particular poems as representing great leaps forward into maturity, she is doing nothing more than recognizing the intrinsic signs of poetic perfection. Although there was no need for Vendler to have engaged at length with the theoretical problems raised by the history of poetic reception, the book would have benefited from a more open acknowledgment of the difficult‑‑and far from inevitable‑‑process by means of with a poetic neophyte's "record of apprenticeship" comes ultimately to be distinguished from his or her "successful poems in anthologies or selected editions" (3).
The book would also have benefited from a more explicit account of the particular set of ethical assumptions that inform Vendler's efforts to explore the "stylistic paths to an adult poetic identity" (7)--efforts that become particularly tenuous in the case of Plath. Although it may indeed be true that, in writing "The Colossus," Plath is able "to permit the contrary emotions of anger and love to cross and fuse in a single lyric" (133), it is nevertheless hard to see this as a decisively triumphant coming of age, especially given our awareness of Plath's eventual suicide. Vendler seems herself to recognize that Plath poses unique problems for her thesis, and she therefore devotes the closing pages of her chapter on Plath to a vigorous defense of Plath's efforts to use poetic form as a mode of moral self-discipline. Focusing meticulously on "Plath's final and famous poem, Edge" (144)‑‑a poem that employs troubling images of "suicide and infanticide" (145)‑‑Vendler argues that "Plath here adopts the stoic reverse of the tone of self-pity" (146). Having praised Plath for the care that she takes, in this poem, with such formal elements as syllable patterns and line breaks, Vendler proceeds to sum up the basis for her perspective on Plath by broadly invoking the liberal-humanist values associated with the Arnoldian tradition of poetic appreciation: "This, surely, is a vision that is authentic, irrefutable, and humanly true" (149).
Given this faith in the redemptive power of the transcendentally human and the eternally poetic, it is not surprising that Coming of Age as a Poet is not particularly concerned with the constraints of historical immanence. Yet, although Vendler (as is her prerogative) shows no interest in linking poetry to the broad course of human events, she does show, at times, an obsessive interest in minute factual and chronological details. The chapter on Keats, for example, is followed by a meticulously prepared series of lists in which Vendler groups Keats's sonnets on the basis of rhyme-scheme, and then provides a detailed enumeration of "Sonnets Written by Keats, with Dates of Composition and of First Publication" (71). The documentation seems designed to add an aura of positivistic concreteness to Vendler's assertions about Keats's poetic coming of age. But the resulting appearance of objectivity is illusory. In choosing to single out "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" as the poem that marks Keats's breakthrough into poetic maturity, Vendler is ultimately relying on her own evaluative judgment, not on statistical evidence regarding the chronological trajectory of Keats's period of experimentation with the sonnet form.
As I have indicated, what ultimately matters most in this book is the exceptional degree of care that consistently informs Vendler's readings of individual poems. In her reading of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," "the sonnet in which all [Keats's] early practice culminates" (52), she provides a particularly compelling example of her interpretive strengths. Dexterously weaving together a series of close observations in which even the most minute aspects of Keats's diction and syntax are shown to carry tremendous weight, Vendler provides an overwhelmingly convincing reading of a sonnet that is itself based upon an act of reading. Vendler's splendidly compressed account of the last three lines of the sestet provides a particularly apt illustration of her strengths:
Keats opens his vista of a new world with three accented syllables containing strong vowels‑‑"Or like stout Cortez"‑‑and then, as astonishment at last finds its rhythmic equivalent, he unsettles the last three lines by a dash, a strong enjambment, another dash, and a rare first-foot comma.55
Here, as in all of the various readings that animate her book, Vendler exhibits an awareness of poetic nuance that is likely to evoke a feeling not only of astonishment but of gratitude. In readings such as this one, she reminds us of the importance of maintaining, in our engagements with poetry, an intimate awareness of the power of form.
Discussing the manner in which Keats gains access to Homer "with the aid of Chapman, the cultural mediator of an ancient text written in a foreign tongue" (55), Vendler makes a broader observation about the mediated structure of literary knowledge: "One makes literary discoveries not alone, but as a member of a transhistorical cultural company of writers, readers, and translators" (55). In response, one might legitimately ask whether Vendler's concept of the transhistorical is in fact merely ahistorical. On what basis, for instance, does Vendler consider it legitimate to proceed as if the process of "coming of age"‑‑whether poetic or otherwise‑‑possessed more or less the same meaning for a young man in Milton's time as it does for a young woman in Plath's time? Although it is clear that Vendler has sought to simplify certain matters in an effort to ensure that her lectures will be accessible to non-specialists, it is by no means clear that, in order to achieve this aim, she was obliged to overlook the distinction between life under Charles the First and life at the height of the Cold War. Still, there is no denying that, by maintaining exceptionally high standards of close reading, Vendler implicitly issues a challenge to those critics for whom the reading of poetry has, at times, become little more than an exercise in historically and/or theoretically based thematizations. Coming of Age as a Poet is a book that powerfully demonstrates why one might choose to devote one's life‑‑as Vendler has done‑‑to the task of continually refining one's abilities as a reader of poetic language. Although there is good reason to be wary of her tendency to elide history and eschew theoretical reflection, we should nevertheless feel fortunate that Vendler remains an active member of our contemporary community of literary interpreters.
- Lentricchia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988.