Helen Vendler. Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003. ISBN: 0674010248. US$22.95.[Notice]

  • Andrew John Miller

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  • Andrew John Miller
    Université de Montréal

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 …

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