Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath Hardcover – 4 Mar 2003
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it constitutes in itself an ideal, highly approachable introduction to poetry for what she calls "the new reader" -- Guardian 7 June 2003
About the Author
Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. She is the author of many books, including The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Seamus Heaney, both from Harvard University Press.
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She reminds me of a life long resident of a great undiscovered country who possesses a particularly keen and practiced eye. She will here (and elsewhere) be your guide through its hills and dales, its hidden places and its common grounds. She is atuned to its seasons and its rythms and songs. And she would clearly rather do nothing else in the world than explore it with you. She expects you to look where she points, to see, and to think about what you have seen and how you feel about it and the journey itself. But she is always a loyal companion and her love of the place is infectious. Before long you may just find yourself exploring on your own with the memory of those trips with her as your inspiration and your compass.
If poetry can, at times, effect alchemic changes upon the soul, Ms. Vendler's work is a catalyst to that reaction. Here she traces the development toward a mature style of Milton, Keats, Elliot, and Plath. Her longer work on Keat's Odes may be more complete, but her work here with Milton and Elliot is compelling. She brings the former solidly forward from antiquity and, in my view, does nothing short of rescue the latter's "Prufrock" from the dust bin of obscuritanism. These poets (including Keats) and their works are more human, more common, more accessible, but just as majestic, after Ms. Vendler walks you past their early works. But it is, perhaps, the service that she does for Sylvia Plath that is here most noteworthy.
The sensationalism that has attached to Plath often obscures her considerable gift as a poet. By tracing the development of the young Plath from "Electra" through "Colosus" and "Parliament Fields" toward her mature style, Ms. Vendler shows us the kin of Keats and Elliot not the suicidal victem of madness and (perceived) oppression. She does not evade the "morality" and psychology that Plath's finale engenders, but insists that the poet is in her poems and that, in those, she lived and fought and loved and hurt and found ways to describe that process artfully. It is an effort that evidences the generosity and objectivity that always inform Ms. Vendler's work and it lets us see and feel Sylvia Plath better than we could before we read it.
You do not need to study poetry to read and enjoy this little book, but I think you will see the art in a different (and better) light after you do. Helen Vendler is absolutley THE BEST.
These lectures are highly informative for people who have some interest in poetry, but who have not mastered technical aspects of rhyme and verse that are particularly important in the analysis of the sonnets of Keats. Pages 68-70 show types of sonnets written by Keats, with dates of individual sonnets provided on pages 71-79. Helen Vendler shows an interest in phonic similarities like rhymes, taking ten lines on page 111 to line up words in the "reduplicative semiosis of the close" which starts eight lines from the end of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot to show multiple parallels of words associated with the mermaids singing. I am far more interested in themes than in methods of the poets, and the final chapter on Sylvia Plath is of interest to me primarily because the selected poem, "The Colossus," contains the line, "It's worse than a barnyard." (p. 124).
I find Milton difficult but important. Criticism of Milton is such a large field that the choice of a poem by Milton seems to be the obvious way to start a book like COMING OF AGE AS A POET. The poem selected as Milton's first masterpiece, "L'Allegro," is not as well known or well written about as some others, and I would like to offer a theological reflection on our position in time very similar to Milton's line, "This must not yet be so," (p. 15) from the Nativity Ode, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Vendler prefers "the effortless ease of `L'Allegro.' The Nativity Ode aims at more, but strains at its ambitions. In it, Milton covers all of recorded time, . . ." (p. 13). "This must not yet be so," is a line that limits "those ychain'd in sleep" to keep waiting for "The wakefull trump of doom" (p. 15) to signal their salvation. I would not know nearly as much about that poem if I had not read Vendler's explanation. "The time-scheme of these ten lines (the last two of stanza XV and the eight lines of XVI) takes on the following journey:" (p. 15). Failure to understand what Milton is about seems to be the norm, but Milton also might have had a feeling that catastrophe could easily be described, but that catastrophe always ought to be kept waiting for some more modern poet to contemplate.
There is a great line within the 152 lines of "L'Allegro":
"The melting voice through mazes running;" (p. 22).
That is eleven lines from the end of the poem, describing the music available in cities, where, in the final line:
"Mirth with thee, I mean to live." (p. 22).
The poem is addressed to Mirth, which Vendler finds superior to, but in conflict with the kind of "contemplative pleasure in `Il Penseroso,' the Christian context immediately troubles the values earlier examined in `L'Allegro,' so much so that one can't simply view these poems as presenting the same person alternately and equably participating in mirth one day and contemplation the next." (p. 25).
Such a controlling idea of self is fundamental to the type of voice which Vendler pictures great poets achieving in their mature work. As much as we may disagree about the fixed nature of any form of maturity, I was glad to see the following evidence that she had noticed my favorite line:
"The Renaissance protagonist, with characteristic Miltonic competitiveness, will outdo Orpheus, since `the melting voice through mazes running' will produce such `streins as would have won the ear / Of Pluto, to have quite set free / His half-regain'd Eurydice.'" (pp. 25-26).
"The intrinsic qualities of high art are evoked, one by one, as Milton emphasizes, with respect to music, its emotionality by the verb `pierce'; its sweetness by the participial adjective `melting'; its complexity in the image of `mazes'; its power in the strength of the participial phrase `untwisting all the chains' and its headiness by the unexpected oxymorons in the `wanton' nature of its `heed' and the `giddy' nature of its `cunning.'" (p. 35).
"Needless to say, the m's and n's of this exquisitely `melting' passage are intuitive if not deliberate." (p. 35).
Ten lines of the poem, in which "The melting voice through mazes running" is line eight, are printed as an example of "the superbly unfolding hypotactic syntax that closes the poem:" (p. 38), followed by an attempt to explain the poem by spacing the words differently,
"If we graph this sentence, we can see its enchained nature:
With wanton heed,
giddy cunning, The melting voice
through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains
that ty the soul." (p. 38).
"Milton has learned to slip from one compartment of his mind to another without strain, and with temperate pleasure--until he capitulates to a final intensity, the ecstatic feeling that arises when verse and music are combined." (p. 39).
Do I have any criticism at all? Perhaps that it wasn't long enough, but each essay must be like running a half-marathon to write. I'm more a modernist in prose, incline more towards Joyce and Faulkner, but these essays were as delightful reading and to me as germaine as anything on Beckett, even Dr. Vendler's handling of Milton and Keats, who in all honesty I knew little about.
For a person who is a literature buff, but to whom poetry is second to prose, "Coming of Age" is an achievement par excellence, a lucid, wondrous, erudite book.
For the general reader however this book is far less helpful. Rather than illuminating her example poems, Ms. Vendler sucks them dry with her microscopic attentions and presumptions of superhuman intentionality in their creation. By the end of her discussions, you are left feeling more exhausted than enlightened.
So depending on who you, the reader, are, will determine whether this short work is worth your time.