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Helen Vendler

On the American literary critic.


In an essay on teaching published in 1980, Helen Vendler calls her mentor I. A. Richards “the most extraordinary teacher of poetry I ever encountered.” She fondly recalls that Richards was a “thoroughgoing believer in Platonic forms,” interpreting his quotation of Matthew Arnold’s “Song of Callicles”—“Not here, O Apollo, are haunts fit for thee!”—as an earnest invocation of an eternal Being, a god of poetry. This reading of Richards’s quotation (uttered as he entered the lecture hall where she first met him) perfectly captures Vendler’s method of criticism: to attend to the character, beliefs, temperament, and—most importantly—motivations of her authors. Vendler was not just a meticulous close reader of poetry; as the title of her book Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats suggests, she was a reader of other minds. Before reading Our Secret Discpline: Yeats and Lyric Form as an undergraduate, I was suspicious of Vendler given my general prejudice against New Criticism and its willingness to decontextualize poems as a condition of close reading. The premise of Richards’s Practical Criticism was that college students who relied on available historical context for their poetic analysis lacked sensitivity to poetry’s formal properties: scansion, grammar, and what Vendler called lyric “atmosphere.” As such, Richards conducted an experiment: he presented his students with poems without authorial attribution or dates and had them analyze the uprooted text as an independent unit of meaning, inaugurating “practical criticism” as a means of examination. I regarded the New Critics (a disparate crew, in reality) as a coherent precursor to more pernicious forms of anti-historicist literary theories such as Stanley Fish’s reader-response theory and disavowed them wholesale. I was, however, quickly disabused of my prejudice against Vendler. I found a critic who ransacked the poetry not in order to evade the mind of the poet but to plunder it. “Though it seems an ‘easy’ poem,” muses Vendler of George Herbert’s “Vertue,” “I do not find it easy to reconstruct Herbert’s process of thought in writing it.” Vendler found such a difficult task all the more inviting.

In a remarkable passage in Our Secret Discipline, Vendler disentangles the web of symbols in “Sailing to Byzantium” by imagining what Yeats was thinking as he contemplated his own death and poetic afterlife. The “sages” that Yeats addresses in the poem are, Vendler explains, the prophets depicted in Ravennate mosaics which Yeats saw in person. She imagines his thoughts as he surveyed the remarkable scene in Ravenna Cathedral: “‘When my body ends its existence, I could belong among those sages’ thinks Yeats, but knowing he cannot rise to heaven unaided, he implores their help.” Here, Vendler clarifies the meaning of the elusive third stanza of the poem via characteristic empathy; by ventriloquizing Yeats in her criticism, she allows the reader to inhabit the poem more comfortably by spelling out what exactly he meant by this:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Vendler notes that a “perne” is a “cone-shaped bobbin,” a noun which Yeats transforms into a verb: as such, a “whirling descent . . . is followed by a whirling ascent, as the ‘me’ of the speaker is ‘gathered’ (as to Abraham’s bosom).” In the introduction to the book, Vendler explains her own motivation for studying Yeats’s lyric form and its relationship to his symbolic system: “When I went to the library seeking explanations of [Yeats’s variety of verse forms], they were not to be found. And since there is no better motive for writing on a subject than a gap on library shelves, I began in earnest.” Reading Vendler, you feel her urgent desire to unearth and elucidate poetry’s intended meaning—as a means of proper communion with a poet’s mind—which critics have either ignored or failed to explain properly. If a poem is a river which distends as it flows through time, widening and coiling through years of interpretation, then Vendler navigates that river to its source in search of its first and truest meaning.

Vendler’s temporal breadth shows off comparative criticism at its height. In her discussion of “Sailing to Byzantium,” she elegantly lifts from “The Elixir,” in which Herbert imagines a man passing through the glass of a telescope to enter the heavens. Similarly, Yeats “chooses to ‘pass through’ the mosaic (by demoting it to a simile) and ‘espy’ the heaven beyond.” This effortless quotation of poems that are centuries apart but bear upon one another’s meaning recalls the era of Coleridge, when it was obvious to critics that poetic themes, forms, and tropes operate in a tradition of allusion and influence which demand that the critic read widely and resist narrow specialization. In her book-length study of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, and Jorie Graham from 1995, a unifying theme between three apparently heterogeneous poets is shifting style. Vendler dwells on the rift in Hopkins’s early and late styles, marked by the introduction of sprung rhythm into his oeuvre, before analyzing “micro-adjustment on the stylistic level” in individual poems by Heaney. Finally, she discusses the shifts in lineation—the arrangement of poetry by line breaks—in three volumes by Graham. Avoiding dubious acontextual comparison, she emphasizes the ways in which style is substantial, or inextricable from a poem’s meaning, as well as evidence of a poet’s relationship with himself. For instance, Hopkins’s creation of Anglo-Saxon-style neologisms reflected his belief in the ordained uniqueness of every created thing, which he termed “inscape.” Vendler’s description of style and meter is always delightful. Hopkins’s sprung rhythm (a relatively free verse form with at least one stressed syllable per line of poetry and any number of unstressed syllables) “electrifies” the line with spondees; another quality is its frequent “lightness, caused by the rapid succession of multiple unstressed syllables”; such “prosodic twoness—stressed march beats versus rapid, tripping, almost liquid footfalls,” she says, “characterizes all sprung rhythm.” Read “The Windhover” and you will see what Vendler means.

Vendler’s review of Hopkins’s collected letters shows that her love of his poetry did not cloud her vision of his full, flawed humanity. She even seems to chastise him, identifying a “fastidious aesthete” and “intemperate dogmatist” in his letters and declaring that “his own sexual anxieties made him intolerant of the erotic freedom of literature.” At the same time, in spite of her own temperamental clashes with the poet (for a moralizer she was not), Vendler admits fondly that “Hopkins arouses affection in his readers” even in a letter warning of the “Satanic craft” of masturbation. Such assessments shouldn’t be taken for whiggish moral judgement, as sharp as they are. Vendler regarded Hopkins as she would a friend, refusing to treat him hagiographically and acknowledging his self-confessed troubles without attributing to them any grand narrative significance. Further, any evidence of dourness in Hopkins’s prose heightened by comparison the joy which Vendler took in his best work:

To watch him develop from a rather priggish Oxford undergraduate to a man of troubling sorrow and (in his own words) “helpless self-loathing” was to be educated in a process I was then too young to understand fully. The letters delighted me by their revelation of what Hopkins’s prose could become when it was relatively untrammelled (his sermons, never uninteresting, were nonetheless constrained by their double obligation to dogma and to homiletic intention).

Vendler’s general distaste for dogmatism explains both her love of Hopkins’s “terrible sonnets,” which deal with religious doubt, and her dismissal of the sermons. Here her judgement may be too hasty: I have found that several of the sermons include indelible poetic moments, such as his paean to the Elizabethan martyr Margaret Clitherow.

Vendler’s method was not without its risks. At times her offhand assertions about the thoughts of her poets seem curiously arbitrary: she calls Hopkins’s decision to convert to Catholicism “probably opaque at the time to Hopkins himself” without explanation. What special access did Vendler have to his experience to justify such a claim? Of his long poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” whose narrative portion devoted to the drowned Franciscan nuns was composed before the poem’s prelude, she makes a bold claim: “he could not have devised this tactic [of composing out of order] without a startling moment in which he realized that in retelling the story of the tall nun . . . he had revealed to himself the core of his own inner story.” This language of interiority reveals how wholly invested in the private lives of her poets Vendler was. She propped up most claims scrupulously, consuming every morsel of correspondence or miscellaneous poetry that she could seize upon after taking a liking to a poet—this was a matter of course in Vendler’s life. Having mentally downloaded the separate cadences of Hopkins’s sermons, letters, and poems, it naturally occurred to Vendler to imagine him as an acquaintance of hers, to go beyond the text and peer into the person at her own discretion. Such comments characterize her conversational criticism and, even if (or because) they risk adding imaginary dimensions to the story, make for entertaining reading.

Vendler frequently likened poetic form to architecture, invoking an age-old etymology (“stanza” is Italian for “room”). Discussing her youthful excitement as she set out to read Yeats in the introduction to Our Secret Discipline, she writes, “I knew that there were principles of architectonics in Yeats that I did not yet comprehend.” In her remarkable book The Odes of John Keats, Vendler describes the odes as “architectural” to emphasize their interlocking dependence on one another, like pillars holding up a structure. It is therefore the job of the reader to inhabit the odes like a palace and sketch out their “inexhaustible internal relations.” She proposes that the odes operate within a system of symbolism in which the sculptor of the urn represents the creative artist, whose experience and purpose each of the odes discusses. Symbols cross-pollinate: for instance, the wine in the “Nightingale” and the apple’s last drops of juice in “Autumn” are “transmutations of that elixir which also appears . . . in Hyperion”: thus, “each ode is generated out of previous odes in part by image-transformation of this sort.” The book feels particularly “continental,” delving as it does into the phenomenology of the artist and the nature of art itself. Her spatial imagining of a linear art form is also quite hermeneutically testing. That is not to denigrate it: to move between the poems out of time would, in practice, require memorization and rumination which most readers would find daunting; not so for Vendler.

Some of Vendler’s best commentary on the architecture of poetry comes in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published in 1997. Her stated motivation is to refamiliarize the reading population with what George Santayana dismissed as the “old finery” of Shakespearean diction and form: “A comprehension of the internal logic and the ‘old finery’ of Elizabethan lyric has now almost vanished.” She proceeds to show how hostility to Shakespearean finery as inherited from the modernists could be conquered by her fusion of the mathematics of formalism with the humanity of reading the “internal psychological dynamic” of the sonnets. Discussing Sonnet Fifty, in which the speaker spurs his horse onwards and is reminded of his lover’s distance by the beast’s “quasi-human groan,” Vendler reminds us that the empathetic function of the sonnet sometimes requires us to criticize, rather than simply echo, the sentiment of the speaker:

Nowhere is the obsessiveness of love better exemplified in the Sonnets than in the speaker’s response to his bloodied horse’s groan. He feels a sharp pang, but not for the horse; all that the horse’s pain means to him is a reminder that further pain is in store for himself. We are meant, I think, to wince at this tenacity in private grief in the presence of the horse’s pain.

This study, which meticulously notes where sonnets belong in pairs, is necessary reading for the fan of Shakespeare, though it presumes some knowledge of technical formalist terms. Vendler steered the formalist skiff through the tumultuous critical tides of the twentieth century. She sometimes betrayed her frustration with the large-scale pre-occupations of the critical world: Heaney’s “exquisite style, with its fluid modulation from individual poem to individual poem, has been relatively uncommented upon, while his political attitudes have been much noticed.” When reviewing Adrienne Rich, Vendler came under fire for finding “sentimental black-and-white terms” in the poetry; one respondent accused Vendler of “hostility” towards feminism and lesbianism as a result. Sentimentality was something Vendler disliked in criticism, too: in 1990, she spoke of her “disquiet” in reading feminist criticism, which she found to “sentimentalize” women and make “sinners” of the remains of dead poets like Milton. However, Vendler didn’t entirely ignore the political, especially in her work on the American Confessional school of poets, which has invited much feminist and psychoanalytic treatment. Crucially, she refused to flatten the minds of her poets to satisfy a theoretical or political claim. In Vendler’s criticism, dead poets are resurrected—perhaps uncannily, always instructively, she electrifies them to life. In Coming of Age as a Poet, she discusses poetic maturation as the process of graduating into adulthood, examining the work of Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. It is difficult to move seamlessly between observations about the public and private spheres of poets and to re-animate poets without writing fiction. Vendler succeeds.

Helen was married to the philosopher of language Zeno Vendler, known for his work on verbal aspect. It is not clear whether her husband’s profession influenced her linguistic work, which so often attends to parts of speech (which she lamented that even students of literature could not identify). I haven’t unearthed any detail about their union of minds—she was a private person—but we find out a great deal about her character in her criticism, which she often prefaces with autobiographical details about her first “meeting of minds” with the poet in question. She was staggeringly industrious and insatiable, refusing to be yoked to a single epoch. One doesn’t get the sense that she believed herself to have special hermetic access to the poets she read; she accompanied her readings with charming nods to the reader (“we presume”) as though even her most hard-won judgements were, or should be, perceptible to the layperson. There’s a generosity of spirit in her assumption that Keats “co-creates” with the reader by interrogating the possibility of representing nature in art in the odes. It’s true that the poems prompt the reader to think fruitfully on the subject if the reader possesses the kind of curiosity and imaginative luster so familiar to Vendler. As a reviewer put it in 1995, “while there is no doubt that Vendler—the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, a past president of the M.L.A. and a poetry reviewer for the New Yorker—wields considerable influence, her judgements have always seemed more expressions of readerly passion than pronouncements of institutional power.” The joy of investigation is too palpable in her writing to permit any other conclusion.

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Jane Cooper is an Examination Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a DPhil (Ph.D.) candidate researching pre-Romantic sublime poetics, 1650–1740.