Fluttering ideas in pinioned perfection

Coming of Age as a Poet
June 13, 2003

A poet's style, Helen Vendler tells us in her new book, is a poet's identity. "To the young writer, the search for a style is inexpressibly urgent; it parallels, on the aesthetic plane, the individual's search for identity - that is, for an authentic selfhood and a fitting means for its unfolding." In Coming of Age as a Poet , she considers how that search was conducted by four young poets: John Milton, John Keats, T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. Her method is to pinpoint each writer's first "perfect" poem - and then analyse its "perfection" and trace the trajectory towards it.

"Perfect", as Vendler knows, is an awkward term: she herself puts quotation marks around it in the text and is careful to define what she means. The first perfect poem is "the poem in which, with confidence, mastery and above all ease, each comes of age as a poet to be reckoned with. I call such poems 'perfect' because they manifest a coherent and well-managed idiosyncratic style voiced in memorable lines; one would not wish them other than they are". The poems she chooses as her perfect poems are Milton's L'Allegro , Keats' On First Looking into Chapman's Homer , Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Plath's The Colossus , and each is reprinted in full in the book.

Coming of Age as a Poet began as a series of lectures; looking at them on the page, it is easy to imagine the power they would have if they were heard rather than read. In each chapter, Vendler builds her argument as a fine mason would construct a wall: deliberately, carefully, never allowing the joins to show. Yet when they are read one is left with a curious flatness or deadness; a sense that to "lock" something as perfect leaves out something crucial. It is not that to frame a poem in a criticism necessarily kills it stone dead; a poem, after all, is not a butterfly that pinned behind glass loses its essence entirely. Butterflies are not meant to be pinned; but poems, surely, are meant to be read and reread, considered, discussed. So what is missing here?

Of course, Vendler is right when she remarks that readers and students must develop their critical faculties to appreciate fully the work they encounter. Otherwise, they may not be able to distinguish, as she says, "an imaginatively and linguistically striking poem from ineptly divided prose masquerading as free verse". And it is fascinating to trace, as Vendler does most carefully, this process of "becoming". There is an excitement about it, as there is in reading about any discovery; one feels, indeed, like stout Cortez. For these were poets who, like explorers, had to find their own way: Vendler quotes Eliot, writing in 1946: "I do not think it is too sweeping to say that there was no poet, in either country (America or Britain), who could have been of use to a beginner in 1908I The question was still: where do we go from Swinburne? and the answer appeared to be, nowhere."

Part of the excitement is in being reminded of the stones along the path to perfection. Vendler notes Keats' dire early efforts (and writes, "these are among the sonnets Keats decided to publish" - the italics are hers): " O Chatterton! How very sad thy fate!/ Dear child of sorrow! son of misery!/ How soon the film of death obscur'd that eye,/ Whence genius wildly flashed, and high debate! " The wonder that we feel upon reading On First Looking into Chapman's Homer a few pages later is therefore all the greater.

And Vendler, like an explorer, is a great one for making charts and maps to lead us along her chosen path: on page 23 is a "chart of proportions" that breaks up L'Allegro into categories such as "Sights and sounds", "Rustics" and "Cities and music"; and she takes apart a piece of the sestet of Keats' On the Grasshopper and Cricket to show a descent to "a nadir of cold silence". Yet it is hard to say that either kind of chart adds very much to one's appreciation of the poem (and indeed, the example from Keats is downright confusing). It is here, rather than in her more conventional analyses (such as tracing the influence of Robert Lowell's work on Plath's Electra on Azalea Path ), that one does begin to get a worrying image of the poem as a butterfly under glass. And, it must be said, one is even called on to doubt the value of Vendler's more straightforward remarks when, in discussing Keats' Endymion , she tells that we will "recall that the phoenix of Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle is male, and is therefore available to Keats as a self-image" - funny, that's not what I recall, and what does that do for Keats and his self-image? That, I guess, is called gender studies these days.

That is the danger of such closely built analysis: one flaw makes you doubt the soundness of the whole structure. Everyone makes mistakes, of course: but my point is that "perfection" is as impossible to achieve in criticism as it is in poetry. Perfection, even in quotation marks, is, I think, more difficult to demonstrate - at least in this way - than Vendler thinks. Yes, of course we can talk about the development of style and the discarding of influence, but that is not all there is to it.

So what is the crucial something missing from this dense little book? I think it is a sense of wonder. Most things can be described; they cannot all be explained. What pulls us back again and again to poems such as the ones discussed in this book is that they cannot, in the end, be etherised upon the table. I wish that, alongside the analysis, Vendler's book had given me a sense of that - for, these days more than ever, readers (and especially, students) need to be reminded that while they can discuss poetry, they can love it, too.

Erica Wagner is literary editor, The Times , and the author of Ariel's Gift , a study of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath

Author - Helen Vendler
ISBN - 0 674 01024 8
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £15.50
Pages - 174

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