cover of book

Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath
by Helen Hennessy Vendler
Harvard University Press, 2003
Cloth: 978-0-674-01024-6 | Paper: 978-0-674-01383-4
Library of Congress Classification PR502.V46 2003
Dewey Decimal Classification 820.9


To find a personal style is, for a writer, to become adult; and to write one's first "perfect" poem--a poem that wholly and successfully embodies that style--is to come of age as a poet. By looking at the precedents, circumstances, and artistry of the first perfect poems composed by John Milton, John Keats, T. S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath, Coming of Age as a Poet offers rare insight into this mysterious process, and into the indispensable period of learning and experimentation that precedes such poetic achievement.

Milton's L'Allegro, Keats's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Plath's The Colossus are the poems that Helen Vendler considers, exploring each as an accession to poetic confidence, mastery, and maturity. In meticulous and sympathetic readings of the poems, and with reference to earlier youthful compositions, she delineates the context and the terms of each poet's self-discovery--and illuminates the private, intense, and ultimately heroic effort and endurance that precede the creation of any memorable poem.

With characteristic precision, authority, and grace, Vendler helps us to appreciate anew the conception and the practice of poetry, and to observe at first hand the living organism that breathes through the words of a great poem.

Table of Contents:


1. John Milton--The Elements of Happiness
2. John Keats--Perfecting the Sonnet
3. T. S. Eliot--Inventing Prufrock
4. Sylvia Plath--Reconstructing the Colossus


Reviews of this book:
In Coming of Age as a Poet, Vendler...chooses one breakthrough poem by each of four poets--Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath. Through close readings of their structure, imagery, and scansion, she shows how these poems mark each poet's mastery of a unique voice...The clarity and expert analysis of all four poems could engage even a casual reader, while the breadth of scholarship and unique interpretations will appeal to more experienced poetry readers. Vendler's work is highly recommended.
--Vivian Reed, Library Journal

Reviews of this book:
Where does a poet's voice come from and of what is it forged? There's a question to bring out bootless reductionism if ever there was one, yet Helen Vendler explores it magnificently in its complexity and nuance in Coming of Age as a Poet.
--Katherine A. Powers, Boston Sunday Globe

Reviews of this book:
Reading a Vendler essay is like coming home to the cave; like entering the mind of the poet. In Coming of Age as a Poet, a collection of four essays, Vendler looks at the point in the lives of four poets...when they came into their own maturity as poets, found their discourses, the styles and the voices that would make them immortal...Vendler shows them on their vulnerable ascents to greatness.
--Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Reviews of this book:
A clear but subtle account of the struggles, the rites of passage, undergone by four poets, while still in their 20s, negotiating with tradition in order to find their style and attain their majority--to become, in fact, major poets...Each chapter becomes a short story, a thrillingly compressed account of the vicissitudes of genius...It is a pleasure to be guided by [Vendler] into the poet's workshop--she is so good at making poetry matter, at opening up the interest of passages one had dully taken for granted.
--Philip Horne, Guardian

Reviews of this book:
Though modest in size, Coming of Age contains numerous original insights into the creative process, especially into that formative period in which a poet finds his or her technique, style, and voice.
--D. D. Kummings, Choice

Reviews of this book:
Helen Vendler begins her brief study with a persuasive and delightful piece on the young Milton...[She] is brilliant on Keat's comparatively slow but sure practicing on the Petrarchan model...She is equally good, by contrast, on the gradual evolution of Eliot's 'The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock'...[This book is] full of perceptions and rewards that send one scurrying back to the text.
--John Bayley, New York Review of Books

Reviews of this book:
[Vendler's] attention to the psychological and aesthetic unraveling of the poet's calling turns the microscopic into the majestic.
--Jacques Khalip, Boston Review

Reviews of this book:
Using Milton, Keats, Eliot and Path as her case studies, Ms. Vendler 'consider[s] the work a young poet has to have done before writing his or her first "perfect poem"--the poem which first wholly succeeds in embodying a coherent personal style.' This is a bold claim and a challenging book, but Ms. Vendler succeeds brilliantly in keeping us hooked. By the end we are better readers.
--Tom Mayo, Dallas Morning News

Reviews of this book:
[Vendler] has offered up a brief but profound inspiration to any reader willing to take the time to move slowly, with curiosity and attention, through her investigation of four cases of great poetry.
--Len Edgerly, Bloomsbury Review

Reviews of this book:
As to books about poetry, you could hardly do better than Coming of Age as a Poet by superb U.S. critic Helen Vendler, in which she illuminates the first perfect poems by John Milton, John Keats, T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. If in doubt about your critical criteria, read Vendler.
--Barry Hill, The Weekend Australian

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