Helen Vendler
Helen Vendler; drawing by David Levine


Edgar Degas was dining one day, along with the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, at the house of Berthe Morisot. As a distraction from painting, Degas had begun to try his hand at writing sonnets—on dancers, racehorses, and Mary Cassatt’s pet parrot, Coco—and, according to an account by Paul Valéry, he rashly complained to Mallarmé, the most fastidiously exacting of poets, of the difficulties of the task. “What a business!” he cried. “I wasted an entire day on one damned sonnet, without making any progress at all…. And yet, I have no lack of ideas…I’m full of them…I’ve got too many….” To which Mallarmé—“avec sa douce profondeur“—replied, “But, Degas, it is not with ideas that you make a poem…. You make it with words.”

One can easily imagine Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard and one of the most distinguished critics of poetry in the English-speaking world, nodding her assent. In Vendler’s long and impressive career she has ranged from her early study of Yeats’s A Vision to her magisterial commentary on the intricate design of Shakespeare’s sonnets, from her pioneering work on the long poems of Wallace Stevens to her elegant and moving study of the odes of Keats. She has also written deft monographs on George Herbert and Seamus Heaney, as well as hundreds of articles and reviews in this magazine and elsewhere—reminding readers that poems are, after all, made with words, and not with received ideas or with what she bitingly calls the currently fashionable “contextual penumbra” of the poet’s race, class, nationality, or gender.

Vendler is much in demand as a public speaker. She gave the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in Washington last spring, and lately she has been publishing small collections of her lectures on topics such as the “coming of age” of young poets, or the manner in which mature poets “break” or reject one style to achieve another that may be more expressive. In these books, Vendler engages in close reading to find a poem’s distinctiveness of language and literary form since, as she puts it in Poets Thinking, “the highest poetic achievement is the gaining of an unmistakable, idiosyncratic, and formally coherent personal style.” In her lectures, she often discusses the same poets—Keats, Yeats, and Stevens among earlier poets, Heaney, Rita Dove, and Jorie Graham among her contemporaries—to advance her arguments.

The title of Vendler’s new book, drawn from her Clark Lectures at Cambridge University, suggests something hushed and solemn, with the heft, as one of the poets under discussion put it, of cathedral tunes. The topic of how poets think recalls earnest attempts during the past century, on the fringes of philosophy and religion, to define the nature of “poetic thinking.” One thinks of Jacques Maritain’s unlikely use of Thomas Aquinas to describe “creative intuition” or of Martin Heidegger’s use of cryptic passages in Hölderlin’s hymns as the basis for his own late philosophy. In an essay titled “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” Paul Valéry advanced a Kantian argument about the fundamentally impractical nature of poetic language; poetry, he argued, was “a language within a language,” with no other aim than to please the ear and mind.

More influential in America was George Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets (1910), in which he boldly divided 2,500 years of European philosophy into three phases—the naturalism of the Greeks, the supernaturalism of the Christian Middle Ages and the Ren- aissance, and a Hegelian fusion of the two (Carlyle’s “natural supernaturalism”), which Santayana called Romanticism. Santayana argued that poets such as Lucretius and Goethe, not philosophers, best expressed the three phases:

Can it be an accident that the most adequate and probably the most lasting exposition of these three schools of philosophy should have been made by poets?

Santayana urged his readers to avoid the “leafless forests” of Aquinas and Kant and to wander instead in Dante’s dark wood. This proved a seductive invitation for philosophically minded young poets like Eliot, Frost, and Stevens, all of whom were drawn to Santayana at Harvard. Stevens, who adopted Santayana’s Lucretian naturalism as his own, closes his gorgeous tribute to Santayana, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” with an evocation of Santayana’s “ambered room” in a convent in Rome, and a meditation on the relation of words and thinking in the creation of art:

Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by an inquisitor of structures
For himself. He stops upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.

No one I know of has written more perceptively about Stevens than Helen Vendler, who has devoted two books to his work, one on the longer poems (On Extended Wings) and another on the short poems. In a recent fragment of autobiography—which I hope will eventually be part of a full-length book—she calls her discovery of Stevens while she was a graduate student at Harvard “the most profound literary experience of my life.”1 So one might expect her, in taking up the topic of poets thinking, to look into the ways in which a poet like Stevens, who once wrote that a poem “must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” simultaneously evokes and evades the conventions of philosophical writing. But this, it turns out, is precisely what Vendler is determined not to do in Poets Thinking. She summarizes her work on Stevens as “my attempts to treat Stevens as something other than a poet versifying ideas.” Far from blurring the line between poetry and philosophy, as Santayana did so effectively, she wants to draw it more firmly:


I ruled out…those poets who seem especially “philosophical” (Donne, Eliot, Stevens), because to discuss their relation to thinking would require…distinguishing the nature of ruminative meditations in verse from ruminative meditations in prose…. I decided, therefore, to take as examples of lyric thinking forms of poetic discourse that could not possibly be analogized to the discourse of philosophical thought.2

If there is a single belief that underlies all Vendler’s work it is that of the inseparability of form and content, manner and matter:

As is often said, but as often forgotten, poems are not their paraphrases, because the paraphrase does not represent the thinking process as it strives toward ultimate precision, but rather reduces the poem to summarized “thoughts” or “statements” or “meanings.”

In attacking so explicitly what Cleanth Brooks melodramatically called the “heresy of paraphrase,” Vendler aligns her work with that of the self-styled “New Critics” (she prefers the name “Aesthetic Critics”) of the period after World War II. She sees herself as one more “inquisitor of structures” concerned with the “poem itself” and not another thing. Like the New Critics, she brings an almost scientific rigor to the analysis of poems while shying away from biography as a basis for interpretation, preferring to treat poetry as fundamentally “impersonal,” an escape, as T.S. Eliot once remarked in his Buddhist mode, from personality. She is, nonetheless, critical of the New Critics’ tendency to read poems as static productions, “well-wrought urns” and “verbal icons.” She calls instead for a “fluid view of lyric,” true to the dynamic process of composition, where the poem is “depicted primarily as a fluid construction that could change its mind as it proceeded.”


There is no clear pattern or progression among the four essays in Poets Thinking, and little attempt to relate the particular poets discussed to their age. These essays are, according to Vendler, individual “case studies,” since her subject, poets thinking, “cannot be generalized, but must be approached poet by poet.” What prompted her book in the first place was her dismay at the spectacle of three professors—the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam, the Harvard political scientist Judith Shklar, and the “non-Harvard anthropologist” Melvin Konner—all mistaking the tired ideas taken up and parodied in Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man as Pope’s own. The philosopher dismissed the “Enlightenment optimism” of the poem and the political scientist chided Pope for endorsing a “fixed social hierarchy,” while the anthropologist thought he was making a contribution by recalling Lovejoy’s notion of the “Great Chain of Being” in relation to Pope’s familiar lines about man’s “middle state” between the realms of angels and beasts.

Vendler finds it a “scandal” that the three scholars, pretending to interdisciplinary knowledge, “had only one way of thinking about a poem: they translated it into its conceptual paraphrase, and proceeded to dismiss the paraphrase on the grounds of intellectual irrelevance to modern thought.” Later Vendler concedes that more imaginative scholars might have made more of Pope’s poem, with the anthropologist, for example, exploring “Pope’s savage renditions of the tribal customs of eighteenth-century society.”

When we actually look at the poem Pope wrote, Vendler argues, we find a poet who delights in toying with received ideas. Pope juggles “the ideas before us as spectacles rather than as articles for assent,” she writes. He is fond of “miniaturizing” them, drawing from his “huge and learned reservoir of strategic diminution.” She rightly detects “an element of farce” in lines such as these:

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.

“We are very close,” according to Vendler, “…to the Mad Hatter’s tea party.” Characteristically, she makes no effort to link this strategic diminution to contemporaries like Pope’s friend Jonathan Swift, in the Lilliputian passages of Gulliver’s Travels, or to the eighteenth-century taste for rococo and neoclassical miniatures, Meissen and Wedgwood, of all kinds. And instead of comparing Pope’s sallies to specific philosophers, she is mainly content with straw men—Pope’s “mocking demonstration that most philosophical arguments in prose are simply too drearily long.” In contrasting Pope’s “living thought” with the “thought embalmed” of “most” philosophers, she draws an unsatisfactory distinction between the two disciplines. For surely we find “living thought” in many philosophers—Emerson or Pascal or Pope’s own favorite, Montaigne—just as “thought embalmed” is something that even playful poets don’t always manage to avoid. Vendler’s own rigid distinction between philosophy and poetry is itself a relic of neoclassical aesthetics.


Like her essay on Pope, Vendler’s chapter on Whitman purports to be a rescue operation, buttressed by ample references to critics who, in Vendler’s view, have misunderstood how poets think. If Pope, at least in An Essay on Man, has been taken to task for thinking too much, Whitman, on the contrary, has been criticized for not thinking enough. “It is as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau remarked of Whitman, while adding wryly, “if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of?” Santayana, more critical of Whitman, wrote in an essay called “The Poetry of Barbarism”:

This abundance of detail without organization, this wealth of perception without intelligence and of imagination without taste, makes the singularity of Whitman’s genius.

Vendler argues that critics have been looking in the wrong places for Whitman’s thinking. She finds a distinctive pattern in Whitman’s use of what she calls “reprise,” or repetition with a difference. Critics have long noted the use of parallel structures in Whitman’s phrasing, sometimes suggesting that these are drawn from the Psalms:

The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.

Vendler discerns a larger two-phase structure in many of Whitman’s poems, in which a scene is first presented as a “retinal” record of mere perception, and then revised, or reprised, as a more intellectual version of the same scene or event, turning “perceptions into perceptions-as-thoughts.” According to Vendler, who majored in chemistry as an undergraduate, reprise is “merely the enlargement, into a freestanding lyric lattice, of the basic molecule of Whitmanian chemistry, the semantic or syntactic parallel.”

Vendler chooses as an example Whitman’s short, two-stanza poem about a knife-grinder, titled “Sparkles from the Wheel.” The first stanza resembles the lines from “Song of Myself” quoted above, with a spectator reporting what he sees:

Where the city’s ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day,
Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause aside with them.
By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,
Bending over he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread he turns rapidly, as he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue then in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.

Vendler finds this stanza “solely transcriptive,” delivering what the eye sees with “retinal innocence,” and observes that “if the poem stopped here, Santayana’s description would be justified.” In the second stanza, however, “the intellect enters”:

The scene and all its belongings, how they seize and affect me,
The sad sharp-chinn’d old man with worn clothes and broad shoulder-band of leather,
Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb’d and arrested,
The group, (an unminded point set in a vast surrounding,)
The attentive, quiet children, the loud, proud, restive base of the streets,
The low hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-press’d blade,
Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,
Sparkles from the wheel.

In this second stanza, according to Vendler, Whitman “adds human response to perceptual registration,” as he notes the knife-grinder’s sadness, his age, his clothes, his economic status, and so on. At the same time, Whitman as observer undergoes a curious change, becoming “effused” and “fluid” and “losing his personal identity” in the process of achieving “an aesthetic distance from his material.” “The second-order formation of an aesthetic and linguistic gestalt“—a coherent, overall sense of things—“from a first-order perception,” she concludes, “is an act to which one cannot refuse the name of thinking.”

I find Vendler’s analysis here persuasive if a bit ponderously stated. Her discovery of the distinctive structure of reprise—a sort of genetic DNA underlying a remarkable number of Whitman’s short poems—is a major contribution to our understanding of Whit- man. In finding an “impersonal” Whitman (“Far from being the monster of egotism he has sometimes been thought to be, Whitman was a master of self-effacement”), she accords him a high place denied him by the New Critics, for whom he was, as Harold Bloom has noted, a “nightmare.” And she is surely right that Whitman “is too subtle to be comprehended by such wide-grained leading ideas as nationalism, democracy, the body, and gender.” And yet, at the risk of reverting to Santayana’s version of Whitman the sensualist, there seems one fairly obvious way in which “Sparkles from the Wheel” relates to both body and gender. Isn’t there a rather loud suggestion of masturbation in the knife-grinder bending over the stone, who “with measur’d tread…turns rapidly, as he presses with light but firm hand,” and “Forth issue then in copious golden jets/ Sparkles from the wheel”? This can’t have been lost on Vendler, and perhaps she feels she has said enough in observing that the “diffusion” of the sparkles in the second stanza “is like the poet’s own dissemination of himself into the elements of the scene.”

Vendler’s remarkable essay on Emily Dickinson, a poet to whom she has given surprisingly little attention in the past, is also based on the discovery of a distinctive and repetitive structure underlying an extraordinary number of individual poems. As in her analysis of Pope, she tells us that evidence of Dickinson’s thought is not to be found in those themes—love’s grief, death’s certainty, nature’s appearances—that she shares with many other poets. She argues that Dickinson’s “natural” style of thinking is instead a narrative sequence in which there are “no gaps in event or perception.” In familiar poems such as her 1862 invocation of a locomotive as an “iron horse,” which Vendler takes to be a sort of ars poetica, Dickinson links each phase of the train’s journey with a sequence of “ands,” “thens,” and “and thens”:

I like to see it lap the Miles—
And lick the Valleys up—
And stop to feed itself at Tanks—
And then—prodigious step
Around a Pile of Mountains…

And so on, until the train, like the punctual poem, stops “docile and omnipotent/At its own stable door.” Such a “seriality without gaps remains forever,” Vendler believes, “the first resort of [Dickinson’s] mind when she begins to think.”

Vendler suggests that this serial structure was psychologically reassuring for Dickinson, giving predictability and order to events so that life seemed “essentially a seamless narrative with a beginning, an extended middle, and an end.” The great drama of Dickinson’s poetry, for Vendler, is the way in which a “catastrophic event” breaks through “the anxiety-allaying view of life as an evenly incremental series of events.”3 Death, which “makes sequence meaningless,” is the most formidable challenge to this incremental series. Some of Dickinson’s most peculiar and affecting poems arise from her efforts to conceive of life after death. “She is fertile,” Vendler remarks, “in thinking up ways to be posthumous.”

Vendler shows how, in a familiar poem, Dickinson makes a “blasphemous change” in the accepted “step-by-step exhaustive narrative of Christian dying” by substituting, for the expected arrival of Christ, the coming of a housefly:

The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—

Vendler concludes that the “serial unfolding of experience here yields to the constructing of experience according to momentousness; and the Fly, in his power to insist on his gross material finality…his ‘Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—,’ is more momentous than the expected, but treacherously absent, King.” This is well said; and even if one has qualms about Vendler’s picture of an anxiety-ridden Dickinson nervously seeking regular patterns to allay her fears, Vendler shows us some new reasons why “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” remains one of the great unnerving poems in English.

If Yeats (the subject of Vendler’s first book and of another that she is currently writing) seems, in Vendler’s treatment, the most intellectually and emotionally capacious of the poets considered here, as well as the most resistant to philosophical modes of assertion, the reason, Vendler implies, is his temperament, not his time. “The mistrust of propositional statement as the sole means of intellectual accuracy reaches its height in some late poems of Yeats,” she writes. While her readings of two of the best known of these poems, “Among School Children” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” are powerful and persuasive, the essay as a whole is both more personal and less analytically arresting than the previous three.

She finds in Yeats’s late poems, when he could no longer depend on the flood of vivid imagery distilled in his early poetry, an alternation between “thinking in images” and “thinking in assertions.” It is hardly news that poets often “think in images,” though her implicit claim that philosophers do not is belied by Plato’s cave and Descartes’s ball of wax, not to mention Wittgenstein’s stonemasons. “When he cannot find the image he needs,” Vendler writes of Yeats, “he must, frustratedly, resort to discursive statement until the previously unacknowledged emotional and imaginative impulses burst forth in images so violent as to be undeniable.”

The Freudian mechanisms suggested here, of repression and the return of the repressed, are made explicit in Vendler’s reading of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” In that great poem, one of Yeats’s last before his death at seventy-three in 1939, he portrays himself as an old “broken man” in a vain search for a theme. His vivid images drawn from Irish mythology, which he calls his circus animals, have deserted him, and now he can only “enumerate old themes.” But having done so, he traces the dreamlike tales of mythical heroes to their unheroic source:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Vendler offers a heavily metaphorical psychoanalytic interpretation:

Yeats shows us how his initial distress at sterility and his alienation from past works yield a falling from his ladder of sublimation through the trapdoor of long-maintained repression into the cellar of the “subliterary” heart—which turns out to possess a profusion of images just waiting to be explored.

But when she explores these new “Beckettian” images, her patience and passion suggest that the closing lines of the poem have a more than merely scholarly urgency for her. “As we find ourselves deserted in old age by the serviceable concepts of our middle years,” she writes, “we fear, with Yeats, that a permanent loneliness has set in.”

In her Jefferson Lecture, Helen Vendler, elaborating on a phrase of Wallace Stevens, wrote about the way poetry shows how “the experiences of life can be reconstituted and made available as beauty and solace, to help us live our lives.”4 If there is an underlying, though unstated, subject in Poets Thinking, it concerns the consolations of poetry in the face of human isolation. Vendler interprets Pope’s familiar lines about the proper study of mankind—

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great …
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

—as an “idiosyncratic self-portrait” of the “deformed and unpartnered Pope,” in which, exiled on his isthmus, “he is looking at himself in his interior solitude.” Vendler discerns “magnificence and courage” in these lines, akin to Yeats’s searing self-portrait as a lonely old man in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and to Emily Dickinson’s clear-eyed dissection of the bare and isolating facts of death.

Despite her closing plea for “expanding our idea of what thinking is,” Vendler is really trying to enlarge our idea of what poetry can be. Her book is best conceived not as an extension of some ongoing debate, stretching back to Santayana, about poetic thinking, but rather as a contribution to the phase of New Criticism that sought to stamp out the “heresy of paraphrase,” and restore our wonder at words laid out with utmost deliberation and consoling skill. In reminding us to look at and listen to the actual words on the page, and not to leap too soon to some hackneyed idea that they recall, Vendler invites us to expand our own response to experience, and to find in it—if we are both attentive and lucky—beauty and solace.

This Issue

April 28, 2005