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.