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Coming of Age as a Poet

Coming of Age as a Poet

Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath

Helen Vendler

ISBN 9780674013834

Publication date: 04/30/2004

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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.


  • 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 Love Song 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


  • Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 192 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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