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The Breaking of Style

The Breaking of Style

Hopkins, Heaney, Graham

Helen Vendler

ISBN 9780674081215

Publication date: 12/06/1995

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Style is the material body of lyric poetry, Helen Vendler suggests. To cast off an earlier style is to do an act of violence to the self. Why might a poet do this, adopting a sharply different form? In this exploration of three kinds of break in poetic style, Vendler clarifies the essential connection between style and substance in poetry. Opening fresh perspectives on the work of three very different poets, her masterful study of changes in style yields a new view of the interplay of moral, emotional, and intellectual forces in a poet’s work.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ invention of sprung rhythm marks a dramatic break with his early style. Rhythm, Vendler shows us, is at the heart of Hopkins’ aesthetic, and sprung rhythm is his symbol for danger, difference, and the shock of the beautiful. In Seamus Heaney’s work, she identifies clear shifts in grammatical “atmosphere” from one poem to the next—from “nounness” to the “betweenness” of an adverbial style—shifts whose moral and political implications come under scrutiny here. And finally Vendler looks at Jorie Graham’s departure from short lines to numbered lines to squared long lines of sentences, marking a move from deliberation to cinematic “freeze-framing to coverage, each with its own meaning in this poet’s career.

Throughout, Vendler reminds us that what distinguishes successful poetry is a mastery of language at all levels—including the rhythmic, the grammatical, and the graphic. A fine study of three poets and a superb exposition of the craft of poetry, The Breaking of Style revives our lapsed sense of what style means.


  • Vendler is a critic readers of poetry, inside the academy and out, should take seriously… She writes less as a scholar (though her learning is prodigious) than as one impelled by the special pleasure she finds in poems to trace each instance of that pleasure to its source… While [The Given and the Made and The Breaking of Style] offer complex, sometimes difficult interpretations of work that is itself often difficult, they hew close to the primary experiences of wonder and conviction that is poetry’s special power to evoke. Her prose is…lucid and elegant… [In The Breaking of Style] the chapter on Hopkins is a tour de force, the most concise and helpful account I have seen of the dense, jarring, strangely musical meter the Victorian Jesuit called ‘sprung rhythm’ …Vendler’s argument, in The Given and the Made, is that poetry is a special way of confronting, and symbolically resolving, the hard facts of life. And poetry, which has for so long seemed to be approaching an ultimate marginality, surely needs defenders like Vendler, so committed to protecting its singularity as an art form… These [are] illuminating books.

    —A. O. Scott, The Nation


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

Book Details

  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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