LAST LOOKS, LAST BOOKS: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill

Helen Vendler
Princeton University Press ($19.95)

by John Cunningham

Given that her first choice of a career was not remotely related to English literature, it is remarkable that Helen Vendler has achieved the prominence she has as a literary critic. Her first avocation was chemistry, for which she earned an A.B. from Emmanuel College. Then, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for mathematics, before earning her Ph.D. in English & American Literature from Harvard. Since 1981, she has been the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. In 2007, Vendler was invited to deliver the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art, and this, her latest book, is the result.

The lecture was subtitled “The Binocular Poetry of Death,” an apt description of the nature of this book. Beginning with the Irish custom whereby “when you find yourself bedridden, with death approaching, you rouse yourself with effort and, for the last time, make the rounds of your territory,” Vendler extends this practice to five poets—Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill—stating that

In many lyrics, poets have taken, if not a last look, a very late look at the interface at which death meets life, and my topic is the strange binocular style they must invent to render the reality contemplated in that last look. The poet, still alive but aware of the imminence of death, wishes to enact that deeply shadowed but still vividly alert moment; but how can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit? Although death is a frequent theme in European literature, any response to it used to be fortified by the belief in a personal afterlife. Yet as the conviction of the soul’s afterlife waned, poets had to invent what Wallace Stevens called “the mythology of modern death.”

Vendler completes her introduction by providing a comparison between two modern poems—Stevens’s “The Hermitage at the Centre” and Merrill’s “Christmas Tree”—and some earlier poems written during the period where less was questioned, including Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not Stop for Death,” George Herbert’s “Death,” Edmund Waller’s “Of the Last Verses in the Book,” and John Donne’s “Hymne to God My God, in My Sickness.” She has selected these poems to illustrate what she means by “a poem that wishes to be equally fair to both life and death at once,” arriving at the conclusion that “Each of these stylistic choices attempts in the end to be accurate and even-handed in its last looks: so much for life, so much for death. But in these Christian poems of faith, the balance is necessarily tipped, as we see, against death.”

In the second chapter, Vendler turns to the last poetry collection Stevens wrote, The Rock, after which he permitted Knopf to publish his Collected Poems, a summation he had resisted for years. Vendler describes his late work as follows:

In The Rock and in poems written too late for the Collected Poems, Stevens examined three chief premises about the last phase of being, when life faces death. The first two premises—that age is a paralytic stasis of the body and mind alike and that death is a biological horror—caused him anguish. His third premise, however, is that mortality confers a compensatory value on life.

She then proceeds to “take up all three premises, considering the different emotional pressures exerted on Stevens by each premise, and the poet’s consequent imaginative inventions of structure and style,” marshalling and explicating various poems in support of her thesis.

Vendler opens the chapter on Plath with a brief examination of the weaknesses of Plath’s juvenilia: “we can see that the chief danger to her style is restraint: formality encases her emotions. And yet her style was endangered equally—once she allowed emotion its freedom—by a theatricalizing melodrama. Both of these dangers always hovered over her poetry, and no one—as we can see in her journals and letters—was more aware of their perils than she.” Vendler claims that, by the time she was to write her last looks just preceding her suicide at age thirty, “we can trace her arrival, through a deepening mastery of technique, at a poetic strength absent in her earliest work.” The analysis is centered on Plath’s “Berck-Plage,” which according to Vendler will “illustrate both her inability to remove death from her poetry and her eventual success at integrating it stylistically with her aesthetic aims.” Her discussion of Plath’s death poems is vivid:

If we ask ourselves how Plath found a style with which to gather death and life into a single binocular view, we can reply that for her the task became specialized, since death was always before her eyes. She needed to discover a way to restore life to the skull, to put blood into the face of death . . . Her violence and melodrama were ways of waking Death up: to make a corpse stand up and do a striptease, to construct an ambulatory black boot over a dead foot . . . Plath’s poetry survives aesthetically because Death is so violently present that Life must take on a matching violence, but when their confrontation takes place in a present-tense personal moment, the result, in her mature work, is more a duel than a binocular comprehensiveness.

Vendler ends her look at this famously morbid poet with an epitaph: “She was always a posthumous person, but it took her years to acquire a posthumous style.”

The two inner chapters—on Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop—are the weakest of this exposition. Lowell’s approach to death is one Vendler characterizes as subtraction. And Bishop, the author admits, was not even aware of any impending death while writing her final poems—which raises a question as to why, other than that Bishop is a poet with whom Vendler is familiar, she would have been included within this thesis at all.

But any lapse of judgment is forgiven with the brilliant explications of James Merrill’s final poems contained in A Scattering of Salts. If you are unfamiliar with this poet’s work, then you’ll appreciate particularly the setting out in full of “Pearl”; Vendler’s condensation of this poem and how it relates to Merrill’s impending death from AIDS is a hard-won synthesis which can be applied to all of Merrill’s poetry in this final volume: “By preserving the presence of the insulted body in his self-portraits—however full of light or glimmering gems those poems may be—Merrill makes them credible performances of a being intensely alive yet aware of ghostly dissolution.”

Surprisingly, Vendler ends Last Looks with the chapter on Merrill, stating in the penultimate paragraph, “I return, as promised, to Merrill’s final self-portrait and his last self-symbol—the paradoxically alive/dead, organic/inorganic Christmas tree, retaining only half of its body, but still possessing a voice.” A recap drawing together the threads of the five poets examined would have been useful. Still, even with no dessert or palate cleanser, Last Looks, Last Books is an otherwise sumptuous banquet.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010