Helen Vendler Introduction

Start Your Free Trial


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download Helen Vendler Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Helen Vendler 1933-

(Full name Helen Hennessy Vendler) American literary critic and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Vendler's career through 2000.

Vendler is considered among the most influential contemporary poetry critics in the United States. What makes this remarkable is that Vendler is not a poet herself and her criticism does not embrace a particular ideology. Instead, her work, which she refers to as “aesthetic criticism,” is known for its detailed explanations of specific poems. While Vendler gained prominence with the publication of On Extended Wings (1969), a study of Wallace Stevens's poetry, her position among the nation's premier poetry critics was solidified when she was chosen to edit The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985). She has also produced several important collections of criticism, as well as full-length treatments of W. B. Yeats, George Herbert, John Keats, Seamus Heaney, and a comprehensive volume that considers Shakespeare's sonnets.

Biographical Information

Vendler was born on April 30, 1933, in Boston, Massachusetts. Both of her parents, George and Helen Hennessy, were teachers. Vendler has credited her father for introducing her to foreign languages and her mother for introducing her to poetry. As an undergraduate, Vendler did not concentrate on English literature. Instead, in 1954 she earned an A.B. degree in chemistry from Emmanuel College, a Roman Catholic school in Boston. After studying at the University of Louvain under a Fulbright fellowship, she entered Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. in English literature in 1960. Vendler's dissertation, entitled “Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays,” would become her first book three years later. Also in 1960, Vendler received an instructorship at Cornell University and married Zeno Vendler, a Hungarian-born philosophy professor, with whom she has a son; the couple divorced in 1964. She then served as a lecturer in English at Swarthmore and Haverford. While working as an assistant professor of English at Smith College, Vendler was commissioned by the Massachusetts Review to take on their annual consideration of the year in poetry. Her acceptance of this assignment signaled the beginning of her career in poetry criticism. In 1966 Vendler moved to Boston, where she became an associate professor at Boston University. She also took a post as a visiting professor at Harvard, where, in 1985, she was appointed to a tenured faculty position. In addition to her academic positions, Vendler has held such influential posts as that of consultant poetry editor for the New York Times and poetry critic for the New Yorker.

Major Works

Vendler's critical work is rather unique in the academic realm of English literature. In a field in which academics usually interpret a text from some kind of ideological perspective (Marxist or feminist theory, for example), Vendler disregards as much as possible the historical, social, or biographical context in which a text was written. In this regard, she is associated with exponents of New Criticism, an Anglo-American school of literary analysis that flourished after World War I, including critics such as I. A. Richards, John Ransome Crowe, and Cleanth Brooks. Instead of demonstrating an interest in the ideologies at work behind a particular piece of poetry, Vendler is concerned with the poem as an aesthetic object. In particular, she is interested in the imaginative process that creates a poem. Vendler thus refers to herself as an “aesthetic critic.” Although her first book, Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays (1963) did not focus on poetry, Vendler quickly changed course following her commission by the Massachusetts Review to consider the year in poetry. Her first book following this appointment, On Extended Wings, presents a chronological examination of fourteen of Wallace Stevens's poems. In this book, Vendler offers a detailed look at the poet's changing language and style and argues...

(The entire section is 1,518 words.)