Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form

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Overview

Listen to a short interview with Helen Vendler
Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

The fundamental difference between rhetoric and poetry, according to Yeats, is that rhetoric is the expression of one's quarrels with others while poetry is the expression (and sometimes the resolution) of one's quarrel with oneself. This is where Helen Vendler's Our Secret Discipline begins. Through exquisite attention to outer and inner forms, Vendler explores the most inventive reaches of the poet's mind. This book is a space-clearing gesture, an attempt to write about lyric forms in Yeats in unprecedented and comprehensive ways. The secret discipline of the poet is his vigilant attention to forms--whether generic, structural, or metrical. Yeats explores the potential of such forms to give shape and local habitation to volatile thoughts and feelings.

Helen Vendler remains focused on questions of singular importance: Why did Yeats cast his poems into the widely differing forms they ultimately took? Can we understand Yeats's poetry better if we pay attention to inner and outer lyric form? Chapters of the book take up many Yeatsian ventures, such as the sonnet, the lyric sequence, paired poems, blank verse, and others. With elegance and precision, Vendler offers brilliant insights into the creative process and speculates on Yeats's aims as he writes and rewrites some of the most famous poems in modern literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Harper's - John Leonard
Helen Vendler has entirely consumed William Butler Yeats...As she leads us by the hand through some of the best-known poems in the English language, we discover how little we knew about them after all, and how hard the poet worked to make them sound...inevitable. Our Secret Discipline is so much an intellectual feast.
Barnes and Noble Review - Tess Taylor
Vendler can be as charming a tour guide through Yeats as she is a learned one. And her frame of examining Yeats's external and internal lyric structures offers a new, insightful, and often revelatory map of Yeatsian terrain.
New York Sun - Sam Munson
Is there any critic more thorough than Helen Vendler?... Her carefulness, her attention to minutiae, is a rare quality, particularly when set against the current mores of poetry criticism, which, for all its highly technical vocabulary, has been for many years an enterprise largely impressionistic...Any serious reader of English poetry should be delighted that, in Our Secret Discipline, she has turned her attention to the question of form in W.B. Yeats's poetry.
Boston Globe - William H. Pritchard
A book whose value may exceed anything [Vendler] has hitherto produced. It is the first exhaustive account of Yeats's lyric styles as they revealed themselves in 50 years of verse forms as "the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet's moral urgency." Vendler is the ideal close reader and listener to undertake the very large task of coming to terms with Yeats's poetry...The great merit of Vendler's approach is that she never rests content with merely identifying and describing Yeats's formal choices but goes on to consider how such forms are employed in the service of moral and human content...She is intrepid and only occasionally over-ingenious...Readers who have assumed they were familiar, even intimate, with his body of lyric verse will read Vendler's pages and find their eyes have been opened, in Hart Crane's words, to "new thresholds, new anatomies."
New York Review of Books - Mark Ford
[A] superb study of Yeats's uses of lyric form...Vendler offers much astute description of the architecture of Yeats's poems, but also considers the way in which his forms reflected his cultural vision...It certainly helps enormously to have a critic as expert as Vendler describe in slow motion, frame by frame, so to speak, her understanding of the effects of each choice the poet makes. Her shrewd, tightly focused commentaries encourage us to take each poem slowly, on its own terms, and to pay attention in particular to tbe ways in which it either conforms to or confounds the expectations it fosters...Vendler's study of his uses of lyric form is an indispensable guide to anyone interested in the means whereby Yeats transfigured into "masterful images" the random contingencies of life.
Washington Post Book World - Anthony Cuda
[Vendler's] chapters on Yeats's "Byzantium" lyrics, his courtly ottava rima poems and his blank verse are all filled with sensitive, compelling insights that will be critical guideposts for years to come.
Harper's

Helen Vendler has entirely consumed William Butler Yeats...As she leads us by the hand through some of the best-known poems in the English language, we discover how little we knew about them after all, and how hard the poet worked to make them sound...inevitable. Our Secret Discipline is so much an intellectual feast.
— John Leonard

Barnes and Noble Review

Vendler can be as charming a tour guide through Yeats as she is a learned one. And her frame of examining Yeats's external and internal lyric structures offers a new, insightful, and often revelatory map of Yeatsian terrain.
— Tess Taylor

New York Sun

Is there any critic more thorough than Helen Vendler?... Her carefulness, her attention to minutiae, is a rare quality, particularly when set against the current mores of poetry criticism, which, for all its highly technical vocabulary, has been for many years an enterprise largely impressionistic...Any serious reader of English poetry should be delighted that, in Our Secret Discipline, she has turned her attention to the question of form in W.B. Yeats's poetry.
— Sam Munson

Boston Globe

A book whose value may exceed anything [Vendler] has hitherto produced. It is the first exhaustive account of Yeats's lyric styles as they revealed themselves in 50 years of verse forms as "the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet's moral urgency." Vendler is the ideal close reader and listener to undertake the very large task of coming to terms with Yeats's poetry...The great merit of Vendler's approach is that she never rests content with merely identifying and describing Yeats's formal choices but goes on to consider how such forms are employed in the service of moral and human content...She is intrepid and only occasionally over-ingenious...Readers who have assumed they were familiar, even intimate, with his body of lyric verse will read Vendler's pages and find their eyes have been opened, in Hart Crane's words, to "new thresholds, new anatomies."
— William H. Pritchard

New York Review of Books

[A] superb study of Yeats's uses of lyric form...Vendler offers much astute description of the architecture of Yeats's poems, but also considers the way in which his forms reflected his cultural vision...It certainly helps enormously to have a critic as expert as Vendler describe in slow motion, frame by frame, so to speak, her understanding of the effects of each choice the poet makes. Her shrewd, tightly focused commentaries encourage us to take each poem slowly, on its own terms, and to pay attention in particular to tbe ways in which it either conforms to or confounds the expectations it fosters...Vendler's study of his uses of lyric form is an indispensable guide to anyone interested in the means whereby Yeats transfigured into "masterful images" the random contingencies of life.
— Mark Ford

Washington Post Book World

[Vendler's] chapters on Yeats's "Byzantium" lyrics, his courtly ottava rima poems and his blank verse are all filled with sensitive, compelling insights that will be critical guideposts for years to come.
— Anthony Cuda

David Orr
Vendler's new book…is an attempt to explain, as she puts it, "the inner and outer formal choices Yeats made, the cultural significance his forms bore for him," and "the way his forms…became the material body of his thoughts and emotions." That's no small task: Yeats was a technician's technician whose massive output is a blizzard of stanza shapes and metrical variations. Fortunately, Vendler relishes the nitty-gritty of douzains and dizains, and the result is a meticulous, enlightening and strangely flawed study that adds plenty to the Yeats canon. If you're looking for a general introduction to the poet, this isn't the book for you…but scholars will find years of material here.
—The New York Times
Anthony Cuda
Vendler's claim is fairly straightforward: We cannot really appreciate Yeats's poems by attending only to what they say. We must also understand the logic behind their style, the reasons that Yeats chose to write a sonnet instead of a ballad, or to make some poems nimble and rhythmic but others halting and dissonant. As Vendler rightly points out, few critics are willing to think about a poet's entire career in these terms, to follow what she calls "the creative impulse and its elaboration" from youthful experiments to mature achievements. And even fewer possess the historical awareness to write persuasively, as Vendler does, about the impressive amplitude and versatility of the lyric form in English.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

One of the world's most respected poetry critics, and a Harvard professor, Vendler began her career with a short book about W.B. Yeats's prose and plays (Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays). This new monumental study of the technical (and, ultimately, emotional) accomplishment in Yeats's poems represents something close to a life's work: it will surely attract international attention. Like Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, this volume looks at the way a great poet put individual poems together, and at why "the formal shapes of a temporal art" work as they do. A preliminary chapter looks at form, proportion and meter in three famous poems; later installments consider the progress of the "series of technical investigations" in his sometimes airy, incantatory early verse; the "efforts to combine high and low" speech that marked his ballads; his anxious, and finally majestic, Irish transformations of the originally English-and-Italian sonnet; and his metamorphosis of the eight-line stanza (ottava rima) into a fit motor for the masterpiece "Among School Children." Vendler's careful book will likely advance the way experts see Yeats, but she also speaks to all the readers who care about the Irish Nobelist's body of poetry, which looks more complex, and more delightful, through Vendler's lens. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Unlike most authors who explore only William Butler Yeats's (1865-1939) literary themes and symbolism, Vendler (Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire) writes entirely from the standpoint of the Irish poet's use of forms and shows how meaning is derived from them. Yeats's grasp of poetic forms was prodigious, and he wrote in many of them, even modifying some-e.g., the Shakespearean sonnet-to make them more "Irish" and less a tribute to Elizabethan England during a time when Ireland was subject to England. Italian forms were another source of inspiration. Vendler points out how in some forms, lines go missing, with Yeats deliberately following a standard only so far and then breaking it for dramatic effect or simply to eliminate a weak or wasteful line. This isn't a beginner's book on the poet (Peter Ure's Yeats and Anglo-Irish Literaturewould be a better starting point), but it is a substantial contribution to the voluminous critical literature on Yeats and will be useful to faculty and advanced students of poetry. Recommended for academic libraries supporting graduate programs in literature and writing.
—Amy K. Weiss

The Barnes & Noble Review
In his famous 1926 sequence, The Tower, W. B. Yeats wrote, "I...send imagination forth / Under the day's declining beam, and call / Images and memories / From ruin or from ancient trees, / For I would ask a question of them all." In this study of Yeats, esteemed critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler sends imagination forth to ask question of all of Yeats's work: Why did he use the forms that he did? This, of course, leads to other questions: How did Yeats arrive at his forms, and in what ways did he vary and develop some, like the ballad, over his 50-year career? Why, in a sequence like The Tower, did he vary forms within a single sequence, and what is the effect -- and possible meaning -- of his mosaic? When Yeats revisits a place or theme, as he did with poems about Byzantium or the Delphic Oracle, how does he rewrite what he has written before? These questions are as wise as they are difficult. It helps to have one's Collected Yeats nearby; to know or be willing to learn about rimes riche and royale; and to have already spent a fair amount of time thinking about possible meanings of the linguistic (and golden) mosaics in "Sailing to Byzantium." With certain amounts of dense academic prose, the book -- intended to correct an absence in the Yeatsian inquiry Vendler found on library shelves -- is not for the faint of heart. (Whether or not it is a country for old men is a different question.) That said, Vendler can be as charming a tour guide through Yeats as she is a learned one. And her frame of examining Yeats's external and internal lyric structures offers a new, insightful, and often revelatory map of Yeatsian terrain. --Tess Taylor
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674026957
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 726,314
  • Product dimensions: 6.76 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Preface

I. Lyric Form in Yeats's Poetry: Prophecy, Love, and Revolution

II. Antechamber and Afterlife: Byzantium and the Delphic Oracle

III. The Puzzle of Sequence: Two Political Poems

IV. "Magical" Techniques in the Early Poems

V. Tales, Feelings, Farewells: Three Stages of the Yeatsian Ballad

VI. Troubling the Tradition: Yeats at Sonnets

VII. The Nationalist Measure: Trimeter-Quatrain Poems

VIII. Marches and the Examination of Conscience: The Tetrameter Line

IX. The Medium of Instruction: Doctrine in Blank Verse

X. The Renaissance Aura: Ottava Rima Poems

XI. The Spacious Lyric: Long Stanzas, Irregular Lines

XII. Primitivism and the Grotesque: "Supernatural Songs"

XIII. Rare Forms

Abbreviations

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

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