Yeats Lecture Series Invigorates Audiences
Postmodernism is in, but apparently Yeats isn’t out.
Or maybe it’s just the fantastic spectacles.
Either way, Craig Lecture Hall has been overfilled the past two nights for Helen Vendler, A. Kingsley Porter Professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University, and her lectures on the Irish romantic and modernist poet.
The lectures come at an interesting time for Oberlin as a liberal arts institution. Vendler’s lectures, titled “Yeats and Lyric Form,” embody academic and cultural values that some see as neglected by current trends in education. Some see these values as essential to a liberal arts education, and others see them as outdated and ivory-towerish.
The debate is by no means a new one, but it was brought into focus on the night of the opening lecture by poetry professor DeSales Harrison, a former student of Vendler. Harrison defended art and art criticism with weighted and passionate speech, positing the study of literature as a force “against philistinism” and “defending the cause of humanist inquiry itself.”
Harrison’s comments spoke to many Oberlin students who question the liberal arts as ineffectual or irrelevant.
“Poets are not isolated and alienated from us, but they are, in fact, speaking to us now, here,” he said. The work of critics such as Vendler “not only makes poetry clear to us, but makes poetry possible.”
The result was a framing of the lecture series that allowed much of the audience to enjoy and engage with Vendler’s lucent critical approach.
Vendler made no reference to the frame Harrison had established, but instead explained why she was interested in a formalist critique of Yeats.
“I am writing the book I am writing on Yeats because nobody ever noticed his hard work in making his poems different shapes,” she said, whereas there is an abundance of writing on the contextual aspects of his works of poetry.
The topic of Monday’s lecture was Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a sequence in six parts about the turmoil before the Irish Civil War. With a meticulous breakdown of the rhyme form, rhythm, meter and length of each part, Vendler illustrated Yeats’ subtle and craftsman-like use of tension in the sequence, demonstrating his use of meter against the expectations set up by the poem’s form.
For example, part five of the sequence is written as a traditional ballad, but with an additional line at the end of each stanza that argues with the four lines above.
Vendler demonstrated the clarifying talent for which she is known in the critical world throughout the lecture. Community members, professors and students scribbled dutifully on the packet of handouts distributed at the beginning of the evening, in which they followed along as Vendler recited the poems aloud in her nuanced, expressive manner.
Most surprisingly pleasant was Vendler’s easy transition between her serious critical mode and light amusement. At one point in the discussion of structural tensions, she stopped perplexedly.
“Every time I wrote ‘trimeter’ on my computer, it wrote ‘trimester,’” she said, eliciting comfortable amusement from her audience.
The lecture finished to unusually enthusiastic applause from a crowd of literary types. After the lecture, the audience was afforded the opportunity to ask questions. Vendler addressed each question attentively, though she was obviously tired, and went on to socialize with the large crowd at the reception in the lobby afterward.
The second lecture, “Yeats at Sonnets,” was as well-attended as the first, though Vendler was clearly more tired and the room lacked some of the excited energy of the night before. Vendler’s acute interpretive sense was no less engaged, but her subject matter was considerably more understated. She focused on Yeats’ lifelong relationship with the sonnet form, and in particular, focused on his antagonistic relationship with the Shakespearean sonnet as representative of the English colonizing force in Ireland.
Her demonstration of his manipulation of the sonnet form to various effects culminated in the discussion of the poem “Leda and the Swan,” which is about Zeus’s rape of a mortal woman while disguised as a swan. The poem was a clear favorite in the room; when she came to it, the audience made various sounds of delight and contentment.
Vendler herself, for all her intimidating credentials, was genial and affable. She expressed interest in the Oberlin experience. She met with several English majors Thursday afternoon, eager to exchange views on the study of literature and the state of the world, as well as stories about strange drinking parties at Harvard known as “pig parties.”
Vendler is the second lecturer in the series to come to Oberlin from Harvard; last year, the guest lecturer was Lawrence Buell, who also teaches English at Cambridge. This trend is intriguing to some Oberlin students, to whom Harvard is either incomprehensibly alien or anathema.
The lectures are accompanied by a Yeats mini-course supervised by Professor of English John Hobbs and guest-taught by a number of the English faculty, and are an attempt to expose students to ideas outside the Oberlin environment.
The final lecture in the series, titled “Yeats and Primitivism:
‘Supernatural Songs,’” will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Friday,
Nov. 18, in Craig Lecture Hall.