Campus & Community

Vendler receives top humanities award

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Scholar, author will deliver 2004 Jefferson Lecture in D.C.

Helen Vendler: ‘The young respond to poetry for the same reason I did at their age. Poems tell complex truths of human response …’ (Staff file photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor and author of numerous books on poets and poetry, will deliver the 2004 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently announced. The annual NEH-sponsored Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

“Through her many wonderful books, lectures, and reviews, Helen Vendler leads us first to understand and then to love the great poems and poets of the English

Though free, admission to the Jefferson Lecture requires an invitation. To receive one, call (202) 606-8400, or send an e-mail to

language,” said NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. “Her vast learning, beautiful prose, and analytical powers bring the power and magic of the written word to life and into our lives.”

Said Vendler, “I am very glad to be following in the footsteps of colleagues such as Emily Vermeule, Bernard Bailyn, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. It’s a great honor. I will be talking about the relation of the arts and the humanities, using three poems by Wallace Stevens as my texts. I am happy to have this recognition accorded to poetry and the criticism of poetry, because America has such a dazzling run of poets that we ought to recall that patrimony frequently.”

Born in Boston in 1933, Vendler earned an undergraduate degree, summa cum laude, in chemistry from Boston’s Emmanuel College, and she went to the University of Louvain after graduation on a Fulbright fellowship. Vendler received her Ph.D. at Harvard in English and American Literature in 1960. She taught at Cornell, Swarthmore, Haverford, Smith, and Boston University before coming to Harvard as a teacher in 1985. She has held many fellowships and is a member of several academic organizations, including the Modern Language Association, of which she was president in 1980. She holds 23 honorary degrees from universities and colleges in the United States, England, Ireland, and Norway.

Vendler’s books on poets and poetry include “Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath” (2003), “Seamus Heaney” (1998), “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (1997), and many, many more, all published by Harvard University Press. She frequently reviews contemporary poetry.

“The young respond to poetry for the same reason I did at their age,” Vendler said in one of her recent lectures. “Poems tell complex truths of human response, and they structure words with particular force, wit, charm, intellectual responsibility, and plangency.”

Vendler will present the 33rd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on May 6 at 7:30 p.m. in Washington, D.C. The lectureship carries a $10,000 honorarium.

Attendance at the lecture is by invitation and free. Those interested in receiving an invitation should call (202) 606-8400 or send an e-mail message to

Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and a list of previous Jefferson Lecturers is available on the Internet at