Form and Meaning in Poetry
The central question for analysis and interpretation is: How does poetic form create or influence meaning? Consider the following example, a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show, That the dear She might take some pleasure of my pain, Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know, Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe Studying unventions fine, her wits to entertain. Oft nurning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my son-burned brain. But words came halting forth, wanting Inventions’ stay, Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows, And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way. Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes, Bining my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool!’ said my muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart and write!” (Sidney, from Jutropital and Stella).
It is immediately noticeable that this sonnet uses a large number of technical and thetorical devices; it is in this sense highly artificial (see animation for an illustration of rhetorical devices). The sonnet cleverly combines the Italian and the English for The rhyme pattern separates the poem into an octet, a quartet and a couplet rhyming abababab cded ee indicating an English sooner, but the syntax actually unites the last line of the quatrain to the couplet, thus syntactically constructing an octet and two tercets. Grammatically the dominance of non-finite constructions until the very last line, which breaks this pattern with a decisive imperative, effectively convey the stasis the writer has fallen into. Elaborate patterns of repetition like polyptoton, reduplicatio, climax, alliteration and parallel, hypotactical sentence structure as well as rhetorical devices such as metaphor and personification demonstrate that the writer of this poem can command the technical aspects of pocne composition Now in the face of all these technicalities it is rather curious that the poem appears to argue that such clever technicalities are precisely what hinders the poet from writing a good poem. From this, one might draw the conclusion that the poem is trying to discredit itself as a good poem, though on the whole. that is not very likely.
A more convincing solution of this contradiction takes two aspects of the poem’s historical background into account First, the teachings of rhetoric to which this poem alludes, in particular the meaning of the word invention. Second, the fact that a call for heartfelt and genuine expression rather than formalised convention was so common that it had itself turned into a topos and thus a convention. (For very useful longer interpretations of this poem see Hühn 1995 and Meller 1985: 56-74).
Classical rhetoric, which would have been well known to Sidney and his contemporary readers, recommends a series of steps for text composition. These steps are: Inventio, Dispositio, Elocutio Memoria, Actio. The last two are specifically related to the memorisation and delivery of speeches. The first three however relate to any kind of discourse. Inventio, the Latin term for ‘invention’ or ‘discovery’, suggested a series of techniques to find the night topic.
Dispositio provided techniques for organising this topic into a coherent discourse. The third step, Elocutio, was concerned with style and expression (see Plett, 1991). Thus, when Sidney’s speaker deplores his lack of invention (“wanting Invention’s stay”, i.e. help) and calls invention “Nature’s child” he does not actually wish for completely artless ideas and expression, but he alludes to an art form (rhetoric is primarily the art of oratory) which in its first step has to rely on the fertility of the artist’s muud, but which nonetheless regulates his ‘natural’ ideas. This poem thus seems to argue in favour of a combination of genuine feeling and artful expression. This is supported by the fact that the very call for heartfelt spontaneity was common enough at the time to be considered a commonplace, ie not spontaneous. Unregulated spontaneity and ingenuity was not at all considered an ideal until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The isotopy which emerges from this brief examination is the constant combination of artless and artful expression. The theme (or one theme) of the poem thus becomes rather more complex than appeared at first sight. It is a poem about the writing of poetry as much as it is a love poem (the change of focus from the adored woman to the writer himself is clearly indicated by the pronouns). It suggests that in fact the combination of genuine feeling and artful expression is the best way to write a good poem.
Prosodic Features: Sound Patterns
It has been said above that much of the effects of literary texts depend ne various partems of repetition (see Theme ch. 15) The kind of repetition that most people associate with poetry is the repetition of sunds, in particular in rhyme. Apart from thyme, there are other wound pattems in poetry which create additional meaning, such as alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeta Such sound effect always have a specific function in a poem. It is the task of analysis to explicate such functions, because they, too, are part of what the poem means, its overall and specific effects.
When two words have the same sound (phoneme) from the last stressed vowel onwards, they are considered to thyme. In a full rhyme, the consomma preceding the last stressed vowel of the two words is different night/delight, power/flower and so on.
There are a number of rhyme forms that deviate from the exact observance of the full rhyme: One talks about a rich thyme when the consonant before the last stressed vowel is also identical: lap/clap. stick/ecclesiastic. When the two rhyme words are in fact the same, it is an identical rhyme. When two rhyme words look and sound the same but have different meanings this is called a homonym. Both rich rhyme and identical rhyme have at times been considered bad form Setuies, only the consonants de only the vowel sounds are identical. In such cases one speaks of half-rhymes, slant rhymes or pararhymes.
- The Ovel and the Pussy car went to sea.
- In a beautiful poe-green boat.
Alliteration, Assonance, Onomatopoeia
A part from thyme, there are other sound patterns that are remarkable in poetry and that are often used to link words which would not otherwise be connected (see also list of thetorical devices ch. 1.6.3) These connections create meaning patterns. Three of these sound patterns shall be considered in more detail here alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeis An alliteration is the repetition of the same sound, usually a consonant, at the beginning of words or stressed syllables in close proximity. But my grandest creation, as history ill rell, Was Fire frorefiddle, the Fiend of the ell (From Eliot, Book of Practical Cat) An assonance is the repetition of the sank vowel sound in the stressed syllables of words in close proximity, while the consonants differ Rend with tremendous Sound your ears sunder, With Gun, Drum, Trumpet, Blunderbus & Thunder (From: Pope, Imitations of Horace, Ep 11.
Verse Forms and Stanza Forms
A sequence of lines within a poem are often separated into sub-units, the stanza Two aspects of stanza form are particularly relevant for the analysis of poetry First, a stanza form is always used to some purpose, it serves a specific function in each poem. There are no general rules about such functions, the student or critic analysing the poem has to decide in each ce afresh which is the function in the panicular poem he or she is dealing with. (For an example of function see the SWIST section below). Second, well-known stanza forms stand in a certain tradition. The sonnet for instance started its career in English poetry as a love poem. When John Donne starts using the sonnet for religious topics he places himself within a tradition of love poetry. The very choice of the form corunbates us the intensely personal explorations of the speaker’s relation to God in Dunne’s relinous sonnets. It is thus weful to be aware of the origin and history of a stanza form, since this enables one to judge whether a port makes use of a toadinon or writes against it. (See Saintsbury 1923 for a comprehensive and Fussell 1967 for a slightly shorter overview of the historical dimensions of certam tanta forw).
There are gre number of different stanza fom available to a poet writing in the inglish and that generally means Europeao) tradition. The main ones are given the following list Stichic verse us a continuous run of lines of the same length and the same metre. Most narrative verse is written in such continuous lines. Lyric poetry, because it is closer to song, usually uses startras As wreath of snow, a mountain-breast Slides from the rock that gave it rest, Poor Ellen glided from her stay, And at the Monarch’s feet she lay No word her choking voice commands, She show’d the ring, she clasp’d her hands O’not a moment could he brook The ponerous prince, that suppliant look!
Gently he raised her, and, the while, Check’d with a glance the circle’s smile Graceful but grave, her brow he kiss’d, And bade her terrors be dismiss’d Yes, fair, the wandering poor Fitz James The fealty of Scotland claims. To him thy woes, thy wishes bring, He will redeem his signet ring. (From Scott, The Lady of the Lake, Canto VT).
Couplet is the name for two thyming lins of verse following immediately after each other. The heroic couplet, popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries consists of two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. An octosyllabic couplet is also sometimes called a short couplet. The regular metre and the rhyme pattern of the couplet, usually with end-stopped lines. provides comparatively small units (two lines in fact) in which to make a potra Especially eighteenth-century poets used the form to create satirical contrasts within the couplet. In the following example from Pope’s Imitations of Hamace especially the lines “To prove, that Luxury could never hold, And place, on good secunty, his Gold” present a blatant contradiction between words and action in a completely harmonious (regular metre, noticeable rhyme) poete form. In consequence the reader notices the contradiction somewhat belatedly, almost as an afterthought. The effect is that of thinly disguised satire time was, a sober Englishman wou’d knock his servants up, and rise by five a clock, Instruct his Family in ev’ry rule, And send his Wife to Church, his Son to school. To worship like his Fathers was his care; To teach their frugal Virtues to his Heir, To prove, that Luxury could never hold. And place, on good Security, his Gold (From: Pope, Invitations of Horar, Ep 11) tercet, sometimes also called a triplet, is a stanes with three lines of the same theme thyming lines embracing without thyme (o) Reinsed from the noise of the batchee and Laker, Who, m friends be thanked, did seldom forsake her. Vnd from the soft dus of my landlord the Quiker.
From chiling the tootmen, and watching the lasses, From Nell thar burned milk too, and Tom that broke glasses Sad muschels through which a good housekeeper passes); From some real care, but more fancied vexation From a life parti-coloured, half reason, half passion, Here lies after all the best wench in the nation.