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.

header/rider (consonance same consonants but different stressed vowel sound) popper, profit, forever/weather assonance same vowel sounds, different consonants oppoute/spite, home/come (eye-thyme spelling identical but pronunciation different).

The most noticeable chyme is the rhyme at the end of a line, the end-rhyme But there are also lines within lines, so-called internal rhymes.

I’ve a head like a concertins, I’ve a tongue like a button-stick e a mouth like an old porato, and I’m more than a little sick. But I’ve had my fun o’ the Corp’ral’s Guards I’ve made the cinders fly. And I’m here in the Clink for a thundering drink and blacking the Corporal’s eye (Fraits Kipling, Barr Room Ballar).
When a word in the middle of the line (usually before a caesura) rhymes with the word at the end of the line its a leonine rhyme.
  • The Ovel and the Pussy car went to sea.
  • In a beautiful poe-green boat.
They took some honey, and plenty of money Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
From Lear, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
Rhymes can be on one syllable or on two or three syllables. Rhymes of one identical syllable are called masculine rhymes; street/meet, man/ban, galaxy/merrily Rhymes of two identical syllables are called feminine rhymes: straining/complaining, slowly/holy. Very rarely there are thymes with three identical syllables, so-called triple rhymes: icicles/bicycles. The triple thyme is often used for a humorous effect.
Her favorite science was the mathematical, Her wit (she sometimes tried at wit) was Attic all, Her noblest rule was her magnanimity. Het serious sayings darkened to sublimity; In short, in all things she was fairly what I call Her evening silk, e, in the summer, muslin, And either stuffs, with which I won’t stay puzzling (From: Byron, Don ) A prodig her morning dress was dimity.
Rhyming lines can be arranged according to different patterns. The same rhymes are marked using small letters of the alphabet.
continuous rhyme rhyming couplets

aaaa bbbb…
aa bb cc …
continuous rhyme rhyming couplets alternate rhyme.

embracing thyme chain rhyme tail rhyme
Sound patterns, especially thyme, help to divide a poem imo section. Then sections can help, for instance, to mark vanour stages of thematic developmur in a poem the movement from despair to hope, from description to moral application and so on This is notably the case in sonners, where the oster and the sester or the quatrains and the final couplet often form a contrast (see th 4.5, stanza forms).

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.

In these lines Pope also achieves an onomatopoetic effect, since the accumulations of the dark and booming u-sound combinations imitate the “tremendous Sound” of gun, drum, etc. It should be noted that onomatopoeia only ever works in conjunction with the meaning of the words used One cannot recognise onomatopoeia in a language one does not understand. This has been famously demonstrated by John Crowe Ransom who changed Tennyson’s onomatopoetic line “A murmuring of innumerable bees” into “A murdering of innumerable beeves”. Even though only two small changes have been made to the sound, the meaning of the sentence is completely changed and no onomatopoetic effect whatsoever remains (cited in Abrams 1999 199).
Sound patterns can create or emphasise links between words which would otherwise be less noticeable. Consider the following two lines from Pone’s stations of Horace Pope is trying to explain that whatever one does, one needs to practice first before one can safely be let loose onto a trusting world In these two lines he mentions two examples: A shopkeeper bas to serve an apprenticeship first and the famous (or infamous) doctor Ward first tested his medicines before he used them regularly (Ward’s medicines were reputed to have some amazing effects).
He serv’d a ‘Prenticeship, who sets up shop; Ward try’d on Puppies, and the Poor, his Drop.
The p-alliteration puts the three words ‘Prenticeship’, ‘Puppies’ and ‘Poor’ on one level, they are all things one can practice on, if one is not proficient in any skill. The alarming aspect is of course, and this represents the satirical element of these lines, that puppies and the poor are treated as though they were rather the same thing, literally a thing one can test medicine on. This effect is further strengthened by the parallel syntax. Whatever one might feel about animal testing, to talk about ‘poor-testing’ in a casual aside (a hyperbaton here), indicates a cruel disregard of human dignity which Pope criticises here.

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).

Blank verse is a non-thyming iambic pentameter, osally stiche. Under the influence of Shakespeare it became a widely und vere form for English dramatic verse, but it is also used, under the influence of Milton, for now dramatic verse And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought, With many recognitions dim and faint, And somewhat of a sad perplexity, The picture of the mind revives again, While here I stand, not only with the sense For future years. And so I dare to hope of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts That in this moment there is life and food H (From: Wordsworth, Lines Written a For Miler ale Tintern Abo).
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.

(From: Prior, Jy the Just The terza rima is a variant of the tercet famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy The terza cima uses a chain rhyme: the second line of each stanza rhymes with the first and the third line of the next stanza laba beba etc.)
The show came down last night like moths Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn.

Covered the town with simple cloths Absolute stow les rumpled on What shellbursts scattered and deranged, Entangled ratings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did nis: know they’d changed, Show smoothly clasps the roofs of homes Fear gutted, trustless and estranged (From Wilbur, First Snow in Alsace).
The quatrain is one of the most common and popular stanza forms in English poetry It is a stanza comprising four lines of verse with various rhyme patterns, When written in iambic pentameter and rhyming abab it is called heroic quatrain.

The curfew rolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea.
The plowmun homeward plods his weary way. And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (From Gray, Egg Written in a Country  Churchyard. Tennyson used a quatrain rhyming abba for his famous poem In Memoriam AHH, and the stanza form has since derived its name from this poem – the Memoriam stanza O, yet we trust that somehow good Will be the final goal of ill, To pangs of nature, sins of will, Detects of doubt, and taints of blood.
The ballad stanza is a variant of the quatrain. Most commonly, lines of ambic tetrameter alternate with iambic trimeter (also called chevy-chase stanza after one of the oldest poems written in this form). The thyme scheme is usually ah, sometimes also abab.

Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down, Twas sad as sad could be; And we did speak only to break.
The silence of the seal All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody Sun, at noon, Right up above the mast did stand. No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion, As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. (From: Coleridge, The Rime of the Ance Mariner) The rhyme royal is a seven-line stanza in ambic pentameter which rhymes ababber. It is called thyme royal because King James I of Scotland used it, though he was not the first to do so, Chaucer employed the stanza in Trails and Crigide much earlier.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown, No blade of grass, no sign of neighbourhood, Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, Yet congregated on its blankness, stood.

An unintelligible multitude, A million eyes, a million boots in line Without expression, waiting for a sign.
(From: Auden, The Shield of Achilles)
The ottava rima derives from Italian models like the terza rima and the sonnet do; it is a stanza with eight lines rhyming abababce. The most famous use of the stanza form in English poetry was made by Byron in Don Juan, who skillfully employs the stanza form for comic effect, in the following example the last line. renders the slightly pompous lovesickness of the first seven lines quite ridiculous “And oh! if e’er I should forget, I swear But that’s impossible, and cannot be – Sooner shall this blue ocean melt to air, Sooner shall earth resolve itself to sea, Than I resign thine image, Oh, my fair! Or think of anything, excepting thee; A mind diseased no remedy can physic” – (Here the ship gave a lurch, and he grew seasick).
The Spenserian stanza, smurty id by Elmont Spenser in The Fare Qweer, has mine lines rhyming in the first ght lines are lacobic pentameter, the fast line is an alexandrine, which breaks the slight monotony of the pentameters and it often employed to emphasise a point. Here is Spenser’s description of the Redcross Knight, the last line emphases the knight’s valour the feared nothing but everyone feared horm But on hus brestu bloudie Crosse he bore, The deare remembrance of his dying Lord, For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore And deal a living ever him ador’d Upon his shield the like was also scor’d, For sovecame hope, which in his helps he had Right faithfull true he was in deede and word, But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad, Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad (From Spenser, The Ferre Queene) One sonnet i line poem of (csually fourteen lines utanbic pentameter which became popular m England in the sixteenth century (see Types of Poetry ch 42 Liter souner writers sometimes vaned the number of lines: between ten sind sixteen lines, but still called the poem a sonnet (George Meredith for instance in his sonnet sequence Modern are used sixteen lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote sonnets that had ten-and-a-half lines).
ne distinguishes between two main rhyme patterns in the sonnet. The Italian of Petrarchan sonnet is divided into an octave or octet (eight lines) thyming and a sestet rhyming fade or some variation for example cald). Very often this type of sonnet develops two sides of a question or a problem and a solution, one in the octave and, after a turn often introduced by but’, ‘yet’ or a similar conjunction that indicates a change of argument, another in the sester. In the following sonnet the speaker laments his inability to serve God on account of his blindness in the octave, but in the sestet takes coumge again from the thought thar God will not expect more of him than he can do and that his best servitude is to bear lux lot in patience. Milton varies the form slightly by placing the tum (“but”) in the last line of the octave.

When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my day, in this dark world and wide, And that one talent which is death to hide Ledged walvine uscless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest be returning chide, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” I fondly ask, but patience to prevent That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best His state Is kingly Thousands at his bidding speed And post o’er land and ocean without rest They also serve who only stand and wait.” (Milton, On My Blindnes).