Form in Poetry

The New Statesman, August 7, 1920, pp 501-502

Pater’s tranquil insistence that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” cutting, as it did, a new path through the wilderness of sentimental criticism, has led, nevertheless, to some confusion of thought among those who would follow this path too far. It is a confusion that is especially marked in the conception of poetry which some modern art-critics are developing. “Matter” and “form” in poetry are often defined from false analogies with the other arts and then sharply distinguished in such a way that criticism carried to its logical conclusion becomes a mere parody of itself.

In a picture, says the critic, what does the “story” matter? Of what importance – artistically – is the photographic accuracy of its representation of nature? It is the form, and the form only, that matters, the blending of the colours and the significance of the lines. Then he turns to poetry and discusses it in the same terms. The meaning behind the words, any message that they have for the brain is treated as “matter,” while the euphonious arrangement of them, the music of stress and cadence is “form.” There are aesthetic experts who have carried this so far as to assert that the intellectual content of a poem is actually a burden which obstructs its aesthetic appeal. Hey-diddle-diddle ranks as an idyll, and we seem to hear them saying that all poetry constantly aspires towards the condition of musical nonsense.

Analogies between different forms of art are valuable in so far as they help to increase appreciation (the raison d’être of all criticism), but they are never entirely satisfactory, and, where they are falsely drawn, must do more harm than good. It is, then, worth while examining closely this question of form in poetry.

It is not in its wide distinction between matter and form that such criticism as the above misses the mark, but in its interpretation of these two words as applied to poetry. What do we mean by poetic form? What is it in poetry that is analogous to that constructing, that fashioning or combining, of material which seems to be the essential feature of the other arts? Now, a word is the final objective record for each person of the whole series of thoughts or sense-impressions received by him every time he has spoken or heard that word. Repeat it, and certain of these thoughts or sense-impressions are revived in his memory – associations are called up which, ever since he first learnt the word, have been rearranging and colouring themselves subconsciously in his memory. When two or more words are heard or read in juxtaposition, the set of associations clustering round the first word is immediately brought into touch with that different set, which grows and spreads from the second in such a way that some of their innumerable ramifications must intermingle in the mind. Moreover, each word reacts delicately upon the other, emphasising some of its associations, blurring some, and eliciting from the recesses of the subconscious mind, many which in any other context would have slept undisturbed. It is just this blending and harmonising of remembered impressions that constitutes true form in poetry, and it is here that poetry satisfies our aesthetic sense, our desire for and emotional appreciation of that form.

The marriage of epithet and noun presents the simplest illustration of this. The poet who places epithet and noun in a new and beautiful relation creates in us a new “state of memory” – a “form” which the emotions instinctively recognize as having aesthetic significance.

And I made a rural pen
And I stained the water clear…

says Blake in The Piper. What a vapid colourless word “rural” can be! “Rural scenery,” “rural neighbourhood” – the phrases have an idiotic guidebook sound about them! That is because in such chords there is too great a consonance – the harmony of them is trite and outworn. Blake, the artist, joins “rural” to the word “pen” and so strikes a beautiful discord; for the two words have only their remotest harmonics, as it were, in common – distant, bell-like reverberations of themselves, which meet and mingle undetected in the memory, till the epithet becomes a thing full of life, infinitely suggestive.

Of this particular corner of poetic form – the choice of epithet, – perhaps Milton is the absolute master:

Sometimes with secure delight,
The upland hamlets will invite…

The “pert fairies,” the “dapper elves,” or the “lubber fiend” – who can forget them? And there are a thousand other examples. Or think of Keats’ magic use of the word “rich”:

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows…


Now more than ever seems it rich to die…

This “form” or harmonious arrangement of the memory which has been exemplified in its simplest aspect is the body of each line and of the whole poem. It is the body of such a couplet as:

She ran upon the platforms of the wind
And laughed to hear the fireballs roar behind.

It is the body of a whole poem such as Mr. Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree.

I have chosen only the more startling romantic examples, but the truth is one that underlies all real poetry, and there are times when naked simplicity is of a greater formal beauty than romance. It will be clear that there is not in a poem the same wholeness of form and interdependence of the parts as there may be, say, in a picture. Detached lines and paragraphs retain their significance in isolation in a way that is not comparable with any other art. Sometimes a sonnet or very short lyric may be an almost indivisible creation – such, for instance, as Mr. De la Mare’s “Here lies a most beautiful lady” – but it remains true from the strictly aesthetic point of view that “there is no such thing as a long poem” – only a connected series of short ones.

The poet’s material, then, is memory. He fashions and rearranges it, as the sculptor fashions his marble or the musician rearrananges vibrations in the air. He expresses his individuality not so much in his choice of words as in his combination of them, in those particular associations out of all the innumerable ones that each word is father to, which, by his arrangement of them, are set vibrating most intensely in the memory. Thus Milton, who, like Virgil, was essentially a “language-poet” tends to bring out the historical, almost the philological, personality of the words he uses:

A daughter fair
So buxome, blithe, and debonair…


I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude…

while Keats picks out from their texture the more purely sensuous threads with such art that he can make a grocer’s catalogue big with romance:

While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon…

or, again,

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast…

Think how Milton would have used the word “gules”! His line would have had the ancient flavour of heraldic lore; it would have affected us like some gorgeously illuminated manuscript.

Enough has been said to show that form in poetry is not merely synonymous with its music. Then what is the position of music – that quality in poetry to which some people would confine its whole aesthetic appeal? It is a part of this form, and an indispensable part. First, the actual mechanical rhythm, poetry’s primitive foundation, is a sine qua non. There can be no poetry without it, though there may be musical or beautiful prose. Its function is to raise the mind – by almost physical means – to a certain level of appreciative excitement or exaltation. It is like the richness of colour in a picture or the timbre of the note in music. At this level, too, combinations of words or ideas which might normally appear forced and unreal are accepted without demur by the imagination; and it is the one thing which explains the toleration – for whole periods at a time – of an inflated “poetic diction” such as that which burdened the unfortunate eighteenth century in England. But music is something that transcends all this. It is a beauty fashioned by instinct out of alliteration, assonance, and all the varying cadences that arise from the delicate superimposing of the natural speech-rhythm on a regular verse-rhythm. This music is quite inseparable from what I have described as “form,” for an unmusical phrase can never even “mean” the same as a musical one. The finer and more elusive of the word-associations are not elicited and blended in the same way, so that the state of memory produced by one is different from that produced by the other. Moreover, phrases of a different music must convey a different meaning. For example, an epithet following its noun does not mean quite the same as it does in its normal position in front. Once again, Milton is the storehouse from which we can draw the best examples:

In service high and anthems clear


Meadows trim with daisies pied

or, best of all,

Teiresias and Phineus, prophets old

The difference is inexplicable and varies with each example but it is undoubtedly there.

It is possible – just possible – that this effect of the music upon the meaning is traceable to some remotely onomatopoeic reminiscence that still lingers unconscious in the language. Conscious, recognizable onomatopoeia, however, exists side by side with music; it is not a part of it.

Forlorn, the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self…

It is not only because they are onomatopoetic that these lines are musical, for music is something greater than imitation.

Nevertheless, it is true that music in poetry, inseparable as it is from form, has a certain value as well. We can say of a refrain such as “Hey nonny nonny” or “Whipsy-diddley-dandy-dee” that it is or is not musical. But even in such cases as these the music has a special value in its own context. “Hey nonny nonny,” as it stands alone, has a certain music in it and no sense. By itself it is musical nonsense; yet it requires some effort to imagine a poem composed entirely of variations on the two words “hey” and “nonny.” Put the refrain in its context, and at once its music has become a part of the music of the whole song, besides which it now expresses by its music what it is meant to express – something which is the opposite to “sounds of woe.” Similarly, on lower levels, “Whipsy-diddley-dandy-dee” has a certain air of abandon about it, which serves well enough to express the rather self-conscious “dogginess” of that uxorious young batrachian! It is useless, then, to point to some of Shakespeare’s songs as examples of musical nonsense. It is just because they are musical that they are not nonsense. Their music is their sense and has its own effect on the arrangement of the memory, dealing perhaps with the subconscious rather than the conscious associations.

These are the things that go to make up form in poetry. It might seem at first sight that, after all, it does not matter very much – that the various elements of poetry will remain the same, whatever names you find for them or however you alter their classification. It is true that the old labels or rather the old way of distributing the labels were good enough, so long as everyone clearly understood what these labels meant. But words change their meaning. They are changing them all the time as surely and imperceptibly as men are changing their skins. Art critics begin to put the word “form” into inverted commas; soon it comes to mean something slightly different; then the inverted commas are dropped, and confusion is inevitable, unless our ideas and especially the terms in which we express them are carefully readjusted. Moreover, it is through these readjustments themselves that criticism gradually approaches nearer to the truth. It can never go all the way; but definitions, generalisations, epigrams containing half-truths are all like so many searchlights playing upon an airship at night. The airship can never be seen as clearly as in the daytime; its upper half can never be seen at all. Nevertheless, the more searchlights the better, for if the latest beam falls on a spot already illuminated, then that spot is made a little brighter; if it reaches to some part hitherto unlit, then there is light upon one more facet of the unknowable; we are one step nearer to perfect appreciation.

Owen Barfield