We have said that the poet ‘teaches’ and ‘delights’ by stirring the reader to an unusual pitch of excitement and by making all the discordant elements of his mind and body move together in perfect harmony. But what is the poet’s secret, that he, with only the materials of the daily round of existence which we all share, can render back to us a heightened sense of the significance of our own lives together with a more serene detachment ? The answer is—
we do not know. We know simply that the poet probably does respond to what is going on about him more finely, more deeply, and with more variety than most of us do ; we know further, that together with a delicate emotional nature, the poet has a power to organize and arrange his thoughts and to fit them into ordered words ; we suspect that this instinct for form not only helps the poet relieve his inner tension, but also actually enhances his original experience. Which moment was more precious to Wordsworth—when the host of golden daffodils burst upon him as he walked beside the lake, or when, long afterwards, the vision became the material for poetry, and flashed “upon the inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude” ?
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.
The daffodils in the poem are singled out ; irrelevancies have disappeared. The meaning of the experience is felt and has achieved permanency through form, not only in the mind of Wordsworth, but in the minds of all who read the poem. The freshness, the surprise of daffodils in early spring is caught forever, while the memory of the actual walk died when Wordsworth died. “The emotion of art is impersonal”, says T. S. Eliot. It has its life in the poem itself, not in the personal biography of the poet. The only word we have to explain this transformation of personal feeling into the complete and perfect poem is “form”.
What we mean by the word can best be discovered by a further consideration of the elements of form, rhythm and meter, rhyme, and images. But we must always remember that there are no definite and fixed laws to help us. “In English, by the grace of God and the Muses, the poetry makes the rules, not the rules the poetry”, says Saintsbury. Repeated and sympathetic reading of a poem leads one to tentative observations as to how it is organized, and curiously enough these observations as to the form of a poem usually bring one to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of its meaning. For form and meaning are inextricably bound together : in a sense, the one is the other.
Let us select Milton’s poem On Time for such a reading, and let us approach it pencil in hand prepared to mark and underline it in any way we please. But first let us read and re-read it, until a general sense of its meaning has been borne in upon us, and we feel fairly satisfied with our way of rendering it aloud.
Fly, envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace :
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more than what is false and vain,
And merely mortal dross ;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing had thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long, Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an Individual kiss ;
And Joy shall overtake us and a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grossness quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee, O Time.
After one has enjoyed to the full saying aloud these resounding lines, while they are still echoing in one’s mind, one begins to realize that Milton is dealing with a problem which has always fascinated poets and scientists alike, the problem of time. He is, in this poem, placing Time in its relation to eternity and doing it so effectively that, though the lines are for the most part of a regular alternating heavy and light stress throughout, the pitch and intensity with which one reads them change from a nervous, almost irritable, impatience while one is still concerned with Time, to a serene calm when one mounts with the poet to Eternity itself, there at last to triumph over Death and Chance and Time. The metrical scheme of the lines is stretched and enlarged by the rhythmic urge which animates the whole.
Notice that though the two lines,.
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race
Attired with Stars, we shall for ever sit
have each ten syllables and five stresses, we read them with a more solemn tone and a more deliberated emphasis because of our sense of the slowly emerging meaning of the poem. The meter is fairly regular, except for the three-stress lines which do not really break the meter, for one fills out these lines with pauses. The rhythm, however, is varied and shifted by the sense of the poem, which every reader will respond to with slightly different stress, for the thought itself may be said to have a sort of rhythmic urge, quite apart from the metrical scheme of the lines. It is, in fact, this never-ending conflict between the meter of the line and the rhythm of the whole which gives to this poem, and to all poems, poetic intensity.
But there are other ways in which Milton “organizes” the poem, besides his use of meter and rhythm. Let us read the Poem again. Beginning with impatience earth-bound, confused, we finally are wafted into remote and shining regions where everything
is sincerely good
And perfectly divine
dividing the poem directly in two parts of ten lines each comes the “individual kiss” of long Eternity, which frees us from our bonds. Notice that the rhime scheme which Milton uses varies as the emotion mounts. Though the poem sweeps us along in one unbroken sentence with no complete stop until Time is finally vanquished, we might, if we like, consider the first two sets of four lines as two units each marked by its own rhime scheme. Milton’s rhiming in this poem follows no established rules at all ; its effectiveness makes us realize his power to create form for his own purposes. The second four-line unit gains a kind of high and proud defiance by urging the reader through the two short intervening lines in order to bear down on the word ‘gain’, answering with such firmness in vain. These two units are then followed by five sets of rhiming couplets which whirl us up to the “Supreme Throne”, and there with the support of our final unit of our lines, linked as our second unit was linked, we find ourselves m a freer, milder atmosphere where Time cannot endure. Again the form fills out the meaning and the meaning gives the form significance, and that is the purpose of Time—to make more secure, more firm, more concentrated, the intricately bound thought, which is always attempting to free itself.
Besides Milton’s suitable use of rhythm, meter, rhime, he makes a demand upon our power of seeing, which is another demand of form. One cannot see Time, Eternity, Joy, Truth, Peace, Love, Death, and Chance, and yet in this soaring poem, as in the music of Bach, as in the paintings of El Creco, something visual accompanies our enjoyment of the mounting thought. Perhaps the fact that Time is addressed directly—”run out thy race”, “glut thy self with what thy womb devours”—gives us a sense of large and shrouded figures of an allegorical sort on a canvass varying from stormy dark to shining images are never more than approximately akin to those in the mind of the poet. The important thing is that calling upon our power to summon up the actual colour and shape of the figures involved we thereby are made to feel more completely the final serenity, when “our heavenly-guided soul” shall sit “attir’d with Stars,” truimphant over Death and Chance and Time. Though the images are intentionally shrouded in this poem, the words themselves have a clarity and precision which cancel the vagueness of the images. One loves to pronounce the words, especially the vowels, as distinctly as possible, each one presenting itself as peculiarly perfect. We do not merely imagine that the very sounds of the words, fit themselves to the nervous impatience of “Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,” with array of sharp vowels, and that the l’s of the next line are actually heavy. There is a fullness and roundness to the line, “And Joy shall overtake us as a flood” ; there is a special pleasure in hearing the last phrase of the poem, “and thee O Time,” chime with the first. The poet’s power to fit the very sounds of words to the mood of the poem is an aspect of the poet’s sense of organic form, which can never be precisely defined because it varies in every poem.
It is form which gives a poem “life,” quite apart from the actual daily life to the poet. Who knows—and indeed does it matter ?—what personal reasons moved Milton with such truly divine words to express for us our mortal defect in terms of Time, our immortal triumph in terms of Eternity? The poem is “impersonal”; it has what is called form. And now let us examine in more detail each of the four aspects of form touched on here—rhythm and meter, time and images––remembering that it is not a mechanical sort of form, dependent on rules, which interests us, but form which grows out of the thought itself, or, as Coleridge would say, “organic form”.
John Livingston Lowes, in an interesting lecture on Shelley’s poetic methods, based on a series of Shelley’s revisions of a single poem, pointed out that the poet in his first sketch for his poem marked out the time with dashes, and only filled in with an occasional word. More words took their place among the dashes as the rhythm became established in his mind and he felt his way towards an articulate expression :
O world ! O life ! O time !
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before ;
When will return the glory of your prime ?
No more—Oh, never more !
Notice the heavy drag of the first two lines ; the balance and poise of the third, which in the next line is gathered together in one despairing question–– “When will return the glory of your prime?”––to sink away at last into utter dejection. The strong rhythm feeling of Shelley’s mood came to him before words were found to give it expression. It is to rhythmic felling, then, that we must ourselves first respond ; the poem will yield its meaning gradually as we surrender ourselves to its emotion.
The physiological fact that we arc ourselves creatures of rhythm is the reason we are able to share in the rhythmic expression, and thence in thought and feeling, of the poets of all ages. Our breathing, our walking, the tempo with which we type a letter, is rhythmic, sloe or rapid, regular or disjointed, according to the mood which we are thus unconsciously expressing in every gesture. Rhythm, then, under-lies all life ; it is not confined to art alone, and it may be defined as that in us which responds to recurrent time intervals. As in music and dancing, so in poetry, time is the chief factor. It was in terms of time that Shelley found expression for his melancholy mood, it is in terms of time that we come to share his mood.
Not only is there a definite rhythm to each line to which one responds as completely as one can ; there is also a rhythm to the whole and this is indicated, by the stanzas, by refrains, by words repeated, by the thought enlarged and finally brought to a close. ‘The second stanza—and there are but two—of this poem reflects back upon the first stanza when we re-read the whole and subtly influences our way of modulating our voices. And for this reason one must read the poem again, that the whole may play upon each part backwards and forwards.
Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight ;
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar,
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more––Oh, nevermore !
The resignation, the exhaustion, of the second stanza, make the line. “No more—Oh, never more !” sound on our ears more sadly than the same line at the end of the first stanza. One reads it the first time with less finality, with something of an upward urge ; one reads it the second time with the quiet, even tone of despair.
To D. H. Lawrence “the hidden emotional pattern” of poetry, the rhythm shaped by the feeling of the poet, was more important than meter
I think more of a bird with broad wings flying and lapsing through the air, than anything, when I think of meter……It all depends on the pause—the natural pause, the naturnal lingering of the voice according to the feeling—it is the hidden emotional pattern that makes poetry, not the opvious form.
and this “hidden emotional pattern” is the pattern of rhythm.
Metrical pattern, however, seems to be essential to transport us to the level of consciousness experienced by the poet himself, to enable us to share the thoughts and emotions which are beyond our ordinary range. Rhythm marks prose as well as poetry, meter or regularity of time parts within a line, is the distinguishing sign of poetry. One has only to repeat with exaggerated emphasis Lawrence’s sentence above to observe that it has very beautiful rhythm. But it is equally clear that it has no regular pattern of sound. For the sake of the contrast, repeat Shelley’s stanza. The time-pattern is very regular ; each stanza is made up of two three-stress lines, and ending with a three-stress line. Perhaps irregular rhythmic patterns, such as those used by D. H. Lawrence himself, and many other writers of free verse, will finally displace the more regular material organization of traditional verse. But it is not probable, since the physiological fact remains that in moments of excitement our speech, gestures and steps fall into a more definitely marked rhythm, and poetry is the language of strong feeling. Though we enjoy free verse very much, our enjoyment is essentially that of our pleasure in rhythmic prose.
But to say that meter is essential to poetry is not to say that the poet is bound by an unalterable metric pattern. Though the beat of Shelley’s poem is strong and firm, it only approximates and exact rhythm which we feel subconsciously should be there ; though the meter seems clearly defined for a line or two, it is swiftly shifted only to regain again its original pattern. For the principle behind all art, which is always a struggle between inner spontanity and other control, is that the rigidity of the scheme be constantly modified by the life which flows through it. After two lines of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, Shelley, for instance, reverses his pattern and writes,
Trembling at that where I had stood before
When will return the glory of your prime
No more—Oh, never more.
The first foot in each of these lines begins with a stressed syllable, perhaps to make us feel the physical strain of the weary climb. In spite of this irregularity of meter, we stay close enough to the established pattern to feel the variation only as a deeply satisfying conflict between the urge of the emotion and the control of the form. And it is in this conflict, shifting and changing with every line, that the pleasure of reading poetry aloud is found. Should one read “O world ! O life ! O time !” with a mounting emphasis, or should one almost ignore the stress on “whose” in the next line, and place a borrowed emphasis on “last”, which actually does not carry the stress? How long should one pause at the end of lines one and two and at the beginning of line five ? For a whole beat, silently felt ? The answer depends on the reader’s age, his temperament, his mood at the moment, for he with the poet, is the “creator”, by means of his rhythmic expressiveness of the poem which emerges.
It is clear, then, that though we mark all the stresses of a line in the same way, no two stresses are precisely alike. We shall, how-ever, use the word “foot” in our discussion of various familar meters to indicate a certain number of syllables in a unit, for one’s perception of the basic rhythm of the poem is enlarged by training one’s ear to heat more accurately the different patterns used by English poets. They are :
Iambus : One unstressed and one stressed syllable
Impe/rious Cae/sar dead/and turned/to clay.
Trechee : One stressed and one unstressed syllable
Creep in/to thy/narrow/bed.
Spondee : Two stressed syllables
The gray sea/and the long/black land.
Anapest : Two unstressed and one stressed syllable
I am lord/of the fowl/and the brute.
Dactyl : One stressed and two unstressed syllables
Swiftly walk/over the/Western wave.
The first three kinds of feet are sometimes called “duple” rhythm, each beat representing two counts. This is the rhythm of walking. The last two kinds of feet are often called “triple” rhythm, and may be compared to waltzing. Very little experience in reading poetry teaches one that poetry is not a matter of syllable counting. But a certain amount of syllable counting actually seems to make one’s ear more sensitive to the organic rhythm underloying the whole.
English verse was strongly marked by meter long before rhime was considered a necessary adornment of poetry. Though here has not been a revival of the alliterative verse of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry since the fourteenth century, blank verse which came into vogue with the great Elizabethan dramas, is still the favourite meter for full-bodied, and dignified poetry. Perhaps the essential reason for the hold of this five-stress iambic line is simply that it does not fall apart into two equal halves, as the four-and the six-stress lines are always in danger of doing. For instance, observe the four-stress line :
Bind up, bind up, your yellow hair
And tie it on your neck
And see you look as maiden-like
As the day that we first met.
And now consider the six-stress line :
Then labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar ; O rest ye, brother Mariners, we will not wander more.
Nor has the five-stress iambic line the song-like quality of the three-stress line,
Hail to thee, blithe spirit !
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart.
But probably the real glory of blank verse is that, though the iambic beat of the ten-syllable line is maintained, the pressure of the thought is felt filling out the lines with its own strength, disregarding rhime, letting the pauses fall where they will, often, indeed, shifting the meter from iambic to trochee or to spondee. Othello’s greeting to Desdemona when she joins him in Cyprus illustrates the variety, the plasticity, the strength of blank verse.
It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy !
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken’d death !
And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven ! If it were now to die,
’T were now to be most happy ; for, I fear,
My soul bath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
The heavens forbid………
One observes, in the first place, that one pauses only for the fraction of a second at the end of the first line, that the real pause comes in the middle of the second. But notice, too, that Shakespeare does not let us stray too far from the rhythmic effect of the pause at the end of a line. For the next three lines the pause and the line end together and then we mount again, and with
……the labouring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven !
Then a long pause, the longest in the speech, for here the whole mood shifts, and Othello begins again in quite a different key, as though he were conversing with himself :
If it were now to die,
’T were now to be most happy ; for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
And Desdemona quickly takes him up, filling out the line with,
The heavens forbid.
One observes, in the second place, that Shakespeare does not maintain the regularity of his stressed and unstressed syllables for long, but gives us a sense of the variety of rhythmic conversation by a quick change of pattern :
It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy !
By disregarding the stress entirely at times, or else by letting it fall lightly, the poet keeps us from feeling the artificiality of meter :
May the winds blow till they have waken’d death.
Neither the nor they are strong enough to bear the stress nor are they required to do so, for the essential time beat is maintained by the rhythm of the whole passage.
The language of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, and many others found scope in the freest and yet the most sustained of English meters. The greatness of the Elizabethan drama ests in part on the fact that the dramatists discovered the strength and range of blank verse by matching impassioned language to the meter of poetry, and by lending to poetry the naturaliness of prose.
The greater part of English verse since the time of Chaucer has been rhymed—that is to say, the stressed vowels and the following consonants are alike at the end of two or more lines of verse. Rhymes are frequently arranged in pairs or couplets (aa, bb, cc, dd, and so forth), or else alternately (abab). There may be variations and combinations of these two principles. Such as, ababab ; ababcc ; aabcbc : abababcc ; and so forth. In quatrains, alternate lines are sometimes left unrhymed, thus : xaya. Let us now consider why it is that one’s ears are pleased by rhyme, which is, after all, not essential to poetry, as rhythm and meter are.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the iambic pentameter line of blank verse was written in rhythmical couplets and was called “heroic” verse, though it sounds much less heroic to our earss than blank verse. Sir John Denham, standing on Cooper’s Hill in. 1642, looked down on the swiftly-flowing, but self-contained Thames and thought of the river as a perfect example of how noble verse might be made to flow :
O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme !
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle yet not dull
Strong without rage, without O’er-flowing full.
One notices at once that the pauses coincide with the ends of the line, though in each line there is also a definitely marked pause in the middle, one observes that the stresses fall on the important word and that there is only a slight disparity between the rhythmic emphasis which the reader is moved to place upon the lines and the metrical stresses of the lines. And this is one of the chief reasons for rhyme, that it marks clearly the metric pattern. The conflict between rhythm and meter is almost resolved in the heroic couplet ; the result is that one does not feel any very strong emotion and is quite willing to agree that now “sense” and “reason” are in control. Rhymed couplets are easier to write than blank verse, for the rhymes themselves are pleasantly distracting and the reader demands century, and many others after him, did indeed and a fresh intellectual quality and a sharp satiric turn, which, as Dryden said, “tickles even while it hurt”. Of George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham, he wrote :
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong
Was everything by starts and nothing long.
Moreover, Dryden was able to use the same meter to express his mood of lonely doubt, as well as his bursts of personal venom :
Dim, as the borrowed beams of moon and stars
To lonely weary wandering travellers
Is Reason to the soul………
Though heroic verse stays more serenely within the limits of the line, the conflict between meter and rhythm remains, as it does in all poetry. But in this verse, in contrast to blank verse, the line structure is reinforced by the rhyme, and the effect is that the grip of the pattern is tightened.
Ryme is not only used to make blank verse walk in more orderly heroic couplets, but it is also used to organise groups of lines into stanzas, from the simplest ballad form, really intended to be sung,
In somer when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full merry in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song,
to the complicated rhyme royal, Spenserian stanza, ode, sonnet and other patterns. All of these verse forms are different devices to achieve the same end—to reinforce the rhythm of the verse and hence to make more inevitable our understanding of the poem. Though various pattern have names, the truth is that each poet does what he pleases with the inherited form. Since each poet responds to experience in his own way, the conflict he makes us feel between rhythm and matter is in every case essentially unique. Rhyme is simply another way of tightening the organization of the poem against which the larger rhythm struggles. Listen to the use Wordsworth makes of rhyme, for instance, in his Intimations of Immortality :
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
How one holds to the rhyme in this free and drifting rhythm, and how skillfully and quickly Wordsworth shifts his rhyme schemes :
The rainbow comes and goes
And lovely is the rose ;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare :
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair……
The conflict between the larger rhythm and the meter is felt more strongly in rhymed stanzas than in heroic couplets because the thought in rhymed stanzas tends to be more discursive. But this is only a tendency ; the real poet, by the very strength of his feeling, bends any form to his use and makes the reader feel, in the very midst of the conflict between spontaneity and control, the power of poetry.
4. Images and Words
We have said that organic form is the essence of poetry ; that because of our common human response to rhythm, made stronger by meter and rhyme, the poet and the reader of poetry are able to share experience. What we wish to seize from this sharing of experience is a kind of truth, the poet’s truth, and this, after all, is said to us in words, not in rhythm.
Because of the heightened emotional state of the poet, his words are never entirely abstract ; because of our heightened emotional state when we read the poem, we are able to understand the abstract truth behind the concrete pictures the poet gives us. For the poet’s language is the language of imagery, and his images, perfect and satisfying as they are, always represent truth, no matter how simple,. no matter how difficult to translate again into abstract words. It is for the sake of this truth, which Keats says in the same as beauty, that we are eager to enter completely into the thought of a poem.
Though the language of poetry is images, the vocabulary of poetry is the vocabulary we hear around us. Wordsworth settled the question nearly a hundred and fifty years ago when he issued a blast against “poetic” words in his famous Preface, and declared that he was going to use “a selection of language really used by men”. At the same time Wordsworth hoped to cast over his words “a certain colouring of imagination whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way”. By the strength of the feeling of the poet, ordinary words are made to sing themselves into our hearts and to speak their meaning. Masefield, in Cargoes, gives us two stanzas of “poetic” language. and then, in the third, makes use of “the language really used by men”, over which “a certain colouring of imagination” has been cast.
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant
Ophir Rowing home to heaven in sunny Palestine.
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks.
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coining from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
Though the vocabulary of the third stanza may be said to be less “poetic” than that of the first two, the sounds of the last stanza are actually just as beautiful. By the sharp contrast of the images, Masefield makes us understand the romantic feeling with which he observes British ships in the Channel on a windy March day.
Presenting to us familiar images in our own daily language, the poet is able by the way in which he groups and associates his words and images to cast “a certain colouring of the imagination” over ordinary things and thus to express truth for us. For we emerge with a sense of having understood what before we missed, of having extended the realms of our awareness. As John Livingston Eowes puts it, “Poetry starts from the actual and ends in the true”.
Keats tells us in one of his letters, that he spent a morning in a somewhat moody state of mind, listening to the song of a nightingale in a nearby tree. A simple prose statement of how he sat in the garden listening to the bird does not tell us what really happened in this transition from “the actual” to “true”. It can be said only in poetry ; it can be said only by images :
My heartaches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.
And we, with Keats, sink Lethe-wards, release our hold on the world about us, and let the song of a bird lead us to a comprehension of—what ? Let us listen first, and let each image form itself in our minds:
T’s not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,
That thou, light-winged Drayd of the trees.
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
The bird, invisible, is a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. The very metaphor, together with the reference to hemlock and to Lethe, reminds us that birds were singing as freshly many centuries ago as they are now. Their unchanging music helps us to leave the present world unseen, and to “fade away into the forest dim
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other grown.
“Though the dull brain perplexes and retards,” the song of the invisible bird is enough to realise, us, to let him “fly to thee” “on the viewless wings of poesy”. For now the garden in which Keats is seated has become remote :
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs.
But in “emblamed darkness”, a darkness made sweet by “the grass; the thicket and the fruit-tree wild”, does Keats, in his mood of restlessness, let the sound of the bird’s song lead him further and further away from the “actual,” nearer and nearer to the “true, the true, which, in this poem, is an apprehension of the meaning of the death of the individual :
Darkling I listen ; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful death…
Now more than ever seems it rich to die
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
And the immortality of beauty itself :
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird !
No hungry generations tread thee down ;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown :
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the said heart of Ruth, when, sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn :
The same that of times hath
Charm’d magic easements, opening on the foam
Of perilious seas, in faery lands forlorn.
The song of the bird, and all the associations which cluster around the song in Keats’s mind, have led him in terms of imagery to a comprehension of the relation between our transitory selves and all the imperishable beauty of the world, a comprehension which we share as we ourselves, led by Keats a he was led by the bird, enter the “forest dim” of our own minds and emerge again into the actual world, depeened and hormonized :
Fled is that music :––do I wake or sleep ?
Just as we can never hope to recapture the exact rhythmic stress which Keats read over his poem, so we can never see the same images. Our images of the flowers in the garden, “fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves,” and of Ruth
……when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amind the alien corn.
are different from the images in Keats’s mind. No matter. The point is that we too create the images as vividly, as wholly, as we can, with as rich association as we are able to evoke—and that the images do give up their meanings to us. For images are the language with which the poet expresses the truths of the heart ; all that the poet has enjoyed and suffered, all that he has observed, will be fused and stilled again by this “image-making faculty,” which Sir Phillip Sidney says in the very mark of the poet.
Why this should be so we do not know. We do know, however, that after moments of excitement, when our minds and emotion seem to be deeply involved, we are apt to call up again isolated images stored in our imaginations—the gesture of a hand, the quality of a voice—which forever symbolize for us the whole experience. The poet, finer in his responses, richer in his power of association, must be able by means of these symbols to fuse the experience for us into one perfect unity, making us feel the abstract in the concrete and the concrete in the abstract, and thus to give meaning to our otherwise not quite realised lives. Coleridge’s description of “the streamy nature of association which thinking curbs and rudders,” helps us to understand the mental process of the poet searching for expression, in which images are integral parts, not superimposed ornaments with which the poet adorns his poem. How better, except by associating the song of an invisible bird to undying music, could Keats have told us that, though we die, beauty is never vanquished ? Evoking image of familiar sights and sounds, the poet makes us feel their Import by suggesting the shadowed truth which they express. Using words that are thoroughly familiar to us, he so orders them that they reverberate in our minds and suggest more than words can ever say explicitly.
Poetry, then, does not make us experience directly the feeling of love, or hate, or, hunger, or humiliation, or relief : by a process only partially understood, the poet takes these emotions known to us all, and bodies them forth in ordered words. By responding us fully as we can to the demands made upon us by poetry to hear it, and see it, and share in its mood, we ourselves learn indirectly the meaning of these basic emotions. Like the poet, we feel a new inner harmony which makes us at once more detached from the world about us and more completely as a part of it. The terms of poetry which we have been discussing here—rhythm, meter, rhyme, and images—are only words which we use to describe an experience of concentrated intensity, the exact nature of which we do not understand. True form is a part of the very life of the poem itself. As Coleridge wrote in his essay on “Shakespeare, a poet Generally” : “The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material ;—as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate ; it shapes, as it develops itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. Nature, the prime genial artist, inexhaustible in diverse powers, is equally inexhaustible in forms ;—each exterior is the physiognomy of the being within—its true image reflected and thrown out from the concave mirror.” (Adapted)
Simile and Metaphor :
These two devices, by which we compare certain objects, feelings and attitudes with others, help to compensate for the inadequacies of language. They enable us to bring together various segments of our experience—either real or imagined—in the communication of other experiences. Poets are constantly dealing with the endless variety of experiences, thoughts, sensations, and emotions that constitute living. Aristotle said : “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others ; and it is also a sign of genius.” Through comparisons, poets are able not only to communicate the most complex materials, but to communicate them more effectively and more meaningfully to the reader.
Comparisons in poetry fall into two main classifications : Similes and metaphors. A simile, according to the dictionary definition, is “a figure of speech b which one thing, action, or relation is likened or explicitly conepared, often with as or like, to something of different kind or quality.”
A metaphor is defined in the dictionary as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally devoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another by way of suggesting a likeness or analogy between them (the ship plows the sea, a valley of oaths)”. A metaphor, then, as distinct from a simile, is an implied comparison : in the dictionary examples, the motion of the ship through the water is, by implication, compared with the motion of a plow through the soil ; the oaths, by implication, are compared with bullets or arrows or other missiles.
The poet, in order to make an effective use of simile, has to look for an element of similarity in dissimilar things. This similarity, to be an effective one, must be real, credible and meaningful. We cannot call a lipstick as like a cannon because both are cylindrically shaped, for it is not meaningful. In Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress,
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
what is the similarity between dew and a youthful hue ? is the mistress’ face constantly wet ? Or does she have what advertising copywriters today call “dewy freshness” ? Is the simile built on the fact that both dew and a youthful hue are bright, sparkling and fresh ? The context in which the lines are found shows that Marvell means to emphasize the transient quality of youth and hence compares it with dew, which is also transient. Henry Vaughan uses a simile to communicate his vision and understanding of eternity in these lines from The World.
I saw eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm as it was bright.
Similes bring together widely disparate units of experience to result in valuable and meaningful comments on life, on love and on death. These similes impose a certain order on human experience.
Metaphors are equally important in producing images and in making the abstract concrete. In Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening,
In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away
the abstract concept of life is here made concrete : through the metaphor, it is seen specifically as the contents of a leaky vessel.
Metaphors, too, make their contribution to the process of finding order in life, in the world, in the universe. The difference between similes and metaphors-a stated comparison and an implied comparison of unlike objects—results in a difference of effect. The comparison expressed through a simile keeps the reader aware of the two elements being compared : in the simile from Donne’s A Valediction Forbiading Mourning. We are aware both of the compass and of the lovers’ souls, which are two and yet one. In a metaphor, however, because the fusion of the two elements is so complete, we ‘usually remain far more aware of one of the elements than of the other. In the lines from Auden’s poem, our attention is centred on life; it is not equally shared with a leaky vessel. Actually, the metaphor results in our seeing life with the characteristics of the contents of a leaky vessel made intrinsic to it.
Irony relies on the difference between what happens and what is expected to happen, between what is said and what is intended. The ironist exercises his intellect in exploring the reality with which he is concerned, and his major concern is distinguishing between appearance and reality–between what is and what seems to be. As the ironist sees one thing in terms of another, usually its opposite, irony touches the realm of the metaphorical. Skillfully used, irony holds in suspense two levels of meaning—one, the level of meaning explicitly stated ; the other, its opposite, of which the reader is aware precisely because the explicit statement is ironic. And the two levels of meaning are communicated with some degree of simultanity as soon as the ironic statement is recognized for what it is, its opposite becomes part of the total complex of meaning.
The poet may use a pun as Shakespeare does to achieve the effect of irony. Hamlet says
I am too much i ‘th’ sun.
meaning that too much attention is being shed on him—and false attention, at that—but also ironically objecting to his hated step-father, Claudius, who had addressed him a few lines earlier as “my son”. Understatement is frequently used to achieve the ironic effect as in Milton’s Paradise Lost :
Not unamazed she (Eve) thus in answer spake,
Eve, is so amazed at hearing the serpent speak and at what he says that she is well on the way toward acting on the advice of the serpent; her act results in the loss of Paradise. Conversely, over-statement is frequently used to achieve irony. Irony can be made effective by speech, gesture, intonation or facial expression.
A paradox is a statement seemingly self-contractory or opposed to what is commonly held to be true but which neverthless contains a truth. When we say that man is born to die, we are stating a paradox because we normally believe that man is born to live––and we hope, to live for a long time. Yet since death comes to every man, man is born to die. A paradox is normally in the nature of a startling statement. The sudden juxtaposition of truth and error gains added attention for the statement : the alert reader is stimulated to realize meaning on at least two levels almost simultaneously.
Paradox can be used for humorous effects, for irony, for the communication of complex experiences. Consider a few lines from this Shakespearean sonnet :
In me thou see st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie.
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
The whole concept of the fire here is paradoxical : it lies on the ashes of his youth, yet ashes belong not to the youth but to old age. Yet as a fire burns, it becomes ashes : what was a short time before a “young” fire rapidly becomes a dying fire, a bed of ashes. Its bed, the very core of the fire, becomes its death-bed whereon it must expire. The fire, is killed, eaten tip, consum’d by the very good that nourish’d it : the wood fed the fire but also burned it out. The sonnet refers to the protagonist’s growing age : death is coming closer.
A Symbol is anything which stands for, or represents, or suggests something else. Our country’s flag symbolizes everything that our country means to us. In poetry, rose stands for beauty, winter for old age, spring for youth, road for life, sea for death. However, these symbols are not limited in their use. Sea can stand for life as well. If there is symbolism in the poem, it will work in harmony with all the other elements in the poem and it will enrich the meaning and total effect.
When a statement can be understood in more than one ways, it is considered as ambiguous. Ambiguity in poetry can achieve depth of meaning provided it is controlled and intentional.
Tone helps to express certain attitudes. As a poem is an utterance addressed to some audience, the problem of attitude of the protagonist of the poem is important. The poet might be talking to himself as in a lyric or a meditative poem.