Form & Early English Poetry
We began our semester with examples of early English poetry that highlight the relationship between poetic form and content.
We studied the way early modern manuals instructed readers and writers of poetry to produce such poems in George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poetry (1589), pictured above. In Book Two of The Arte, "Of Proportion Poetical," Puttenham instructs would-be poets on the art of counting out “measures” and syllables within lines of poetry so that the poem will form a geometrical shape. He then goes on to explain that different shapes carry different senses. The pillar, for instance, represents perfection as well as strength and stability. As an example, Puttenham gives readers a poem about Queen Elizabeth and explains that it is appropriate for her precisely because she embodies many of the same qualities that are represented in the architecture of a pillar. He provides additional examples in other shapes; an opulent kingdom’s ruler is praised in a diamond-shaped poem, emphasizing through the widening and diminishing form the prince’s particular ruthlessness in war (thus hard, sharp, and piercing like the diamond) as well as the wealth of his realm (evoked by the gem’s value as a precious stone).
We also examined some of the most overt examples of forms that mirrored content, George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and “The Altar.”
George Herbert's poem, "Easter Wings," describes the Christian belief that Jesus Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday paved the way for sinners to rise above their sins and enter heaven to be with Christ. In "Easter Wings," Herbert conveys meaning through his syntax and diction. For example, the first stanza describes humanity's sinful nature through disconsolate diction such as "decaying" (line 3) to "our fall further the flight" (line 10). Although the second stanza begins with similar despondent diction, it concludes with the speaker "imp[ing]" his wing onto Christ's (line 19) and thus being able to advance "flight" or transcend his sin and be with Christ (line 20). The meaning of "Easter Wings" is mirrored in the literal form of the poem: the poem itself is in the shape of wings emphasizing the trajectory of the speaker from his sinful fall to rising above his transgressions on the wings of Christ. JS
Similar to his poem, "Easter Wings," Herbert's "The Altar" uses form to mirror the content or meaning of the text. In "The Altar," the speaker describes an altar comprised of his "heart" (line 2) and "cemented with tears" (line 2). Essentially, the speaker's heart or faith is the altar upon which he expresses his devotion to God. In fact, the speaker is willing to sacrifice his own heart to "sanctify" (line 16) or prove to God his devotion and faith. Like "Easter Wings," "The Altar" is in the shape of an altar, again mirroring the content of the poem and emphasizing the meaning of the text. JS
And we read and wrote about poems whose creators—John Donne, William Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell––used structure form in other ways to create distinct effects. From Shakespeare’s feminine endings to describe an ambiguously gendered young men in Sonnet 20 to Donne’s “new pleasures,” early English poets played with form and figures to great effect.
In Sonnet 65, Shakespeare mirrors meaning with form by utilizing various types of devices to convey the theme that while earthly things cannot overpower the passing of time (i.e. they will decay or die), Shakespeare’s love may still be immortalized through his sonnets.
In the first quatrain of Sonnet 65, Shakespeare s uses personification to invoke the idea that nature’s most powerful elements – brass, stone, earth, water – cannot overpower “mortality.” In this quatrain, Shakespeare personifies not only the elements “brass,” “stone,” “earth,” and the “sea” or water, but also “mortality” to convey the metaphor that humanity is powerless against the inevitable passage of time. For example, “mortality” is described as being “sad” – a human emotion. Further, Shakespeare employs the possessive pronoun “their” to describe the power that belongs to the elements – another reference to human traits as it is typically humans and not elements of nature that own or possess something. By personifying both the elements and “mortality” (later referred to as “Time”), Shakespeare leads the reader to the other literary device that he employs in this quatrain (and the rest of the sonnet), allegory or extended metaphor.
Shakespeare uses allegory in this quatrain (and later in the sonnet) by first personifying the elements of nature and then comparing such elements to “beauty.” Although it is initially unclear the who or what “beauty” Shakespeare is referring to in this quatrain, as the reader continues, he or she realizes that “beauty” is Shakespeare’s love. Further, like other objects of beauty in nature (such as a flower), Shakespeare’s beauty is powerless against the inevitable – his or her decay or demise due to the passing of time.
In quatrain 2, Shakespeare continues with his extended metaphor through the use of personification, as well as devices that use sound to convey meaning. In this quatrain, Shakespeare personifies “summer” by stating its “honey breath” cannot withstand “wreckful siege of battering days.” Again, by personifying “summer” Shakespeare is conveying the idea that his love or beauty cannot overcome mortality. Shakespeare continues this metaphor or comparison of his love to an object of nature by referring to rocks as being “impregnable” (a reference to the female form) but still not strong enough to resist “Time.” Shakespeare emphasizes this motif by also employing devices that use sound, specifically consonance (“siege” and “stout”) and onomatopoeia (“battering” and “wreckful”). Again, by using literary devices Shakespeare invokes his theme of nature’s (including his love interest) futile efforts to overpower “Time.”
Finally, Shakespeare uses synecdoche in quatrain 3, as well as the sonnet’s couplet to lead the reader to his final conclusion: “Time” may have the ability to cause the decay of even the strongest of earth’s elements but there is a “jewel” that counteracts the inevitable: the “strong hand” of the writer who uses “black ink” to immortalize his beauty. By doing so, Shakespeare again uses form to convey his final theme: writing has the power to stop time. JS