Sunday, 30 October 2011

What is poetry, Part 2: The formal elements of poetry

It is helpful, when discussing poetry, to be armed with a certain knowledge of the formal elements of poetry. I am going to briefly discuss the key formal elements in this post, in order to provide a framework for exciting future posts on the sonnet, the ballad and free verse. The formal stuff in abstract is kind of boring, but it becomes more interesting when applied to particular poems. This post aims to give a basic guide which provides a jumping off point for looking at particular poems or poetic forms.

The building block of a lot of poetry is the number and structure of lines.  Some poetic forms have a set number of lines - for example a sonnet has fourteen lines. A line of poetry was traditionally referred to as a 'verse'. Line is easier to understand these days. A 'stanza' is a unit of lines within a poem, set out from other stanzas by a space. Often traditional poetry would have a set number of lines in a stanza.

In the last post I talked about rhyme, which is the formal element most people associate with poetry. Different poetic forms traditionally have different rhyme schemes.  A 'Shakespearian sonnet' for example rhymes abab cdcd efef gg - ie, the first and third lines rhyme, the second and fourth and so on.  The final two lines are a rhyming couplet. Normally in a traditional ballad the poem is divided into stanzas of four lines, with the second and fourth lines rhyming.

The third formal element of poetry is meter. While we can talk is a general way about the rhythm of poetry, meter means a specific rhythm. To determine the meter of a poem, each line is divided into feet composed of a number of syllables, stressed and unstressed. Feet have different names depending on the number of syllables and the stress placed on them. Often the symbol '¯' is used for stressed syllables and '˘' for unstressed. Wikipedia has more information here. One of the most common feet is the iamb - one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable:  ˘ ¯.  The meter of the poem is determine by the kind of feet used and the number of feet in a line. Iambic pentameter, for example, means there are five iambs in a line.

Other formal elements are a bit more straightforward and less technical.  Repetition, both informal and formal - ie a set pattern of repetition in a poem - is one important element frequently used in poetry. Imagery, in particular metaphor and simile, is a vital element of many poems.

So, and short example by William Blake (1757-1827)

The Sick Rose

    O Rose, thou art sick!
    The invisible worm
    That flies in the night,
    In the howling storm,

    Has found out thy bed
    Of crimson joy,
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy.

This poem does not use a strict meter - the feet vary in each line.  For example, the first line has an iamb (˘ ¯) followed by an anapest (˘ ˘ ¯). The second line has two anapests, the third an iamb and an anapest, and the fourth an anapest followed by an iamb.  Importantly, however, all the lines have two stressed syllables.  

The short two-beat line gives the poem a quick rhythm which accentuates the ominous tones in the poem's imagery.  The two short stanzas rhyming abcb defe is a simple structure reminiscent of a song or a nursery rhyme.

The rose is traditionally a symbol of love in poetry, and 'thy bed/of crimson joy' seems to refer to the sexual expression of love - bed, crimson and joy combining to create the image.  The 'invisible worm' - the destroyer of life - is a metaphor for the invisible forces which create a sense of shame about the sexual expression of love. Thus shame and love become intertwined - destroying love and life.

This poem is very simple, but the rhyme and meter, and the strong imagery really make it stick in your head. If you want to read more of Blake, start with Songs of Innocence and Experience. He was a really interesting character, and an amazing visual artist as well - I will have to do a full post on him one day.


  1. Than you very much. I´m studying literature and it`s really difficult for me to analyze, even to remember this kind of things when I have to work on a poem. I found your essay very interesting and helpful. I love it.

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