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 inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-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,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool!’ said my muse to me, ‘Look in thy heart and write!’
(Sir Philip Sidney, from: Astrophil and Stella)


It is immediately noticeable that this sonnet uses a large number of technical and rhetorical 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 form: The rhyme pattern separates the poem into an octet, a quartet and a couplet rhyming abababab cdcd ee indicating an English sonnet, 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 (parallelism and hypotaxis) as well as rhetorical devices such as metaphor and personification demonstrate that the writer of this poem can command the technical aspects of poetic 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 right 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 mind, 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, i.e. 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.