Alden’s Structure-Form Distinction

11 07 2017

I’ve recently engaged in a project to more systematically investigate whether or not the poetic turn–and, along with it, the structure-form distinction–makes appearances in introductions to poetry and handbooks for poem-making, especially books supposedly focused on poetic forms. I’ve been making what I think are some fascinating discoveries. Chief among them is that the structure-form distinction indeed does exist in a number of the kinds of books I’m exploring. Whether or not there are patterns to these occurrences remains to be seen. For now, it is important to note them, to gather the dots before (possibly) connecting them.

My most recent search has turned up a book that very clearly employs the structure-form distinction: Raymond Macdonald Alden‘s An Introduction to Poetry: For Students of English Literature (Henry Holt and Company, 1909). The book’s table of contents largely reveals that the distinction will be in play. It indicates that the book largely is a book about poetic forms. Of its six chapters, four focus on what are traditionally conceived of as formal issues: “Chapter II: The Classes or Kinds [of poetry” (ix); “Chapter IV: The Basis of Poetry (External),” which focuses on rhythm (xii); “Chapter V: English Metres” (xiii); and “Chapter VI: Rime and Stanza Forms” (xiv). However, it also is clear that something else, another factor will be at play: Chapter III is called “The Basis of Poetry (Internal)” (xi).

This initial indication is borne out in the book. Consider the book’s discussion of lyric (55-73). As a part of this discussion, “Structure of the lyric” (57) is differentiated from “Form of the lyric” (58). Form, as expected, is concerned with lyric’s “musical” aspects (58). However, structure is something different: “Its [lyric’s] structure may be said to depend in part upon its relation to the outer and the inner worlds” (58). While some song-like poems reflect the outer world and other, more “reflective” lyrics convey primarily the inner, “More familiar is the lyric which takes its beginning at a point in the outer world, but passes to the invisible world of emotional reflection; of this type a great example is Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, which takes its point of departure at the visible object, and passes to profoundly emotional reflection on the immortality of the spirit of beauty” (58). It seems here that Alden is acknowledging the presence and the importance of the turn.

This certainly seems to be the case when he discusses the sonnet in particular:

The sonnet…while a favorite form with many of our greatest poets, is rarely used for other than distinctly conscious and formal expression; at its best, too, it expresses a definite intellectual conception fused with a single emotion. Its two-part structure (in the case of the Italian form) makes it peculiarly fitted for that lyrical movement described on a previous page [58, as noted above], where the impulse takes its rise in the outer world and passes to a point in the inner. (70)

The discussion of the sonnet in Chapter VI (“Rime and Stanza Forms”) also includes a subsection on the sonnet’s “[b]ipartite character” (326): “In the stricter type of the sonnet there is a marked rhetorical pause at the end of the octave, the division representing a twofold expression of a single thought which forms the unifying basis of the form” (326). For Alden,

…those sonnets may well be regarded as the most successful whose form bodies forth the real character of their content. From this standpoint, the Italian type is especially well fitted for the expression of a thought presented first in narrative form, then in more abstract comment (as Arnold’s East London); or, in the form of a simile between two objects or situations (as Longfellow’s first sonnet on the Divina Commedia); or, from the standpoint of two different moods (as Rossetti’s Lovesight); or exemplified in two coordinate concrete expressions (as in Keats’s Grasshopper and Cricket). (327)

Alden then compares and contrasts the Italian and the English forms and structures: “The resulting effect is different in two respects: first, the rime arrangement is more obvious, and more popular in tone, being more readily followed by the ear; second, the structure is more directly progressive, the rime scheme being developed climactically and closing with epigrammatic, summarizing couplet” (328).

Oddly, when he summarizes the “[s]ources of sonnet effects,” Alden essentially drops the sonnet’s structure, stating, “The success and pleasurableness of the sonnet form seem to be dependent upon two elements: the complexity of the rhyme scheme (this applying only to the Italian type), and the fixed length of the whole poem” (330). Alden does, however, note when discussing the sonnet’s relatively brief length that “[i]t is precisely the contrast which it [the sonnet’s relatively small size] presents with the limitless liberty of romantic art, as exhibited in abundant variety of metrical, stanzaic, and rhetorical structure, which gives the restraint of the sonnet its chief charm” (330, my emphasis). Though this seems far too little: the inner structure, it had seemed, contributed greatly to the sonnet’s charm.

If somewhat regrettable, this situation is not unique: many of those who acknowledge the importance of poetic structure and the turn often struggle to articulate their significance. This is the case with Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry, as well as Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form. Also, while Alden is very consistent, he is not perfectly consistent: the meanings of “structure” and “form” sometimes seem to merge. And, finally, and oddly, Alden does not ever refer to the turn or the volta. And yet, for all of this, Alden’s An Introduction to Poetry clearly and interestingly incorporates major aspects of the structure-form distinction.

In his book’s preface, Alden notes his book’s lack of focus on the structural interior and perhaps too-great focus on formal exterior, stating, “[I]t may be thought unfortunate that the chapters on metrical form should bulk more largely than those dealing with the inner elements of poetry; to which there is only the reply that matters of metrical form appear to be, not the most important, but those that present most difficulty to the student and require the most careful examination of details still under debate” (v). It is my belief that it is now time to bulk up our writing on structure and the turn.