Structural Analysis: Six Categories
6: Style or Form
Introduction - From image to conceit - Symbolism & the apple - Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” - Onomatopoeia in Poe’s “Ulalume” - Rosetti’s “The Sonnet” - Ottava rima in Byron’ Don Juan
The sixth category, style or form, is crucial to any analysis of literature. This category includes an exceptionally wide range — from entire genres and media forms to specific techniques or tropes. Among much else, this category includes genres such as poetry, drama, prose, novel, novella, short story, tragedy, comedy, epic, satire, and parody, as well as more specific techniques such as imagery, sound, symbolism, irony, metaphor, conceit, sonnet, ode, dialogue, tone, internal monologue, dramatic monologue, catalogue, motif, leitmotif, etc.
This category is complex and extensive, but for the present purposes of literary analysis it can be thought of as form rather than content. For example, take Pound’s lines “In a Station of the Metro / The apparition of these faces in a crowd; / Petals on a wet black bough.” You could look at these lines in terms of the theme of nature vs. industrialization (5), or you could look at the form of the poem, which is short and similar to the Japanese haiku (6): it has three lines; it focuses on nature; it lacks specificity or dialogue; and it’s indirect and imagistic. Compare it for instance with this haiku by Basho: “On a leafless branch / A crow comes to rest – / Autumn nightfall.”
To take another example, if a character starts off noble and powerful yet ends up losing everything, you may want to examine his character in terms of the genre of tragedy (6). This doesn’t stop you from using the other categories as well. For instance, you could examine his character development (3) from power to ruin in terms of psychology (3). You could look at the content of his personality, analyzing how it works in relation to space (1), time (2), other people (4), and issues (5). Yet if you were to see his overall character development in terms of form, you could see it in terms of tragedy (6), which is a pre-determined or conventional form in which a character falls from power or grace. Again, this doesn’t stop you from using the other categories as well. For instance, you could analyze the way the author depicts the tragedy in terms of dialogue, metaphor, irony, tone, or any number of literary strategies or devices (6).
When looking at style and form, there's often overlap with setting (1) when a story is structured along the lines of a journey, especially the genre of the epic journey (6), or when a particular setting recurs. There's often overlap with time (2) when analyzing plot or when looking at such things as flashbacks or foreshadowings (6). Again, decide what your focus is and don’t worry if on occasion you overlap with another category.
Note that mood is difficult to tie down to only one of the six categories. For instance, if mood's created by setting (let’s say a graveyard at midnight), it's a function of space (1) and time (2). If it's created by the sound of words and the implication of images (as in gloom and a tooth dripping with blood) then it's a function of style — in this case onomatopoeia and horror imagery (6).
From Image to Conceit
The following paragraphs look at imagery, symbolism and metaphor, and then illustrate how metaphor can be extended into a conceit.
Image and imagery. An image is a visual impression — as in E.J. Pratt’s seagull “etched upon the horizon” (from his poem, “Seagulls”). Here we see the seagull against the sky in our mind. The image is one of a bird in flight, a small and sharp living thing against a wide open space.
Symbol and symbolism. An image can remain a simple description, or it can be developed into a symbol. For example, a dove could simply be a bird a character sees on a path, next to a blue jay, and this may interest the character because he is an ornithologist. Or, the dove could be seen next to a hawk, and come to represent peace (as opposed to aggression), as in ‘hawks and doves.’
Symbolism & the Apple
In the still life below, the apples are a food item, yet in the relief beside it the fruit symbolizes worldly knowledge, sin, and the fall from the Garden of Eden. The fruit’s also associated with other symbols — such as the fig leaf and the snake — to create a complex world of symbolism.
Generally, symbols have either a personal meaning (the seagull may symbolize freedom and beauty to E.J. Pratt) or a public meaning (the dove symbolizes peace to most people). In general, a symbol is an object, not a person. Avoid treating characters as symbols; rather, treat them as embodiments or representatives of certain types, classes, or ideas.
Metaphor. While a simile compares two things explicitly (“She is like a cat”), a metaphor compares them implicitly (“She is a fox”). Here's another way to think about the difference: similes are honest because they admit that a comparison's occurring, while a metaphor's a type of lie because it doesn't admit to a being a comparison; rather, it equates two things that aren't the same.
Conceit. A conceit extends or continues a metaphor, taking elements of it and exploring them in new ways. A metaphysical conceit links two vastly different things in extended and unexpected ways. The term often refers to the poetry of early 17th C. poets such as John Donne.
In the following scene from Friends — from “The One with the Sonogram at the End,” S1 E2, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qexA_iXD3f0 — the metaphor of the opening act is extended far beyond its original comparison. Try to identify where the simile turns into a metaphor, and the metaphor into a conceit.
Monica: What you guys don’t understand is, for us, kissing is as important as any part of it.
Joey: Yeah, right!....... Y’serious?
Phoebe: Oh, yeah!
Rachel: Everything you need to know is in that first kiss.
Chandler: Yeah, I think for us, kissing is pretty much like an opening act, y’know? I mean it’s like the stand-up comedian you have to sit through before Pink Floyd comes out.
Ross: Yeah, and-and it’s not that we don’t like the comedian, it’s that-that... that’s not why we bought the ticket.
Chandler: The problem is, though, after the concert’s over, no matter how great the show was, you girls are always looking for the comedian again, y’know? I mean, we’re in the car, we’re fighting traffic... basically just trying to stay awake.
Rachel: Yeah, well, word of advice: Bring back the comedian. Otherwise next time you’re gonna find yourself sitting at home, listening to that album alone.
Joey: (pause)... Are we still talking about sex?
Other Literary Terms
Alliteration refers to repetition of consonants, as in pretty pennies.
Allusion versus reference. An allusion is indirect, calling something to mind without mentioning it explicitly, whereas a reference is an explicit indication. While both are types of reference, an allusion is an indirect or vague reference, whereas a direct reference is a clear, unambiguous reference. Take, for instance, the final two stanzas in The Eagles’ song “Long Road Out of Eden”:
Been down the road to Damascus, the road to Mandalay
Met the ghost of Caesar on the Appian Way
He said, "It's hard to stop this binging, once you get a taste,
But the road to empire is a bloody stupid waste"
Behold the bitten apple - the power of the tools
But all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools
And it's a long road out of Eden
The “road to Damascus” is an indirect reference to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, whereas “Caesar on the Appian Way” is a more direct, clear reference (which is made even more clear by the quote from this fictional Caesar). The “bitten apple” might seem somewhat allusive at first, yet given the song’s title and given the final repetition of the title, it’s clear that the Eagles are referring to the scenario of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, as in eels leaping eagerly.
Enjambment refers to a line that has no end punctuation and flows into the next line. In the above quote from The Eagles, there’s no punctuation at the end of the lines, yet there’s no enjambment because the lines stand on their own; one line doesn’t run smoothly into the next. In the following excerpt from stanza 52 of Shelley’s Adonais, the first and second lines are separated by a comma, while the second line flows into the third and thus is a good example of enjambment:
Rome's azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
Epic: usually a long poem which is elevated in tone and provides a vision of life that is complex, detailed, and coherent. The epic covers a wide scope of action, depicts a wide canvas of life, and treats themes that are crucial to culture and civilization: honour, love, friendship, family, freedom, fate, war, death, religion, the afterlife, etc. The major Western epics — Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost — usually follow the literary conventions of invoking a muse (traditionally Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry) and starting in the middle of the action (in medias res, “in the middle of things”). They often include a battle, a sea journey, and a journey to the afterlife. Mock epics are common in the 18th century, and both Byron’s Don Juan and Joyce’s Ulysses subvert the epic tradition in numerous ways.
Hyperbole is exaggeration or overstatement.
Genre refers to the type of work — such as play, film, novel, poem, short story, epic, lyric, sonnet, ode, elegy, satire, narrative, comedy, tragedy, farce, etc.
Irony occurs when words and meaning are at odds, or when expectations are contradicted. For instance, if we expect the psychopathic serial killer to be punished, yet she is rewarded, then the situation is ironic. Dramatic irony occurs when the expectation or understanding of a character (or group of characters) is contradicted by the expectation or understanding of the reader or audience.
Metonymy and synecdoche are words you don't need to know, yet they can be helpful. In metonymy, one thing stands for something else that is closely related — as in the pulpit standing for sermons or preachers. In synecdoche, a part stands for the whole. For instance, lending a hand stands for making your body and mind available in order to help someone.
Narrative means story. For example, a narrative poem is one that tells a story. Narrative is a crucial, fundamental category, like space or character. Like character, which is crucial to literature because we are humans and like to think about situations from a human perspective, narrative explains a sequence of actions, which relates to us because we perform and are engaged in sequences of actions all the time, and because we like to think about what these sequences mean.
Narration can be the main strategy of a text or it can be a momentary strategy within a larger structure. One can refer to very brief narratives as mini-narratives or moments of narrative. For instance, in Alanis Morisette’s song “You Oughts Know” she berates her former lover in various ways, and at one point sings, “I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner.” This is a mini-narrative because it creates a picture in the listener’s mind of a specific complex situation that occurs at a specific place and time. One can imagine the man sitting down to dinner with his family and all of a sudden an angry ex shows up at the dinner table.
A more complex situation involving narrative moments can be seen in “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. In the first stanza Cohen refers to the Bible’s David pleasing God with his music: “I've heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord.” He then asks the question, “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” This question seems out of context, or at least it refers to another context (his relation to a woman who he’ll return to later), after which he returns to his take on the bliblical context: “the baffled king composing Hallelujah.” In the second stanza he continues referring to David, then switches narratives to the story of Samson and Delilah:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
The elements of the momentary narrative about David are two people (you and her), a location (a roof), a specific time (the moment he saw her), and a specific action (he saw her). All the elements of a complex human interaction are set up. A full narrative would of course take this situation and develop it, as occurs in the 2 Samuel 11 where David then sleeps with the woman (Bathsheba) and then manages to get the woman’s wife killed so that he can become her husband. This does not at all please the Lord — which brings Cohen’s mini-narrative to a conclusion, since it began with David’s music pleasing the Lord.
One can see Cohen’s poetic strategy in terms of two biblical mini-narratives which fit into a larger narrative about his relation to a woman. Or one can see it in terms of two biblical references that he uses in a larger exploration of love and religion. Remember that if a writer draws our attention specifically to something well-known, it’s a reference, whereas if a writer draws our attention vaguely to something well-known, it’s an allusion (see allusion above).
Ode: a poem that praises a particular thing or person. Highly lyrical, an ode often praises nature in both intellectual and emotional ways.
Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”
Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is one of the most famous English odes, at the end of which Keats asserts that “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty.” Below I’ve included the first two stanzas (out of four), which celebrate the durability of art and the ecstasy of desire. Keats starts by addressing the urn itself, calling it a “bride of quietness” because it has no voice, and a “Sylvan historian” because it nevertheless allows us to see into the past (history) and into the beauty of nature, represented by the woods (the sylvan dales of Arcady in Greece).
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time, Sylvan historian, who canst thus express A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape Of deities or mortals, or of both, In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? What men or gods are these? what maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal -- yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Crater with Bacchic Scenes (c. 1st C. A.D) portraying “a Dionysiac train with satyrs and menads overwhelmed by the rhythm of the orgiastic dances.” From the Capitoline Museum in Rome (photos RYC). Keats wrote on a tracing of the more subdued Sosibios vase from the Louvre.
Onomatopoeia is when the name of a thing or action resembles that thing or action — as in the words eerie, buzzing, or mooing.
Onomatopoeia in Poe’s “Ulalume”
The skies they were ashen and sober; The leaves they were crisped and sere— The leaves they were withering and sere; It was night in the lonesome October Of my most immemorial year: It was hard by the dim lake of Auber, In the misty mid region of Weir— It was down by the dank tarn of Auber, In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
In the first stanza of this nine-stanza poem, Poe appears to merely set a scene, yet the words are so evocative of the things they describe that the scene takes on an almost surreal quality. The leaves are not just crisp, but crisped, which puts them in the past, makes them fallen, and aligns them with the October setting. Crisped also requires a p-d pronunciation in addition to the sharp sound of crisp. One might even say the sound of crisp is itself crisp — dry, brisk, terse. The suggestion of winter is emphasized by the use of sere, which is repeated and which is a short word that nevertheless lingers, just as the empty barren Winter will contain little life yet will stretch on for months. Sere also rhymes with Weir, which again is repeated and is brief yet pronounced with a linger, emphasized by the use of alliteration in “woodland of Weir.” Alliteration also highlights the starkness of the landscape in the monosyllabic “down by the dark tarn,” which highlights the downward and colourless direction the poet’s pushing his reader emotionally. Finally, once we’re down in this dark, stark place, Poe suggests that it’s “ghoul-haunted,” lending a supernatural element of horror or tension, which is emphasized by the irregular gh and ou spelling, and by the creepy sound of ghoul.
Paradox is an idea that is true but seems to contain a contradiction.
Persona or speaker: the "I" in the poem; a fictional character who is distinct from the poet. The persona may or may not be similar to the poet.
Personification occurs when you give human characteristics to non-human things or ideas.
Refrain: repeated word or group of words; similar to a chorus in a song.
Rhyme: repeating sounds, usually at the end of the line; sometimes referred to as end rhymes. Internal rhymes occur within lines rather than at the end of lines. In "Under No Pretext / Sous aucun prétexte," Françoise Hardy uses end rhymes in the original French, yet these are very hard to translate effectively. Her internal rhymes, which contrast consumer products with her emotions, are on the other hand easier to translate: "My heart of silex quickly catches fire / Your heart of pyrex resists the flames / [...] Under no pretext do I want / in front of you to overexpose my eyes / Behind a kleenex I would know better / how to say goodbye (Mon cœur de silex vite prend feu, / Ton cœur de pyrex résiste au feu / [...] Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux / Devant toi surexposer mes yeux, / Derrière un kleenex je saurais mieux / Comment te dire adieu)
Sonnet: a fourteen-line poem. Two famous English forms are the Spenserian (abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee) and the Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg). The Spenserian form is very integrated, while the Shakespearean form groups ideas into three quatrains, followed by a twist or emphasis in the final couplet. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet has an octave (8 interconnected lines) followed by a sextet (six interconnected lines), as in abba abba cde cde (or cdc dcd). The following sonnet by Rosetti mixes the Petrarchan with the Shakespearean, taking full advantage of the powerful final couplet of the Shakespearean sonnet:
Rosetti’s “The Sonnet” (1881)
A Sonnet is a moment's monument, — a
Memorial from the Soul's eternity b
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be, b
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent, a
Of its own intricate fulness reverent: a
Carve it in ivory or in ebony, b
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see b
Its flowering crest impearled and orient. a
A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals c
The soul, — its converse, to what Power 'tis due: — d
Whether for tribute to the august appeals c
Of Life, or dower in Love's high retinue d
It serve; or, 'mid the dark wharf's cavernous breath, e
In Charon's palm it pay the toll to Death. e
Stanza form is determined by the number of lines that are grouped together within a larger poem.
- A couplet has two lines grouped together, a tercet has three, a quatrain has four.
- The Spenserian stanza is nine lines, following the ab ab bc bc c pattern.
- Ottava rima has eight lines, follows the rhyme scheme abababcc, and is often used for long narratives, epics and mock epics.
Ottava Rima in Byron’ Don Juan
Byron uses ottava rima throughout his very long mock-epic Don Juan (1819-24). Sometimes the final rhyme creates humour and at other times it underscores a serious point. In the following stanza from Canto 9, Byron begins with the question asked by the French skeptic Montaigne — “What do I know?” — and concludes with the paradoxical suggestion that doubt is such a fundamental human condition that it’s closer to certainty than to doubt.
"Que scais-je?" was the motto of Montaigne,
As also of the first academicians:
That all is dubious which man may attain,
Was one of their most favourite positions.
There's no such thing as certainty, that's plain
As any of Mortality's conditions;
So little do we know what we're about in
This world, I doubt if doubt itself be doubting.
Trope is a term that is often used, yet can cause some confusion because it has several meanings. Apple’s American Dictionary defines it as “a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression: he used the two-Americas trope to explain how a nation free and democratic at home could act wantonly abroad” or “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif: she uses the Eucharist as a pictorial trope.” I suggest that in literary analysis you use more specific terms, such as figure, metaphor, theme, motif, and image.