Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

4.2 Meaning and ‘form’

The question remains, what is this poem ‘about’? Or, rather, we should ask, ‘what kind of poem is it?’ Poems (paintings, ideas, music, buildings, historical documents) are not all ‘one kind of thing’. As we become familiar with poetry we learn to distinguish between different kinds of poem, or between different poetic forms.

Epic poems, for example, are extremely long stories about the doings of a noble warrior, voyager, or similar ‘hero’. Other characters are involved too. They are always described in detail when they are introduced into the story and usually make a dignified ‘set’ speech which reveals their ‘character’. Great battles take place, involving descriptions of the hero's appearance and weapons as well as the action. The style of writing is high-flown and elaborate, in keeping with the epic's lofty themes. These are the literary devices – or, conventions – traditionally associated with epic poetry. We interpret the meanings of an epic poem within that framework of understanding. So when a character makes a set speech we do not expect it to sound like ‘real’ speech. And it would be inappropriate to criticise the poem for not being ‘true to life’. An epic is not supposed to be true to life; it is supposed to be far grander than that.

To say that the meaning of a poem is closely bound up in the way it is written, then, is to say that ‘its meaning is bound up in its form’. When you analyse a poem you come to understand the elements of its ‘formal’ patterning. This gives you clues to the meanings it is appropriate to make.


When you sit among rows of people to watch a play, first the curtain goes up – to reveal, say, a living room. We ‘accept’ this as an artificial device that indicates the start of the play (because of course curtains do not go up to reveal living rooms in real life). Then what you see is a ‘room’ with three walls. You simply ignore the fact that the fourth wall is missing. (Indeed, it would be odd to complain about this because, otherwise, you wouldn't be able to see the play.) These ‘walls’ are in fact flat, painted canvases, but you ignore that too. The furniture in the room is all turned to face the audience and people weave around it, wearing costumes, speaking very loudly and making exaggerated gestures, generally also facing the audience. And they perhaps even speak to each other in verse. None of these things is natural or ‘true to life’ (even sitting in rows in the ‘audience’). They are all conventions: artificial devices that are ‘generally accepted’ as necessary to the business of presenting and viewing a play. Indeed, they are bound up in what it means to stage a play. If you, watching, do not ‘accept’ these things, then you will misunderstand what you see in a big way. As with the play, so with the epic poem.

Certain conventional ‘rules’ also govern the way a landscape painting is composed. (Look at the landscape in Figure 2.) As here, the scene is usually constructed in horizontal ‘layers’ that seem to recede into the distance – rather as scenery is positioned at the sides of a stage, with one ‘flat’ behind another – giving the illusion of depth on the two-dimensional canvas. This is another reason why a painting of a real landscape is never a faithful representation of that scene. It is not only that the painter may have added imaginary details to what she actually saw. It is that the landscape form will make its own ‘demands’. In order to give the illusion of depth (light, and so on), painters represent what they see according to the conventions governing the painting's composition and uses of line and colour. A painting is always an ‘imagined reality’.

Some painters (composers, poets, playwrights) play around with these conventions, and so with our expectations of the painting, music, poem or play. A play may be presented ‘in the round’, for example, with no curtain, stage, or scenery. But they can only do that, and we can only understand what they are doing, if we all know what the (normally accepted) conventions are. It is only when we know what the ‘rules’ are that we can break them, or tell when someone else is breaking them.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648, oil on canvas, 119 by 199 cm. (Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees, The National Gallery, London.)
Figure 2: Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648, oil on canvas, 119 × 199 cm. (Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees, The National Gallery, London)

Browning's poem is a lyric (in fact he called it a ‘dramatic lyric’). When you analyse the particular patterns of words and sounds that make it up you are exploring the various elements of its lyric form. By convention, this type of poem is very short and usually expresses the feelings of a single speaker. Originally, lyrics were poems written to be sung. They are rhythmic and rhyming, and they appeal to the reader's emotions and senses. (Indeed, we have already identified some of these features in the poem.) When you can place Browning's poem as ‘a lyric’ you approach it with these kinds of expectations. Unlike the grandeur of epic themes, you expect it to engage with some aspect of a world that we know, and to appeal to your feelings as an ‘ordinary’ human being. So, in recognising its form you are also accepting some limits on the kind of interpretation you can make of it – or, on the range of its appropriate meanings.

For example, if at first you thought the poem was about a smuggler meeting up with his accomplice (which I have heard argued, quite stoutly), that interpretation would not sit at all comfortably with Browning's use of the lyric form. Even if you argued that smugglers might well be rowing about in the night in an excited state, and meeting secretly using pre-arranged signals, still it would not be a likely interpretation of this poem – let alone a convincing one. Why then the mainly soft sounds and languorous movement of the verse; the attention to visual detail of ‘yellow half-moon large and low’ and the sensuousness of ‘warm sea-scented beach’? No smuggler worth his salt would be responding to all that as he went about his business, nor registering the feel and smell of the sand. And while the two accomplices might well whisper to each other, would that be out of their ‘joys’ as well as fears? Would their, no doubt, pounding hearts beat ‘each to each’?

And why, in the context of smugglers, would the poet be inclined to compare the waves in moonlight – ‘startled’ from their ‘sleep’ by unexpected oars – to ‘fiery ringlets’? Ringlets are what women had in their hair. It seems much more likely that this image of being ‘startled’ from sleep anticipates what happens in the second verse – putting the idea of ‘woman’ into our minds earlier on, so that we are in a sense prepared for the meeting. In short, in view of the poem's lyric form and what we have understood about the way it works, it seems all the more appropriate to interpret it as a poem about a secret meeting between lovers.

Key points

When you are interpreting the meanings of a text you should be guided by:

  • your knowledge of the type of text it is (of its form)

  • your understanding of the conventions that ‘govern’ the subject matter, purposes, and (formal) elements of the text.

This enables you to make some appropriate interpretation of its meanings.


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