On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word
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What is form? Why does form matter? In this imaginative and ambitious study, Angela Leighton assesses not only the legacy of Victorian aestheticism, and its richly resourceful keyword, 'form', but also the very nature of the literary. She shows how writers, for two centuries and more, have returned to the idea of form as something which contains the secret of art itself. She tracks the development of the word from the Romantics to contemporary poets, and offers close readings of, among others, Tennyson, Pater, Woolf, Yeats, Stevens, and Plath, to show how form has provided the single most important way of accounting for the movements of literary language itself. She investigates, for instance, the old debate of form and content, of form as music or sound-shape, as the ghostly dynamic and dynamics of a text, as well as its long association with the aestheticist principle of being 'for nothing'. In a wide-ranging and inventive argument, she suggests that form is the key to the pleasure of the literary text, and that that pleasure is part of what literary criticism itself needs to answer and convey.
force, an energy, a subtle j’accuse. The slip from noun to adjective in her title frees the word at a stroke from its contract to technical minutiae. At ⁷² W. H. Auden, ‘Mus´ee des Beaux Arts’, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1976), 146. ⁷³ Denis Donoghue, Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 288. ⁷⁴ Denis Donoghue, Speaking of Beauty (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 121. 24 Form’s Matter the same time, ‘Formal
of ‘vanishing away’ its very object, till all that remains is a verb, apparently unattached to any subject: ‘weaving and unweaving’.⁵⁶ This passage begins with a stark, existentialist assertion of intractable loneliness: ‘each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world’. Whether the ‘solitary prisoner’ relates to the mind or to the dream—the ambiguity only adding to the sense of mental lock—the self is a creature in a padded cell of dreams. It is as if, at ﬁrst, Pater is trying
talisman against the stream; it is only a reminder of the passage of matter itself. The relic is of the earth, and its mould, however well-wrought, recalls the mouldering physical body it has survived. So form, that banner of Victorian aestheticism, rarely gets free, in Pater, of the matter which keeps it close to something tangible, desirable, and perishably human. Form’s matter, then, matters almost as much as form. Certainly Pater keeps them jostling dialectically, throughout his writing, as
from the sound of running. At the end of Yeats’s life this doubleness persists. In a gesture of peace, indifference, or it may be continuing attention, the poet in ‘Under Ben Bulben’ demands: ‘Horseman, pass by!’ (640) This might mean, I have done with horses and all their noise. But it might equally mean, that the poet after death intends to lie still within earshot of them. A touch of ambiguity makes it uncertain how near or how far that ‘pass by!’ might be. The sound of feet, then, is
put together again, it must have fallen apart. Stevens is well aware of the origins of this ‘wholly artiﬁcial nature’ (693). The pineapple, he asserts, is the ‘double fruit of boisterous epicures’ (695), of those who, like himself, delight in the exotic, the far-fetched, the foreign. From the imaginary breakages of the title it is not, then, a far step to the fruit as urn. This bizarre comparison carries the logic of the title’s brittle contradiction, so that a jar of green shoots, or an urn of