Two of the most commonly mixed-up words in the study of English Literature are ‘form’ and ‘structure’.
They seem to mean the same thing, so it’s little wonder that they should be so confusing.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the world can be roughly categorised into two halves – those who care about nuances in literary terminology, and ordinary folks.
I jest, but my point is, if you’re an English student, you belong – albeit temporarily – to the first group.
This means you should be able to tell apart deceptively synonymous terms like ‘form’ and ‘structure’, which will save you a lot of stress in exams.
But seriously, don’t ‘form’ and ‘structure’ just mean the same thing…?
Here’s how the dictionary defines them –
Structure: the way in which the parts of a system or object are arranged or organized
Form: a type of something, the shape or appearance of something
Not very helpful (as always, ahem), so let’s try again.
In the context of literary analysis, structure is about the sequence of events, the flow of thoughts, and the linearity of narrative – in short, we’re looking for how the beginning, middle and end of a text are arranged. What happens first, and then what happens, and then what?
In prose, this implies narrative techniques such as stream of consciousness, in media res, flashforward, cliffhanger etc., as both perspective and plot contribute to the structure of stories.
On the other hand, form tends to either mean the genre or type of a text (e.g. sonnet form for poetry, dystopian novel form for prose etc.), or its literal shape (e.g. haikus could be shaped like a diamond, a paragraph could be shaped like a heart etc.)
One tip is to remember that form usually determines structure.
So, if I’m reading a Victorian novel (form), then it’s likely that the text would feature separate chapters which follow a plot line (structure).
Likewise, if I’m analysing a haiku (form), then I’d be looking at three lines with each respective line containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables (structure).
In analysis, we’d probably be writing something like the following:
The form of this prose excerpt is epistolary, and its structure follows a linear narrative. The narrator begins with a direct address to the imaginary reader, after which she relates her emotions about the day’s events, finally concluding with an anticipatory note about what tomorrow will hold.
The form (genre/type) of this poem is a sonnet, and its structure (arrangement/organisation) comprises an octave followed by a sestet, bound by an abba abba, cdecde rhyme scheme.
Useful words to describe ‘form’ and ‘structure’ in poetry and prose
To further clarify, below are the sort of words that should come to mind whenever you encounter ‘form’ and/or ‘structure’ for poetry or prose analysis:
Poetic form: shape, sonnet, ode, terza rima, lyric, epic, villanelle (Stephen Fry, ever the wordsmith, offers a structural explanation of villanelle as such: “a pastoral Italian form from the sixteenth century written in six three-line stanzas where the first line of the first stanza is used as a refrain to end the second and fourth stanzas and the last line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third, fifth and sixth.”)
Poetic structure: stanza, quatrain, sestet, octave, run-on lines/enjambment, indented lines, rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter (scansion is part of poetic structure)
(You’ll notice that ‘structure’ terms tend to be ‘ingredients’ of ‘form’)
Prose form: novel, novella, short story, epistolary, autobiography, essay
Prose structure: paragraph, chapter, prologue, epilogue, linear narrative, flashback, twist ending, interior monologue
To illustrate how to incorporate form and structure in our own analysis, let’s close read something that’s formally strict (a sonnet), and something else that’s formally explicit (a quirky chapter from a fun novel).
Reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnet 29 – I Think of Thee!’
In my post on ‘How to read the dramatic monologue’, I give a brief introduction of who Elizabeth Barrett Browning is, which you can check out here. A popular sonnet of hers is ‘Sonnet 29’, which also happens to be featured in the AQA GCSE English Literature syllabus.
If you’re unfamiliar with the sonnet form, here’s a light-speed recap of its structural traits:
- There are a total of 14 lines
- It features a ‘turn’ (volta) somewhere in the middle, where the speaker brings in the other side of the argument or perspective
- The Petrarchan sonnet begins with an octave (8-line stanza), which is followed by a sestet (6-line stanza)
- The Shakespearean sonnet begins with two sestets / three quatrains (4-line stanzas), which are followed by a couplet (2-line stanzas with end rhymes)
Here’s ‘Sonnet 29’ in full:
I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there ‘s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
Drop heavily down,—burst, shattered, everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee—I am too near thee.
‘Octave’, ‘Sestet’, ‘Volta’ – say wha??
In general, sonnets are great for analysis, because pretty much all you have to do is look for a central conflict in the poem – what are the two opposing thoughts or ideas presented?
Traditionally, the first thought is contained in the octave, and the second in the sestet – with the ninth or tenth line usually performing the role of a hinge, swivelling the poem from one perspective to another.
But alas, poetry is never that clear-cut, which is why we will also come across sonnets in which the volta comes earlier or later than the ‘hinge’ line between the octave and sestet.
In fact, ‘Sonnet 29’ is one such example.
In ‘Sonnet 29’, the speaker begins by saying just how much she misses her absent lover. Her saudade is compared to “wild vines, about a tree” – the image here is of arms tightly wrapped around another person.
But as these vines grow excessively, they cover up the wood and submerge the tree to the point where it disappears completely.
Realising the danger of not seeing her lover clearly, the speaker wakes up from the intensity of her thoughts, and exhorts the absent subject to reappear – “instantly/Renew thy presence”, lest she blinds herself to a misguided love that only grows fond because of absence.
What’s interesting about this particular sonnet, though, is the way Barrett Browning modifies sonnet conventions.
First, instead of a mid-sonnet volta, she initiates the speaker’s change early on in line four (“Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood”), with the “Yet” as a clear mark of the shift from the emotionality of being ‘blinded’ by overwhelming thoughts, to the clarity of “see[ing]”, “hear[ing]” and “breath[ing]… thee”.
Oh rhyme, oh why…
The rhyme scheme is also tweaked to skillful effect.
While ‘Sonnet 29’ adopts the form of a Petrarchan sonnet (octave + sestet), it doesn’t entirely follow its ABBA ABBA CDCCDC structure.
The sestet, in fact, doesn’t take on a third set of rhyme (i.e. there’s no ‘D’ rhyme), and the ‘B’ rhyme is stuck in a repetitive loop with the word “thee” appearing in lines 10, 12, 14.
Perhaps this serves as a kind of structural subconscious, which suggests that the speaker, for all her mental hard work, isn’t quite able to shake her lover – the “thee” in question – out of her thoughts.
It’s a wonderful play on the traditions of time-tested form, imaginatively reworked to fit the voice of a strong, but human, female.
Reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Many would know of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a famous children’s book, but despite its playfulness and illustrations, Carroll’s work is a linguistically, thematically and philosophically rich tour de force.
The novel is also a formal hybrid, as it switches between verse, song and prose modes to challenge our understanding of what’s real and what’s imaginary.
In Chapter 3 – ‘A Caucus Race and a Long Tale’, Carroll embeds a concrete poem that resembles the shape of a mouse’s tail.
It’s a ‘tale’ in a ‘tail’, which serves up a delightful pun that crosses our visual and verbal senses. As a formal point, this is a feature that stands out for comment.
By the way, a concrete poem (or shape / visual poem) is defined as verse typographically arranged in a way that resembles the object or conveys the idea discussed in the work.
Here’s what the one in Wonderland looks like –
On a more obvious level, the windy structure of the mouse’s ‘tale’ could be a visual projection of Alice’s misunderstanding of the mouse, who she still thinks is talking about his physical tail, rather than his “long and sad tale (life story)”. (“It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?” And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking)
We are, after all, reading the story from Alice’s perspective, delivered in a third-person omniscient voice.
If we dig deeper into the content of this ‘tail-shaped poem’, however, we’ll find that there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Earlier in Chapter 2, the Mouse tells Alice about his hatred for Cats and Dogs, the reason which he explains in this ‘tail-tale’.
The cur (a mongrel dog) decides to take the mouse to trial one day, for no justifiable reason but out of sheer boredom (“For really this morning I’ve nothing to do”.) What’s worse, it’s not a fair trial with an independent judge and jury, because the cur has appointed himself as the judge and jury, with the foregone conclusion that he’ll “condemn [the mouse] to death”.
In other words, there’s no need for all the ceremonial hullabaloo of “going to law”, as it’s just an arbitrarily doled out death sentence.
This absurd illogicality of invoking legal proceedings for an act that’s fundamentally unlawful is borne out by the crookedness of the path, which also symbolises the crookedness of political institutions.
The typographical tapering of the words from the top to the bottom of the page forces one to squint when we get the final pronouncement (“I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death”), which suggests the shadiness and lack of transparency that goes on behind the closed doors of an unjust social system, where those in power sets nonsensical rules based on whims and are not held accountable for them.
Circling back to Alice’s misunderstanding of the mouse, then, we’ll notice that a central idea comes to the fore – reading, rather than just listening, can sometimes be invaluable.
Alice isn’t on the same page (figuratively) as the mouse because she’s only hearing what he says, and we won’t be able to glean those ideas about systemic social and legal injustices had the tale not been visually arranged in a specific way.
While seeing may not be believing, the ability to see words – read – has its own kind of importance in the human world.
So you’ll see that once we get past the confusion of what constitutes ‘form’ and ‘structure’, our main concern lies with the textual analysis.
The million dollar question, however, remains the same –
How does the author use a certain form and specific structural traits to create meaning and effect for us as readers?
For a detailed guide on how to write literary analysis, check out this post right here!
I hope this post helps clarify the difference between form and structure. If you have any questions, please comment below!