Form & Meaning in Poetry

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  • 0:01 Form, Content, and…
  • 0:49 Poetic Content
  • 2:54 Poetic Form
  • 4:47 Poetic Meaning
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore how form and content combine to create meaning in poetry. Along the way, we will examine the components of poetic form and content and define poetic meaning.

Form, Content, and Meaning in Poetry

Have you ever sat down to read a poem and, after perusing it for a few minutes said, something like this: 'I just don't get it!' Indeed, poetry can be one of the most challenging types of literature to read and understand. Why is this? Unlike prose, poetry places a great deal of emphasis on form as well as content, and its content tends to be more obscure and symbolic.

In this lesson, we're going to explore an equation that will help you read poetry more efficiently and understand it more thoroughly. Here's the equation:

Content + Form = Meaning

We'll use George Herbert's poem Easter Wings to show how this little formula plays out in a real poem.

George Herbert

Poetic Content

Let's begin by defining poetic content. The content of a poem refers to its language. Several elements combine to create a poem's content. These include the following:

  • The poem's topic, subject matter, and theme - essentially, these elements express what the poem is about. A poem might have the topic of love, for instance, and express that topic by a subject matter that describes the relationship of a couple using the theme that love is both challenging and rewarding.
  • The poem's tone - tone is the poet's attitude toward his subject. It could be positive or negative, joyful, sarcastic, nostalgic, or any other emotion.
  • The poem's word choices - words are extremely important to poets, and they choose their words very carefully to express exactly what they want to say.
  • The poem's word order - poets don't always use standard word order. They deliberately mix things up to get their readers' attention and make their point.
  • The poem's figurative language - figurative language uses words and expressions in such a way that they go beyond their normal, literal meanings. It might include comparisons, like metaphors and similes, word play, manipulation of the sounds of words, deliberate exaggeration, symbolism, and much more.
  • The poem's imagery - imagery is a language that makes a special appeal to the senses. It is very vivid and is intended to create a mental picture in the reader's mind.

Together, these elements produce a poem's content. Let's take a look at the content of George Herbert's Easter Wings. Notice how Herbert chooses his words very carefully to express decay and thinning in the first half of each stanza and growth and rising in the second half of each stanza. Also pay attention to Herbert's imagery. He is especially interested in exploring the images of birds in flight, which he uses to express his theme of the rising of the human soul from darkness and decay into victory.

Poetic Form

Now let's turn our attention to form. Poetic form refers to a poem's physical structure; basically, what the poem looks like and how it sounds. The following elements combine to create form:

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