How the Structure of a Poem or Drama Contributes to Meaning

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  • 0:03 Structure in Literature
  • 0:51 Structure of Poetry
  • 3:29 Structure of Drama
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Look closely at the form of any poem or play. Authors put a lot of thought into the structure of their work. This lesson discusses how that structure contributes to the overall meaning of the piece as a whole.

Structure in Literature

Everything we write has a specific structure. A text message is short and filled with slang, an email is formatted like a letter, and an essay is in formal paragraphs. These various structures contribute to the overall meaning or message of the writing. Think of structure as how the parts in a piece of literature are put together.

Authors will carefully consider the structure of every piece of writing because changing the parts will change the whole message. For instance, having slang in a formal essay will undoubtedly make the writing less serious.

Two types of literature that have specific structures are poetry and drama. Let's look at the structure of both poetry and drama to analyze how it contributes to the author's message.

Structure of Poetry

Poetry is literature written in stanzas and lines that use rhythm to express feelings and ideas. Poets will pay particular attention to the length, placement, and grouping of lines and stanzas. This is called form. Lines or whole stanzas can be rearranged in order to create a specific effect on the reader.

One example is the sonnet, which is a 14 line poem with a specific rhyme scheme. The key with sonnets is that most end with a pair of lines set apart from the rest. Setting those two lines aside gives emphasis to their content, so whatever message is being sent will be given more importance.

Another aspect of the structure of poems is the rhythm, which is the beat of the poem. This is usually measured in meters, which are sets of stressed and unstressed syllables. Poets often arrange words according to meter in order to create specific sounds or beats. Think about any song (which is a type of poem) that you sing along to. Think about the rhythm of the music and the words. Is the singer angry? Or sad? The notes and meter might at first be fast, harsh, or short, while later it might be slow, soft, and drawn-out. These rhythms affect the overall message.

Finally, a poet might use figurative language techniques to establish an overall effect. Rhyme scheme is one such method using a pattern of repeated final sounds in the last words of each line. Creating a pattern of rhyming can also affect the rhythm of a poem. In addition, whole rhyming lines can be repeated throughout a poem in order to emphasize the author's message.

Again, let's use songs as an example. Each one has a chorus, or the few lines that are repeated over and over. Aren't these the lines everyone knows by heart? The writer of that song knows that by manipulating rhyme and repetition, he/she can have the audience repeating his/her message over and over. Rhyme and repetition are very powerful tools.

The following is an example of rhyme scheme in a poem by William Wordsworth called 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.' The bold words, italicized words, and underlined words represent the rhyming sounds:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Structure of Drama

Drama, on the other hand, is literature that uses dialogue and action to express a plot. The form for drama consists of the length and order of acts and scenes. Think of acts as chapters and the scenes as sections within those chapters. Each act and scene relates differently to the other parts and to the play as a whole.

One way an author can have the structure affect overall meaning is to manipulate the acts and scenes. The great playwright William Shakespeare is a perfect example of this. Shakespeare always structured his plays in a specific format: each has five acts, with anywhere from two to seven scenes, with the climax, or the turning point, occurring in the third act.

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