Understanding Poetry #3: Meaning vs Effect

A country classroom. A whiteboard. Morning.

Pupil: Please, sir, what does the assonance in line 3 mean?
Teacher: Well, erm, it’s a sad poem and the long “o” sounds are like someone moaning and wailing.

The trap here (which in one form or another has infected a lot of the way poetry is taught and read) is the assumption that everything in a poem has to be translated into a meaning that can be explained. Let’s compare this with what’s going on in another classroom in the same school:

Pupil: Please, Miss, what does this E flat major chord mean?
Teacher: It doesn’t mean anything. Interestingly, the same E flat major triad runs through the first few minutes of the prelude, beginning with the natural open sound of the wind instruments and developing into something more layered before the first sung note. This creates an effect of evolving complexity, with uncrafted sound eventually giving way to the human voice.

The teacher could have added that some commentators have interpreted this effect (from the prelude to Das Rheingold) as depicting the origins of life and others have seen it as an enacted metaphor for the creative process, but the important thing is that she explored the effect rather than jumping straight to meaning.

What can the English teacher in our first example learn from this?

Pupil: Please, sir, what does the assonance in line 3 mean?
Teacher: Sound patterns in poetry don’t mean anything in themselves. But the effect Rossetti creates is to slow us down with consecutive open “ou” and “o” sounds after a mix of long and short vowels in the first two lines. You can hear it if you read the first three lines aloud: “Remember me when I am gone away, / Gone far away into the silent land / When you can no more hold me by the hand”

I realize this may sound like hair-splitting, but the difference – between meaning and effect – is one of the most important in understanding poetry.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, we are taught to read for meaning. The literature syllabus compounds this with a disproportionate emphasis on themes and interpretation (and less emphasis on the ways in which poems achieve their effects). This is wrong-headed, because great literature rarely says anything that hasn’t been said before; it just says it in better or refreshing ways. We don’t read Wilfred Owen because nobody in the preceding ten millennia of human history had figured out that war is brutal and futile; we read him because of the way he writes about it and the effects he creates. The difference between a great poem and a bad one isn’t the theme but the way it’s written.

When it comes to specific effects, this problem is compounded by two others: feature-spotting (the subject of next week’s post) and onomatopoeia. In rare cases, the sound patterns of a poem really do mimic what they’re describing. Auden’s “Night Mail” is a classic example, where the rhythm of the lines unforgettably harnesses the rattle and shunt of a train: “This is the night mail crossing the border, / Bringing the cheque and the postal order”. And yes, Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” borrows the whump of a swan’s wings just as Cleopatra’s dying sibilance evokes the sound of the snake that’s about to bite her. But these are the exceptions rather than the norm. The overwhelming majority of sound patterns in poems aren’t imitating anything; the effects they create are different and more complex.

“Night Mail” is a good example here. Yes, the poem borrows the rhythm of a train in its opening lines. But it would be a very dull poem if that was all it did. To take one example at random, the poem ends “none will hear the postman’s knock / Without a quickening of the heart, / For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” After two strong masculine-stressed monosyllables (“knock”, “heart”), the poem ends with the polysyllabic feminine-stressed “forgotten” (where the stress falls not on the final syllable but the penultimate). This creates an effect of anti-climax and imperfect closure. We know without being told that plenty of people will be disappointed and not receive letters – not because the unstressed final syllable somehow represents their disappointment but because the effect of anti-climax leaves us more aware of the forgotten than the fulfilled.

The best way to focus on the effects in a poem is to be aware of your own feelings and responses as you read it, then to look at what elements in the poem are causing you to respond in that way. (If you’re writing an essay or academic criticism then you shouldn’t replay this process in what you write, but it’s still a valuable preparatory exercise.)

The below are rough rules of thumb and don’t always apply, but it’s a reasonable list to start with.

1. Most sound effects don’t mean anything at all but help to give a poem shape and structure. This goes for assonance and alliteration as much as for rhyme.

2. Clusters of different sound patterns together reinforce one another (lots of assonance, alliteration and half-rhymes within a line or two, for example). This is like bringing in all of the orchestra at once.

3. Our minds create links between words that sound similar. Please be careful with this one and don’t start seeing it everywhere (on one level it’s there all the time, but subliminally; and finding significance in every pair of rhyme words or assonance partners quickly gets boring). That said, if a poem repeatedly rhymes “passion” with “fashion” then it inevitably yokes the two together in our minds.

4. We give more emphasis to words at the beginning or end of a line. Likewise to words where a metrical stress falls.

5. On one level we always notice a change in rhythm. If you read a line that skips along after several that thump like a funeral drum, please don’t start looking for a theme in the poem that the skipping represents; but please do look at the effect of the change in tempo.

6. On average, long lines speed you up and short lines slow you down.

7. Lines that break at the end of a phrase or clause sound more regular than lines that break in the middle of one. The tighter the phrasal unit, the more disruptive the impact of splitting it over two lines (a powerful effect, but one that’s easy to over-use). And save “enjambment” for the extreme cases; most of the time it’s fine to talk about “line breaks”.

8. Read everything aloud. Some lines are easier to say than others, and the dissonant lines are as much a part of the effect as the harmonious ones. Keep an eye out for clashing consonants and other harsh sounds that don’t trip off the tongue, but if you find yourself writing that “the clashing k and t sounds mimic the clashing blades in the battle” then go back to the line and ask if that’s really the effect (possible, but you need to be very sure you’re not taking refuge in meaning too quickly). Sometimes dissonance is just dissonance.

9. Effect is not just a stepping-stone on the way to meaning. It’s absolutely fine to stop at the effect, though this isn’t the same as stopping at the feature. To say “there is assonance in line 3” is pointless feature-spotting; to say “the assonance in line 3 mimics the wailing of the speaker’s bereaved lover” is facile; to say “the ou and o assonance in line 3 sets up a sound cluster that’s picked up in line 4’s go and that links hold and go together in the ear” nails the effect perfectly.

10. Plenty of effects (changes of tempo, metrical patterns, stronger or weaker rhymes) are primarily there to stop things getting monotonous.

11. There are exceptions to all of the above.

Next week we’ll look at the trap of feature-spotting. For now, here’s what was on that interactive whiteboard at the beginning:

Remember (Christina Rossetti, 1862)

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.


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2 thoughts on “Understanding Poetry #3: Meaning vs Effect

  1. Rose Sargant

    I once was asked to compare Christina Rossetti’s poem’ Remember me’ with Shakespeare’s poem on the same theme of loss ‘ No longer mourn for me when I am dead…’ Although I have loved Rossetti’s poem since childhood, I had to acknowledge that Shakespeare’s is the greater poem. I’ve wondered about this and feel that Shakespeare gets all the bitterness of death into the poem, but also the love for the people left behind feeling the loss.

    1. Gareth Prior Post author

      Thanks Rose. I have to say I love both poems, though I agree with you that Shakespeare’s has a real tension between loss and love, and undoubtedly more dramatic complexity: reading the Rossetti I never doubt that the speaker means what she says, whereas Shakespeare’s sonnet can equally be read as either sincere or embittered – all of which adds ambiguity and layers of meaning; and it’s telling that Rossetti removes Shakespeare’s suggestion that the poem itself might be the prompt for remembering. For me the two poems each do different things extremely well. Thank you for reminding me how good the Shakespeare version is.

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