Understanding Poetry #4: Feature Spotting

In his 1856 work Modern Painters the critic John Ruskin introduced an idea that has since had unintended consequences for a few hundred million schoolchildren. In response to the line “The cruel, crawling foam”, he writes:

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the ‘Pathetic Fallacy‘.

Ruskin goes on to tease apart a number of examples of poets’ attributing living characteristics to inanimate things or human intent to animals: a leaf dances (Coleridge); a sail is nimble and the wind lags (Pope); birds sing praises (Pope again). To condense several pages into a couple of sentences, Ruskin argues that this kind of personification is a logical error (fallacy) that people make when overcome by strong emotion. It’s therefore OK for poets to do this when representing strong emotions; otherwise (Ruskin argues) it’s just sloppy writing.

I don’t entirely agree with this, but for today that’s irrelevant. The point is that “pathetic fallacy” has since detached itself from its original context and taken on a life of its own. Classroom after classroom have been told that it’s either about attributing sympathetic emotion to natural phenomena or something to do with the weather. No one is intentionally getting it wrong: today’s teachers are passing on something they learned from their teachers, who in turn learned it from theirs (in old-style hats and coats).

It’s legitimate for a term to change its meaning over time. But in this case the revised meaning is at best useless and at worst actively harmful. I’ve yet to come across any instance of pathetic fallacy that can’t be better explored as personification and/or symbolism. We don’t need a special term for something between the two and vaguely about the weather. (A-Level students, please also note that a recent AQA examiner’s report highlighted pathetic fallacy as one of the terms candidates most over-use: you have been warned.)

What does any of this have to do with understanding poetry? The reason this mutated version of pathetic fallacy has survived and thrived is because it’s perfectly adapted to a bigger underlying menace: feature spotting.

Last week we looked at the problem of skipping over effect and rushing straight to meaning. Feature spotting is the opposite: simply calling out poetic techniques without any reference to their effect in the poem. Assonance? Tick. Alliteration? Tick. Pathetic Fallacy? Tick.

This is the equivalent of trying to analyse a musical score by pointing to a particular note and yelling: “Look! C#”. It gets you nowhere in understanding the poem. Nor does wrapping the feature-spot in a sentence that pretends to address the effect but is really just taking some words out for a walk: “the assonance in line 3 adds emphasis”; “the poet emphasizes this through the use of pathetic fallacy”; “the poet achieves this through use of language” (as opposed to what? the medium of dance?).

If you’re formally analysing a poem or writing an essay, the rule is simple: whenever you call out a feature or technique, always state what effect it has. You don’t have to be mechanical about this (“The effect of the internal half rhyme in line three is to reinforce the shift from the simple iambic rhythm of the first two lines to the more skipping, hypermetric third by linking under, October and water. The effect of the assonance in line four is to highlight the pairing of mirror and still. The effect of…”). But always ask what effect a technique creates (or else don’t bother pointing it out: examiners don’t give marks for feature spotting).

Let’s look at a worked example. At the end of “Talking in Bed”, Larkin writes:

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

This is the only point in the poem where three consecutive lines rhyme. It’s also the only point where a word is rhymed with itself. Plus there’s assonance on consecutive stresses in one line (“still…difficult”) and alliteration on consecutive stresses on the next (“Words…once”).

What’s the effect of the features I’ve just listed? (Look! C#). Personally, I think it’s all to do with the last line. If you delete the final line, the poem ends with a clinching couplet and some supporting sound-effects. Bunching assonance or alliteration on consecutive stresses makes something sound more definitive (although in this case the disrupted rhythm never allows the lines to sound too sure of themselves). Likewise, a closing couplet is the poetic equivalent of musical resolution (look at any Shakespeare sonnet), but three rhymes in a row starts to sound strained; and rhyming a word with itself can comes across as cheating – especially if all of the other words or syllables in the final line are themselves repeated within a few words either side.

The sound effects help to build up a definitive closing statement and then undermine it with something anticlimactic – all of which is congruent with the poem’s subject matter. So we might write:

Larkin ends on a note of unease and anti-climax. The poem resolves to what would otherwise be a definitive closing couplet, but undermines this by stretching it out to a third line and rhyming “kind” with itself (striking a false note). This final line revises the previous ending: “true” and “kind” are both replaced by more tentative double-negatives, leaving us with a sense of uncertainty and false closure.

This is a long way from being exemplary close reading, but it’s also a long way from meaningless feature spotting.

Next time we’ll look at metrics. For now, here’s a poem that weaves some wonderful effects into its twenty-four lines.

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae (Ernest Dowson, 1894)

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

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