Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

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:

  • The poem’s type – poems can be lyrics that focus on expressing emotions, narratives that tell a story, and/or descriptive poems that say something about the characteristics of the poet’s world.
  • The poem’s stanza structure – stanzas are simply groups of lines. Poets can choose from couplets (two lines together), tercets (three lines together), quatrains (four lines together), and so on.
  • The poem’s line lengths – poetic lines can range from very short (one or two words) to very long.
  • The poem’s rhyme scheme – poets may choose to rhyme various lines of their poems, or they may decide to leave out rhymes altogether, a style called blank verse.
  • The poem’s rhythm – rhythm is simply the patterns of sound in a poem. If a poem has a regular sound pattern, we say that it has a meter. Rhythm and meter are formed when a poet chooses to use specific numbers of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of a poem.

Together, these elements produce a poem’s form. Again, let’s take a look at George Herbert’s poem Easter Wings. What is the first thing you notice about its form? That’s right; it looks like a pair of wings. Herbert uses varying line lengths and rhythms to physically create an image of wings in both stanzas. Also notice the poem’s rhyme scheme. In both stanzas, lines 1, 3, and 5 rhyme, as do lines 2 and 4, lines 6, 8, and 10, and lines 7 and 9.

Poetic Meaning

A poem’s form and content combine to create its meaning. Remember the equation we learned earlier?

Content + Form = Meaning

The meaning of a poem is the message the poet gives to the reader. Take another look at Easter Wings. Can you see how Herbert uses both form and content to create the meaning of his poem? The poem’s physical shape joins with its language to express the idea that human beings alone decay and grow thin. These words form the shortest lines at the center of the wings. Then Herbert uses images of flight and rising as the lines grow longer at the end of each stanza. In doing so, he paints a significant picture that imprints itself on your mind and communicates the message that he wants you to receive.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. In poetry, content and form combine to create meaning.

Poetic content refers to a poem’s language. It, too, makes use of numerous elements, including the poem’s topic, subject matter, theme, tone, word choices, word order, figurative language, and imagery. Poetic form refers to a poem’s physical structure; basically, what the poem looks like and how it sounds. Elements like the poem’s type, stanza structure, line lengths, rhyme scheme, and rhythm express its form. Together, content and form make meaning, which is the message the poet gives to the reader.

If you use this little equation, Content + Form = Meaning, whenever you read poetry, you will soon discover that you understand poems better than ever and enjoy them more than you ever thought you could.

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