Russian Formalism in Poetry

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Introduction For my essay I am going to adopt a formalist approach to Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’. In particular I will be looking into the views of the Russian formalists such as Victor Shlovsky and Alexander Potebnya, and relating their thoughts to the poem. I will then be seeing how the ‘The Thorn’ relates to elements of the uncanny in its content. I will finish by including a reader response, where I will draw on my own thoughts of the poem. Russian formalism Russian formalism advocated a ‘scientific’ method for studying poetic language.

Russian formalists saw poetry as something that can be mechanically taken in order to reveal devices that make it up. The formalists believed that poetry was made up of several different devices purposely placed to increase length of perception. As Erlich points out, ” It was intent upon delimiting literary scholarship from contiguous disciplines such as psychology, sociology, intellectual history, and the list theoreticians focused on the ‘distinguishing features’ of literature, on the artistic devices peculiar to imaginative writing” (The New Princeton Encyclopedia 1101- http://en. ikipedia. org/wiki/Russian_formalism#Mechanistic_Formalism). Shlovsky believed that in life we take general signs for granted, And he believed that poetic language played with form and content to make the receiver think more purposely about what they were reading. Shlovskys argument, briefly stated, “is that the habitual way of thinking is to make the unfamiliar as easily digestible as possible. Normally our perceptions are “automatic,” which is another way of saying that they are minimal” (Russian formalist criticism four essays page 4).

Thus according to Russian formalism “The role of art in general is to remove this veil of familiarity , to re-alert us to the objects , ideas and events which no longer make an impression (class handout , part one, formal introduction). Wordsworth’s ‘The thorn’ can be seen to draw on several Russian formalist theories. Firstly, throughout the poem there are several uses of imagery. In the first stanza when describing the thorn, it is said to be ‘old’, ‘grey’ with ‘thorny points’ and ‘knotted joints’. This is just a brief example of imagery used in poem.

It seems to set the tone very early on by giving the reader a dreary mental image. Alexander Potebnya believed that imagery was key to the function of poetry. He claimed that it was a way of thinking in images and once said “without imagery there is no art and in particular no poetry” (Russian formalist criticism four essays page 5). Potebnya writes “Poetry, as well as prose, is first and foremost a special way of thinking and knowing – thinking in images” (Russian formalist criticism four essays page 4).

The poem contains certain conventional symbols, such as the semi- colon, colon commas and dashes. The symbols create gaps in the poem and seem to be a device in which the reader is prompted to pause and think of whats been said. For example-again in the first stanza, the opening half (of first stanza) is describing the ‘old’ thorn. It seems that the content of this section allows the poem to flow at moderate pace, I. e. words such as ‘grey’ and ‘say ‘allow for a slower pace in the way that they sound. This slow pace can be linked to the idea of the thorn being old and weary.

The use of the semi-colon seems to break up the stanza by giving it a more stressed and roughened rhythm, for example the thorn is being described in a more unpleasant way. Words such as ‘knotted’ (knot-ted) and ‘wretched’ (wretch-ed) give a more aggressive tone. This could be seen as nature’s aggressive and more dangerous side. The use of metaphor is very apparent in the poem. A formalistic approach would suggest that metaphor is a device used in poetic language to demystify, thus stimulating and provoking thought and perception.

An example of metaphor used in ‘The thon’ reads; ‘Up from the earth these mosses creep, And this poor thorn! They clasp it round so close; you’d say that they were bent with plain and manifest intent, To drag it to the ground’. To look at this extract in a metaphorical sense, it could be suggested that the thorn is the baby and the mosses are representing Martha or the evils in the world killing and burying the baby. This is an example of defamiliarisation, with the use of metaphor making understanding more complicated.

Shlovsky defines a field of literary activity in which linguistically based devices (such as metaphor and metonymy) create an experience more complex and possibly less coherent, than the examination of images can suggest. (Contemporary literary criticism, second edition page 54). There are a few examples were it would seem the narrator is talking to or addressing the reader personally. For example the eleventh stanza (first line) reads “I’ll give you the best help I can:” That’s followed by instructions to get to the “dreary mountain top”.

A few lines on it goes on to tell of her situation with ‘Stephen Hill’ and wedding plans etc, this seems to me to be purposely done to mimic gossiping (locals who say she killed her baby) – gossiping that is within the content of the poem. The third stanza has an unexpected change how the narrator is talking to the reader. The narrator is describing a muddy pond of water, using cold and windy descriptions as part of the imagery. Then the last two lines of the stanza read “I’ve measured it from side to side: ‘tis three feet long, and two feet wide”.

This seems like an odd digression, with the narrator clearly going off the point of the story. This is maybe done as a bit of humor to knock the reader off track, which links back to delaying of meaning. Uncanny I am going to look at aspects The uncanny within the ‘The thorn’. The uncanny has to do with a sense of strangeness, mystery or eeriness. More particular it concerns a sense of unfamiliarity which appears at the very heart of the familiar, or else a sense of familiarity which appears at the heart of the unfamiliar (class handout, The uncanny page 36).

The Uncanny is a Freudian concept, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize (http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Uncanny) There are seemingly several aspects of Wordsworth ‘The thorn’ that fall into aspects of the uncanny. The first example I am going to extract from the poem is in the fifth stanza.

The line that reads “is like an infant’s grave in size”. This is immediately linked to death, but how it ties into the uncanny is the unthinkable notion of it being a Childs grave. Another example of death is on stanza twelve “And if ‘twas born alive or dead”, linked to the notion ‘all that lives must die’. There are references to animism within the content, in the sixteenth stanza, “were voices of the dead”. This could be seen as Martha’s dead baby playing her conscience. Also in the same stanza on the line that says “cries coming from the mountain – head”, this is linked to Anthropomorphism.

This because the mountain is said to be crying also there is the idea within the content of the mountain having a human form (head). The line that reads “And for the little infants bones with spades they would have sought”, this has an eerie feel about it. The idea of infant’s bones would fall into the uncanny category. For example the idea of infant is familiar to you or I but when you pair the idea of infant with bones it becomes unfamiliar. Reader response Wordsworth’s the thorn is a poem that I particularly enjoyed. I think it is an easy read in terms of understanding what it’s about.

I do think that it has some contradictory elements within it that make it an appealing read. Going back to first stanza where it describes the thorn bush as “old and grey” then describes it as “not higher than a two years child”. I think this is saying that the thorn is old but then likening it to something that is young. On the forth stanza the first line is says “and close beside this aged thorn, there is a fresh and lovely sight. Again this is the concept of old and young together. Further more the woman of the story, Martha Ray is seen as a bad person who is described as “wretched” early on in the poem.

But as the story progresses and the reader becomes more familiar with Martha Ray( you get an insight into the Martha’s past- in particular her partner ran off with another woman), a shift in the narrators thoughts towards Martha becomes more sympathetic –“Poor Martha! On that woful day A cruel, cruel fire, they say, into her bones was sent”. The use of nature to set the scene is a really good aspect of the poem, in the third stanza the weather is described as “stormy winter cloud”; this is fitting imagery that I think mirrors the emotion that comes from the issue of a Childs death.

I think that the poem is intending to reflect society (which I think is evident now a days). I believe that Wordsworth wanted to show how cruel society can be. No one knows how Martha lost her baby but there are all gossiping and speculating that she has indeed killed her baby. As a result Martha has ended up on the fringe of society. She mourns alone, no one comforts her. Instead, they speculate about what might have happened to the child. – “but some will say She hanged her baby on the tree, Some say she drowned it in the pond”.

In this poem he appears to be illustrating not only a mother’s sorrow at losing her child, but also the often unsympathetic nature of society. Overall I do think that this poem is entertaining and has a very good morale to it. An interesting aspect of the poem is the poem starts with describing the thorn and it ends with thorn. To start with, the thorn is just seen as a thorn. As the story is unfolding the reader begins to see different ways in which the thorn is described, the thorn seems to come alive and takes on new meaning within the narrative.

Towards the end of the poem the thorn seems to go back to becoming just a thorn in the ground, “with heavy tufts of moss”. Bibliography • The New Princeton Encyclopedia 1101 • Russian formalist criticism four essays , Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis • Contemporary Literary Criticism , Robert Con Davis an Ronald Schleifer • http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Russian_formalism#Mechanistic_Formalism • Romanticism – possible approaches ll (class handout) • Romanticism, an anthology third edition, edited by Duncan Wu • http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Uncanny