Russian Formalism in Poetry

Topics: Formalism, Russian formalism, Poetry Pages: 5 (1862 words) Published: December 1, 2009

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- 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!...

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
• Romanticism – possible approaches ll (class handout)
• Romanticism, an anthology third edition, edited by Duncan Wu
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