On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word
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What is form? Why does form matter? In this imaginative and ambitious study, Angela Leighton assesses not only the legacy of Victorian aestheticism, and its richly resourceful keyword, 'form', but also the very nature of the literary. She shows how writers, for two centuries and more, have returned to the idea of form as something which contains the secret of art itself. She tracks the development of the word from the Romantics to contemporary poets, and offers close readings of, among others, Tennyson, Pater, Woolf, Yeats, Stevens, and Plath, to show how form has provided the single most important way of accounting for the movements of literary language itself. She investigates, for instance, the old debate of form and content, of form as music or sound-shape, as the ghostly dynamic and dynamics of a text, as well as its long association with the aestheticist principle of being 'for nothing'. In a wide-ranging and inventive argument, she suggests that form is the key to the pleasure of the literary text, and that that pleasure is part of what literary criticism itself needs to answer and convey.
(London, 1882), 41. ¹⁴ The Religion of Beauty: Selections from the Aesthetes, intro. Richard Aldington (London: Heinemann, 1950), 34. ¹⁵ H. M. McLuhan, ‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’, in Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, ed. John Killham (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), 67–85; Harold Bloom, ‘Tennyson, Hallam, and Romantic Tradition’, in The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 145–54. ¹⁶ Arthur Henry Hallam, Remains
all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch’.¹⁹ The intransitive mode of ‘see and touch’ betrays the ‘effort’, but hides the object. In his understated way, and in the space of a few pages, Pater brings a whole philosophical and classical argument to bear on art for art’s sake. For if, as he concludes, the only purpose of art is to give ‘the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake’,²⁰ this is also because nothing exists beyond the moment. The
life, is thus tactfully emphasized. With or without the Creator, however, form is a timebound word. John Tyndall’s accounts of light and wave theory, which Pater also knew,³¹ may have encouraged his own emphasis on the temporary properties of form. In Six Lectures on Light (1873), for instance, Tyndall explains wave motion in terms of a form crossing and surviving its material substance: ‘The propagation of a wave is the propagation of a form, and not the transference of the substance which
is a memory by association, repeated in this story with fretful insistence. Loving beauty leads to knowing Vernon Lee, in a wish-fulﬁlling connection which is never developed or resolved. It may be, however, that that connection, which biographies of Woolf have tended to ignore, lurks elsewhere in Woolf ’s pleading, bafﬂed repetitions of that one word. Beauty, she acknowledges in this story, does not come out of an abstract void, created by modernism; it comes out of nineteenth-century
fascinating for the way it can make the word work, rather than mean. Rather like Pater, he offers something approaching a prose poem, the shifts of which are of more interest than any conclusion. While the frisson of sexual beauty has gone from the word ‘form’, its openness, its somehow available emptiness and multi-signiﬁcance, remain. The very title, The Life of Forms, comes to life in the course of the book, emphasizing, as it does, change, interplay, metamorphosis, experiment, adventure. Form