Structure and Form – Fowler


There are criticisms that could be made of this (it’s nigh on 30 years old), but according to the Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms(1987):


“All critical theories have some notion of structure: the developing unity of a work. But, according to what characteristics are emphasized as providing that unity, the terms will vary: pattern, plot, story, form, argument, language, rhetoric, paradox, metaphor, myth. Starting from these dispositions, the term ‘structure’ then becomes an enabling reference; the reader is advised to consult potentially parallel entries (e.g. FORM, where structure is distinguished from texture, both being aspects of form) to see how this can be. The proposition is reversed here: such features are typologies of structure, organizational means for arriving at hypotheses about the principles of coherence in a given work. There are many such means, but they fall into two main categories: those derived from internal means and emphasizing features likely to be found especially in literature, and those derived from applying general principles of structure found in language, or the psychology of individuals or communities, or in broad areas of style in all the arts and in life, or in social structure, to works of literature for typological purposes.
I here assume what I think must be assumed for criticism effectively to exist: that every work is a distinct and verbally-created universe and must have a self-created logic or sequence for which the author is responsible. The work will have its own expectations and probabilities which constitute the unity of that universe. There is likely to be a coherence of social relationships and possibilities of relationship, constituting a society; a coherence of action, of probable behaviour in development, constituting a plot; coherence of attitude or value to these things, constituting a tone; coherence of rhetorical tactic, or point of perception and view, constituting a technique or (in a local sense) a language; there are likely to be other significant blocks of coherence – metrical and stanzaic features; acts and scenes; generic conventions – also inviting our sense of significant development. As we begin reading, we recognize that an author, starting writing, has made certain committing choices: where to commence his action, from which standpoints to see it, which language(s) and convention(s) to maintain. As we continue reading, we see that from these a logic flows – not a single logic of tone, technique, story or metaphor but a compound, total system of development or order which enables us to structure our own perceptions, acquire a sense of relevance, see what is persistent and significant in this universe. In some structures it will be apparent that one particular type of order – story, language, composition (in Nabokov’s phrase) as hero – seems dominant. We are not engaged similarly from genre to genre or work to work; and as the significant dispositions, the sense of primary structure, vary so will our terminology.”


form is often used to refer to literary kinds or genres (e.g. ‘the epic form’). But we prefer to take form as what contrasts with ‘paraphrasable content’, as the way something is said in contrast to what is said. The word ‘paraphrasable’ is important since the way of saying affects what is being said – imperceptibly in prose works of information, vitally at the other end of the spectrum in lyric poems. But since authors do in fact often revise their works to improve the STYLE rather than the matter, since synopses are written and found useful, since writers can turn prose versions of their work into verse (like Ben Jonson), and since it is evident that much the same point may be made in plain or figurative language, simple or complex sentences, it is clear that even though form and content may be inseparable for the ‘full meaning’ of a work, the paraphrasable content may nevertheless be used to enable the concept of form to be discussed.
Form in this sense is often felt to be organic or imposed. Felt, because this is rather a psychological distinction than a technical one. In the one case, manner seems to fit matter like a velvet glove, form seems to spring from content; in the other case, the form seems an iron gauntlet that the content must accommodate itself to. In some short lyric poems where form and content are inseparable anyway, it may be difficult to decide whether, say, apparent oddities of metre and rhyme are flaws in an imposed form or examples of organic fluidity. In most of these cases, however, the difficulty of decision will itself suggest that the decision is irrelevant to a critical judgment. For the modern dogma that organic form is better hardly stands up to examination. All ‘given patterns’ such as sonnet, rondeau, ballade – are imposed forms; and while it is true that the content must fit them effortlessly or be faulted, it is also true that the form took precedence. In some cases, too – particularly in large novels dealing with amorphous material – imposed form may seem a beneficial discipline even though the imposition is evident. Moreover, it is easier to encompass aesthetic effects of composition and complementarity … by imposed form than by organic form. Organic form tends to emphasize what is said, imposed form how it is said. So where neither emphasis is evident other approaches to the work will clearly be more profitable.
Whether organic or imposed, form must be either structural or textural, the one being large-scale, a matter of arrangement, the other small-scale, a matter of impressionism. Structure at its most obvious (plot, story, argument) is the skeleton of a work, texture at its most obvious (metre, diction, syntax) is the skin. But certain elements are comparable to muscles. A motif for instance is structural in so far as the images making it up are seen as a chain, textural in so far as each is apprehended sensuously as it comes – and contentual, rather than formal, in so far as the chain carries a meaning that one link, an unrepeated image, would not. In the last analysis, structure is a matter of memory, texture of immediacy.
Since structure is a matter of arrangement, it includes the formal ordering of the content in time. Temporal form may be linear or fugal. Linear form is that of traditional literature, in which first things come first, last last, as in life. Fugal form is characteristic of modernist experimental writing, which takes liberties with chronology on the grounds that literature is not life, and need not resemble it. Linear works, of course, may give more or less reading-time to similar periods of narrative time, but fugal works, in addition, re-arrange temporal sequence so that first and last things come not in order but where they will make most impact (usually by standing in juxtaposition) Counterpoint takes over from melody, so to speak. Such structuring, used well, gains thematic and aesthetic benefits in return for the sacrifice of story-line and suspense. Such emphasis of temporal form tends to give greater importance to textural quality (since the reader is less distracted by an eagerness to see what happens next).
Works of this kind present themselves more concretely as objects in space than as abstract patterns of cause and effect, and it follows that the reader’s attention will be directed towards their textural rather than their structural qualities. The elaboration of texture invariably has the effect of arresting movement – whether of thought or action – and substituting the opaque for the transparent in language. ….”

Ref: (bold emphasis, capitals and italics in original) Ed. Roger Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987


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