George Eliot on Form, Poetry, and How Art Reveals the Interrelated Parts of the Whole
“Form, as an element of human experience, must begin with the perception of separateness.”
By Maria Popova
Art alone gives shape to the plasma of our experience, to our most amorphous emotional realities — rage in a Beethoven symphony, rapture in a Rothko painting, the redemption of loss in a Dickinson poem. Art reconciles us to our fundamental incompleteness and the cacophony of our conflicted inner factions. “To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote in contemplating the spiritual element in art and the three responsibilities of the artist.
Unquestionable though the power of art is, how exactly it works us over is among the most elemental unanswerable questions that mark our humanity. But any attempt at an answer ought to begin with the question of form — the container in which art cradles the uncontainable and the fragmentary, and makes it — makes us — whole.
The nature and importance of that container is what Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot (November 22, 1819–December 22, 1880), explored in an 1868 essay titled “Notes on Form in Art,” composed a decade after she received fan mail from Charles Dickens and shortly before she began writing Middlemarch. Found in Eliot’s notebooks and never published in her lifetime, the piece was eventually included in her Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings (public library).
Aware that the question of form has been with us for as long as humans have been making art, Eliot prefaces her subject with a broader meta-meditation on originality of thought:
Abstract words and phrases which have an excellent genealogy are apt to live a little too much on their reputation and even to sink into dangerous impostors that should be made to show how they get their living. For this reason it is often good to consider an old subject as if nothing had yet been said about it; to suspend one’s attention even to revered authorities and simply ask what in the present state of our knowledge are the facts which can with any congruity be tied together and labelled by a given abstraction.
She considers the meaning and purpose of form in creative work:
Form, as an element of human experience, must begin with the perception of separateness, derived principally from touch of which the other senses are modifications; and that things must be recognized as separate wholes before they can be recognized as wholes composed of parts, or before these wholes again can be regarded as relatively parts of a larger whole.
Form, then, as distinguished from merely massive impression, must first depend on the discrimination of wholes and then on the discrimination of parts. Fundamentally, form is unlikeness, as is seen in the philosophic use of the word ‘Form’ in distinction from ‘Matter’; and in consistency with this fundamental meaning, every difference is Form. Thus, sweetness is a form of sensibility, rage is a form of passion, green is a form both of light and of sensibility. But with this fundamental discrimination is born in necessary antithesis the sense of wholeness or unbroken connexion in space and time: a flash of light is a whole compared with the darkness which precedes and follows it; the taste of sourness is a whole and includes parts or degrees as it subsides. And as knowledge continues to grow by its alternating processes of distinction and combination, seeing smaller and smaller unlikenesses and grouping or associating these under a common likeness, it arrives at the conception of wholes composed of parts more and more multiplied and highly differenced, yet more and more absolutely bound together by various conditions of common likeness or mutual dependence. And the fullest example of such a whole is the highest example of Form: in other words, the relation of multiplex interdependent parts to a whole which is itself in the most varied and therefore the fullest relation to other wholes.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Nietzsche’s insight into the purpose and power of metaphor — for abstract language is the vessel that gives form to our thoughts — Eliot adds:
What is Form but the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another? — a limit determined partly by the intrinsic relations or composition of the object, and partly by the extrinsic action of other bodies upon it.
A century before Leonard Cohen extolled poetry as “the Constitution of the inner country,” Eliot — who had just finished her narrative poem The Spanish Gypsy — examines the question of form through the lens of the art she ranks above all the others:
Poetry… has this superiority over all the other arts, that its medium, language, is the least imitative, and is in the most complex relation with what it expresses… Poetry begins when passion weds thought by finding expression in an image; but Poetic Form begins with a choice of elements, however meagre, as the accordant expression of emotional states. The most monotonous burthen chanted by an Arab boatman on the Nile is still a beginning of poetic form.
Radiating from her insight into this particular art form are broader truths about any medium or platform of creative expression:
Poetic Form was not begotten by thinking it out or framing it as a shell which should hold emotional expression, any more than the shell of an animal arises before the living creature; but emotion, by its tendency to repetition, i.e., rhythmic persistence in proportion as diversifying thought is absent, creates a form by the recurrence of its elements in adjustment with certain given conditions of sound, language, action, or environment. Just as the beautiful expanding curves of a bivalve shell are not first made for the reception of the unstable inhabitant, but grow and are limited by the simple rhythmic conditions of its growing life.
Poetry, from being the fullest expression of the human soul, is starved into an ingenious pattern-work, in which tricks with vocables take the place of living words fed with the blood of relevant meaning, and made musical by the continual intercommunication of sensibility and thought.
Couple with Jane Hirshfield on poetry as a revolution of being and how art transforms us, then revisit Eliot on the life-cycle of happiness and our greatest source of restlessness.
Published July 31, 2018