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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.”

George Eliot on Form, Poetry, and How Art Reveals the Interrelated Parts of the Whole

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).

George Eliot by Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade
George Eliot by Alexandre Louis François d’Albert Durade

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.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

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.


Tennessee Williams on Love and How the Very Thing Worth Saving Is the Thing That Will Save Us

“We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

Tennessee Williams on Love and How the Very Thing Worth Saving Is the Thing That Will Save Us

“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy wrote at the end of his life in his forgotten correspondence with Gandhi about human nature and why we hurt each other, as the global tensions that would soon erupt into World War I were building. How love can save us and what exactly it saves us from — each other, ourselves, the maelstrom of our intersubjective suffering — are questions each person and each generation must answer for themselves.

Tennessee Williams (March 26, 1911–February 25, 1983), born several months after Tolstoy’s death, addressed this abiding question with uncommonly poetic precision several months before his own death in a 1982 conversation with James Grissom, who would spend three decades synthesizing his interviews with, research on, and insight into the beloved playwright in Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog (public library).

Tennessee Williams (Photograph: John Springer)

A quarter century after Martin Luther King, Jr. made his impassioned case for reviving the ancient Greek concept of agape, Williams reflects:

The world is violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.

Complement with Jeanette Winterson on how art saves us and Elizabeth Alexander on the ethic of love, then revisit Williams’s conversation with William S. Burroughs about writing and death and his stirring reading of two poems by Hart Crane.


Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

“I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. The illusion of permanent progress inflicts a particularly damning strain of despair as we witness the disillusioning undoing of triumphs of democracy and justice generations in the making — despair preventable only by taking a wider view of history in order to remember that democracy advances in fits and starts, in leaps and backward steps, but advances nonetheless, on timelines exceeding any individual lifetime. Amid our current atmosphere of presentism bias and extreme narrowing of perspective, it is not merely difficult but downright countercultural to resist the ahistorical panic by taking such a telescopic view — lucid optimism that may be our most unassailable form of resistance to the corruptions and malfunctions of democracy.

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) insisted on again and again in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us his wisdom on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art enhances life, and what makes life worth living.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Shortly before his sixtieth birthday and a decade after issuing his immensely prescient admonition that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Whitman writs under the heading “DEMOCRACY IN THE NEW WORLD”:

I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.

Having lived and saved lives through the Civil War, having seen the swell of “vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations,” having witnessed the corrosion of idealism and the collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency, Whitman still faces a dispiriting landscape with a defiant and irrepressible optimism — our mightiest and most countercultural act of courage, then and now and always:

Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.

Zooming out of the narrow focus of his cultural moment — as we would be well advised to do with ours — Whitman takes a telescopic perspective of time, progress, and social change, and considers what it really takes to win the future:

The advent of America, the history of the past century, has been the first general aperture and opening-up to the average human commonalty, on the broadest scale, of the eligibilities to wealth and worldly success and eminence, and has been fully taken advantage of; and the example has spread hence, in ripples, to all nations. To these eligibilities — to this limitless aperture, the race has tended, en-masse, roaring and rushing and crude, and fiercely, turbidly hastening — and we have seen the first stages, and are now in the midst of the result of it all, so far. But there will certainly ensue other stages, and entirely different ones. In nothing is there more evolution than the American mind. Soon, it will be fully realized that ostensible wealth and money-making, show, luxury, &c., imperatively necessitate something beyond — namely, the sane, eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes, elements… Soon, it will be understood clearly, that the State cannot flourish, (nay, cannot exist,) without those elements. They will gradually enter into the chyle of sociology and literature. They will finally make the blood and brawn of the best American individualities of both sexes.

Three years later, and ten presidencies before a ruthless government began assaulting and exploiting nature as a resource for commercial and political gain, Whitman revisits the subject under the heading “NATURE AND DEMOCRACY—MORTALITY”:

American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.

Specimen Days remains one of the most timelessly insightful books I have ever encountered. Complement this particular portion with Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy, Rebecca Solnit on lucid optimism in dark times, and Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s animated tribute to Leonard Cohen’s anthem to democracy, then revisit Whitman on the essence of happiness and his advice on the building blocks of character.


An Animated Field Guide to Black Holes and the Key Conundrum of Time

A dive into some of the most thrilling unsolved questions of science.

An Animated Field Guide to Black Holes and the Key Conundrum of Time

In July 1967, just after her twenty-fourth birthday, the Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell noticed a strange signal in the data streaming in from the radio telescope she was monitoring. She had discovered a pulsar — an epoch-making breakthrough that earned the Nobel Prize, though Bell was denied recognition for the discovery she herself had made.

Pulsars furnished watershed evidence that neutron stars — the collapsed cores left behind by the final explosion of dying stars, first theorized more than three decades earlier — were real. From this followed the even more thrilling indication that black holes — which even Einstein had regarded as an enticing but purely mathematical and possibly unprovable theoretical construct — might also be real. The term black hole itself was coined that year by the influential physicist John Archibald Wheeler as a shorthand for the unhandsome standard phrasing: “completely collapsed gravitational object.” It was a defining moment in our understanding of the universe, laying the foundation for the most important discovery in modern astrophysics — the detection of gravitational waves half a century later.

In this lovely animation by science communication powerhouse Massive, University of Arizona astrophysicist Feryal Özel and Yale theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan delve into the deepest mysteries of black holes and what they may tell us about the nature of time and the universe. The short film is a companion to the fifteenth installment in the Scientific Controversies series hosted by astrophysicist Janna Levin — Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works, my collaborator in The Universe in Verse, and author of the magnificent Black Hole Blues (public library).

For more fascinating science from Massive, see their animated series celebrating the scientific prescience of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


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