How To Write A Formalist Essay

An analysis of a poem usually focuses on a single aspect of the poem, for example, the visual imagery or the use of onomatopoeia or the characterization of the speaker. Other possibilities include the use of irony, the use of color, the use of a fixed form such as the sonnet, social or political concepts, or the author's life or other work.

An explication of a poem is a comprehensive treatment that attempts to deal with all major elements of the poem and the ways that the various parts relate to one another and to the unified meaning of the poem. Explication means "unfolding." An essay that explicates a work or a passage shows how the meaning unfolds. A sequential approach is typical, but a thematic approach sometimes works.

First Draft

Remember that your first draft is a discovery process to reveal what you think. Don't be concerned about mechanics at this stage; instead concentrate on getting down on paper some of your ideas about the poem. If you find that an outline helps you organize your thoughts, prepare an informal outline first.

Remember, too, that you should discuss and explain the elements as you present them, not merely identify them. In other words, don't just say that "like a thunderbolt" is a simile; explain that the comparison of the eagle's movements to a thunderbolt suggests that the bird moves with the intense energy, speed, and forcefulness of lightning and that this movement contrasts the stillness of the eagle in the beginning of the poem. Consider the ways the individual elements under discussion relate to one another and to the overall themes of the poem.


For an analysis, include a thesis that focuses on the single aspect you will discuss.


In "Home Burial," many of the images suggest an ongoing power struggle between the husband and wife.

The ironic tone of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" reveals the Duke of Ferrara to be arrogant and cruel.

In analysis, you organize your essay thematically, categorizing the examples and the way they are used to show how the images of power or the tone is presented. An outline is helpful for planning the structure of an analysis.


The power struggle is dramatized through the up-and-down movement on the staircase, through the husband's forceful language and gestures, and through the woman's shrinking before him.

Irony is apparent in the duke's descriptions of his wife as well as in his references to material possessions.


For an explication, a statement of theme might serve as your thesis. In an explication, you move through the poem sequentially, discussing each element as you come to it as an "unfolding" of the meaning.

Work with units of meaning, for example, line by line or image by image or stanza by stanza.

With long poems, however, you may wish to classify the elements you plan to discuss, treating all the visual images together, all the water imagery in one paragraph, and the speaker's tone in another paragraph.


In your introduction, identify the poem, the poet, the speaker, the situation, and one or more major themes. Identify the source of the poem with a footnote, endnote, or bibliography page, according to your teacher's instructions (some teachers may not require such identification, especially if the poem appears in your textbook or on a handout). Some teachers expect students to include a copy of the poem (see format in the model attached here). In your introduction, make some generalizations about the poem's meaning and significance, identifying special features that you plan to discuss in your paper.


In the dramatic monologue "Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold, the speaker laments the loss of faith in an unstable world. Addressing a loved one in the room with him at Dover, England, the speaker describes similarities between the sea and the absence of faith in the world, emphasizing the timelessness of human misery. Images of sight and sound dominate the first part of the poem; more abstract images at the end reinforce the speaker's despair.


In the body of your paper, identify and explain clearly the poetic elements that develop the themes and that provide unity for the poem. Introduce each area clearly and support your points with selected quotations from the poem, being sure to interpret and explain. Provide coherence with reminders of your points, appropriate transition signals, and full explanations of the meaning and significance of all quotations and paraphrases. Do not overuse quotations; instead, concentrate on explaining and interpreting.

Quotations can never stand alone. Check with your teacher about the necessity to include line numbers. Work short quotations smoothly into your own sentences. Most quotations should be phrases rather than several lines. When you quote an obvious phrase, ellipsis marks are unnecessary.

To quote one, two, or three lines, use a slash mark (/) to show line breaks. To quote more than three lines, indent ten spaces (one inch) from the left margin, keeping the capitalization and punctuation of lines as they appeared in the original poem. Introduce long quotations and follow the introduction with a colon.


The allusion to Sophocles' tragedy Antigone, in which the plight of the family of Oedipus is compared to the waves of the sea, dramatizes the timelessness and universality of human misery. Both Antigone and "Dover Beach" associate human misery with the sea; both Sophocles and the "Dover Beach" speaker hear the sound of the sea and reflect on the wretchedness of the human condition. In "Dover Beach," this misery is reflected in the unending, uncertain, undulating motion as well as the dismal sounds of the sea:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world. (lines 25-28)

False perceptions of the world's wonders are contrasted in lines 30 and 31: "the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams." Here, the simile comparing the view from the room with a dream world suggests that the way people see the world is an illusion. Instead of a dream there is a nightmare of war and chaos. In addition, the couplet rhyming "seems" and "dreams" reinforces the idea that the world's peace and beauty are not real.


In your conclusion, reinforce your original thesis and restate the poem's themes and significance. You may wish to comment on the poem's relevance to other poems of the same type or period or to other of the author's poems. Or you may wish to mention how the poem applies to life today or to your own life. Some kind of concluding or summarizing commentary is a good idea. If you present your opinion about the poem at the end, relate your opinion to the ideas in the body of the essay.

Editing and Revising

  1. After writing your first draft, read it and reread the poem to make sure you have said what you wanted to say and that you have not omitted anything.
  2. Allow some time to distance yourself from your draft so that you can reread it more objectively. A period of at least several hours is helpful; a good night's sleep is preferable.
  3. Revise your draft until you are satisfied with what you have said and how you have said it.
  4. Edit carefully to ensure that you have followed the conventions of style for literary analysis.
    1. Use present tense verbs for your discussion. Shift to other tenses only when logical to do so.
    2. After the first reference, refer to the author by last name only. Usually, you should not make references to the author in the discussion; instead, refer to the speaker or to the poem itself.
    3. When the speaker of the poem is unknown or unnamed, refer to him or her as "the speaker"; in other words, don't confuse author and speaker. You may use either the masculine or feminine pronoun in subsequent references unless the speaker's gender is apparent.
    4. Avoid first and second person pronouns (I, me, we, us, you) and references to readers; your paper will thus be more objective in tone.


  1. Use one side of good-quality white bond 8½-by-11-inch paper. Double space. Use letter quality type if you use a computer printer.
  2. Include our name, course data, and due date ½ inch from the top and aligned upper left (see model student paper).
  3. Center your title 1 inch below the course data. Make sure that your title is a clear reflection of the content of your paper and that it identifies the poem. Do not underline or place quotation marks around your own title; do place quotation marks around the name of the poem.
  4. Examples

    Loneliness in Robert Frost's "Desert Places"

    The Sound of Human Misery: Sea Imagery in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"

  5. Left, right, and bottom margins should be one inch throughout. Ragged right margins are preferable. Top margins should be ½ inch. Page numbers with running heads should appear upper right (see student model). Text should begin ½ inch below the page number.
  6. Present your bibliographic entry in correct format on a separate page at the end unless your teacher prefers another method of documentation. Note: use hanging indent and double space entries.


Work Cited

Arnold, Matthew. "Dover Beach." Literature for Composition: Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, and William Burto. 2nd ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1988. 377-78.

Research Papers

If your poetry paper uses secondary source material or other outside research, use the sources to add support and insight to your own well-developed discussion.

Formalism Introduction

In a Nutshell

So let's start at the pinnacle of poetic creation:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

Pretty profound, huh? So when we Shmoopers read this pre-modern lyric, we might notice a few more things than we did when we sang it in a circle of other five-year-olds. We might notice the repetition of words in the first and third lines. We might notice the cute little rhyme of "stream" and "dream" (and the non-rhyme of "boat" and "merrily"—come on, what about a ferry-lee?). We might notice the existential philosophizing behind the final words. We might just be caught up in the watery current—that is, the fluid rhythm, of those stressed syllables.

Are you noticing the type of things we're noticing? Yeah, they all have to do with the words, the rhyme, the rhythm—basically, the sound and the style of the poem/little children's ditty. And that's what Formalism's all about—after all, it's right in the name: formalism.

Okay, let's back up a second. If we've ever taken an English class, chances are we've had to do "close reading" at one time or another. You know—the teacher makes you look really, really closely at a poem or some sentence in a book and goes: "Why is the author using this image?" "What's the rhythm in these lines?" "Is there foreshadowing here?" You know, the typical "Row, row, row your boat" stuff—and that's when we scratch our heads and go, huh?

Close reading sure ain't easy, whether you're looking at a children's ditty or Charles Dickens. But it's become a staple of the teaching of literature. And that's largely thanks to these Russian dudes known as the "Formalists," who lived and worked at the turn of the 20th century in Russia. They, as you might guess, started a movement in literary criticism called "Formalism."

So. Let's get into the nitty gritty. Formalists aren't interested in the historical context of a literary work. They're not interested in its "philosophical" or "cultural" background. Heck, they're not even interested in its author. All they care about, and all they focus on, is the literary work itself.

And that's because they believe that if we really want to understand a work of literature, we just need to look at it really closely, and specifically at its language. Who cares what Shakespeare's childhood was like, or the intricacies of court politics of Elizabethan England? Does that tell us anything about his plays? Um, nothing useful, the Formalists would say, and then start extolling the virtues of iambiac pentameter. Basically, according to the Formalists, we just need to dig deep, way deep, into the text itself.

These guys weren't playing around, either. They thought of themselves as scientists of literature. That's right, as in, their job was to "discover" and "classify" all of the important laws and elements that govern literary texts (in the way that scientists "discover" and "classify" laws of nature). Sure, that part may sound far-fetched to us now, but the Formalists were so influential that a lot of their ideas still impact the way we study literature today.


Why Should I Care?

Why Should Readers Care?

We've all had the experience (or at least we hope we've all had it) of reading something and being blown away by it. We're reading a scene in a novel, or a few lines of poetry, and it's so good our jaw drops. Or we find a single tear coursing down our cheek. Or we're laughing so hard at something a character in a book says that the other people in the library start giving us dirty looks.

And then we look up and wonder, how can they do that? How can an author, using some words on a page, make us react in this way? It seems like a total mystery. Writers must just be these supernatural creatures with superhuman powers. How else can we explain all the unbelievable things they do with words?

If you want to penetrate that mystery, then Formalism is just the theoretical school for you. Formalists are all about revealing the "tricks" behind the "magic tricks" (though they'd prefer you call it "illusions"). How does an author manage to move us? What, exactly, is she or he doing to make us cry here and laugh there? What devices force out those emotions?

Formalism, in other words, allows us to explain how writers achieve certain effects. And without us having to go off and do all kinds of background research in the library. All we need is the text itself. Phew!

Why Should Theorists Care?

Even if you're the sort of literary theorist who believes that things like cultural and historical context are important to analyzing texts (how outlandish), you should still really care about Formalism. Because Formalism is at the root of other very important theoretical schools that developed in the 20th century. Heard of Structuralism? Poststructuralism? Deconstruction? Well, all those (and basically in that order) developed partly out of the work of Formalists.

Plus, some very important literary theorists, like Mikhail Bakhtin (who came up with some theories about the novel that shape how lots of people read today), were also influenced by Formalism. Not to mention that Formalist ideas—like "defamiliarization" and "poetic language"—still influence the way that we think and write about literature today. So even if you're not formally a Formalist, you can still thrive on Formalist techniques.

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