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Formalist Reading


In order to do the formalistic study of poems five poems are taken for this research
1. Death Be Not Proud by John Donne
2. Leisure by W.H Davies
3. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
This research deeply studies these poems under the perspective of formalist theory. These poems are taken to see the poetic devices used in these poems


Formalism is a school of literary criticism and literary theory. Formalism refers towards the feature of the text. These features are not only consists of syntax and grammar but it also discuss the literary devices used in the text. A lot of the researches criticize the formalism theory and some of them like the theory.
William H Thelin says by criticizing Maxine Hairston’s approach to the teaching traditional stand point.

Mary Ann Cain writes that formalism say that the text is complete in itself and text stand itself alone and text is the important thing except the one who writes it. There a lot of researches done on Russian formalism it go to the work of society to study the language of poetics.

Boris Eichenbaum says that Victor Shklovsky was the leader of the group of critics.
The most famous critique is done by the Leon Trostsky. He does not clearly dismiss the theory of formalism but he said that methods use for the analysis of formalism are not enough and are insufficient because it ignore the person who wrote the text basically it ignore the social context and aspect.
The formalist thoughts and guess based on the linguistic theory which was presented by Ferdinand de Saussure. Formalist critics were mostly not concerned about the historical or any cultural information or the reason why the writer wrote the text and in which time he wrote
the text or anything about the author. According to Kennedy 1468 says formalist pay their all attention toward the text, style, genre and tone.
According to Diyanni 1561 formalists study the tension and ambiguity in a piece of text. Tension is in which way the texts element show opposition and conflict toward other. Ambiguity is the opening of text in more than single interpretation.
Another part of the formalist theory was new criticism it was a literary movement. New criticism was dominated by America it left a great impact on the middle decades. The advantage of formalist reading is that formalist study can be performed without so much research it also focus on the literature.
Some important works are done on the formalism. It is done by the John Crowe Ransome’s The New Criticism 1941 and Cleanth Brook’s The Well Wrought Urn 1947. In 1954 William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published the a critical essay “The Intentional Fallacy” in which they strictly argued about that the text written on the page is the important thing to study all the other matter should be ignored each and every outside text is considered to be irrelevant and distracting.

Another thing they introduce was the affective fallacy which contains the influence the critics greatly criticizes the statement and they also disliked the influence and emotional effect which left in the mind of the reader.
The concepts of new critics were criticized by many theorists. After all this formalism faced alot of acid attacks. Another school in formalism was Russian formalism initially focused on poetry they were not focused on social function of literature.
In Russian formalism a famous formalist Victor Shklovisky in his book ‘art as technique” introduced the concept of defamiliarization. The meaning of defamiliarization is making it strange. Russian formalism focused on literariness of defamiliarization, text, plot story etc.


The Formalism name derived from the central tenets of formalist thought. Two groups of people came together in Russia. The first group made the Moscow linguistic circle and it involved Roman Jacobson. The second group called OPYAZ. These two groups collaborated with each other and from there the formalism starts these group members bring out the important concepts and ideas of formalist theory.

Formalism as a theory came on the surface at the end of second world wars till 1970.
Formalism is a form of literary theory and literary criticism. Formalism mainly show the content of the literary piece and its reject the outside influence it shows a style to interpret a literary piece on the idea of grammar, syntax ,meter ,literary devices etc. the formalist study reduces the importance of historical background of text it also reject the importance of biographical and cultural context.
Formalism is the rejection against romanticism. Romantic writer use the fancy and imagination and they rejects the formalist aspects of writings. So when the writers of romanticism start writing the formalist rejected this theory and presented the formalist theory. The formalist theory presented that text is the most important tool by saying this they putted text back in to light. Formalist theory reduces the importance of biographical, historical and philosophical implication. Formalism is only deals with formal element of literature like
1. Poetic devices
2. Irony,
3. Symbols
4. Setting
5. Theme,
6. Character
7. Point of view
The writer of the formalist time has an advantage of doing their work on their terms rather to depend upon the accepted notion. It focuses on structure word choices etc. Formalism was the dominant part of literary study in the United States and in United Kingdom. Formalism further divided in to two branches.
1. The Russian formalism
2. New Criticism
There was also the formalism of the new critics which involves john Crowe Ransom, I.A Richards, T.S Eliot. Formalism also based on the work of Roman Jacobson, Boris Eichenbaum, Victor Shklovsky. The Russian formalism and the new criticism is a branch of formalist theory.

Russian formalism refers toward the work done by the people of society for the detailed study of poetic language. It also can be summarizes OPYAZ. The OPYAZ is founded in 1916 Boris Eichenbaum, Victor Shklovsky and Yuri Tynyanov in S.T Peterberg. There are also some major theorist like Vladimir prop, Boris Eichenbaum, and Roman Jacobson. Vladimir Propp also published his famous work The Morphology Of Folk Tales. Boris Eichenbaum also wrote an
essay The Theory Of Formal Method in 1962.
Victor Shiklovsky gave two important ideas to Russian formalism.
1. Defamilarization (Ostraeniye)
2. Plot / Story Distinction (Fabula / Syuzhet)
Defamiliarization is the process in which the literary languages separate itself from ordinary language. It allows the reader to see the thing in a different way.
Charm strikes the sight, but merit wins the soul
Story is the sequence of events. Plot is how these events are arranged is plot.
New criticism is a formalist movement that took place in America during the middle ages of 20 century. The new criticism derived its name from John Crowe Ransom’s book named as The New Criticism published in 1914. William K. Winsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote two important essay were published which are named as The Intentional Fallacy and The Effective
The effective fallacy is criticized by Stanley fish and also by other new critics. The main objection of the critics towards the new criticism was that the new criticism is a thought to aim to make the scientist of criticism.


Death Be Not Proud
(John Donne)
The first poem taken for the study is Death Be Not Proud by John Donne.

This poem is a Holy Sonnet consists of 14 lines. One of the natural phenomena is talked about in this poem that is death. The poet discussed that every beginning has an end. So poet says to death don’t be so proud of yourself by fighting others because you also have to die one day. The theme of this poem is to show the powerlessness of death. According to john Donne death is a new life after death there would be new life and it is not as dangerous and scary as people
In the first stanza the speaker talks to death like a person while treating the death as a person he says that death not be so proud of you because you are not as scary as people think you are.You are not so powerful that people get scared of you people are mistaken to treat the death as a scary thing. He also says that people don’t die when they met death it is a death which dies.
He also compares sleep and rest and death and says that these two things are just a picture of death the way rest and sleep gives pleasure to the person death is also the same.
In the second stanza the speaker poet say death that you are slave to other forces like fate, king, chances, kings. Death is just a slave he works on the order of fate. He says that the poppy plants also can put you on a sleep as well so death not be so proud of yourself as the last line state that don’t be so proud because it is you who is going to be dead one day you also have to die one day.

This poem is rich in poetic devices. The poet has used Personification, Metaphor, Alliteration,Paradox, Meter, Cataloging and limbic rhythm. Poet discusses death as a living creature.In the first line of the poem personification is use where he talks about death as a living creature. Here the irony and paradox are also used as the death is not a living creature but speaker talks like death is some kind of person. In the next line there is metrical emphasis is used. John Donne knows very well about rhythms and he tells us that in the very last line where he used monosyllable. In the third line of poem the speaker uses Alliteration. Alliteration is the repeated sound of consonants like the speaker uses in this poem. The alliteration used in this poem is those, thou, overthrow, thickest. Then in third line there is no literary devise is found.Afterwards in the fifth line the speaker talk about the sleep and rest basically there is a comparison between death and sleep in this line rest and sleep is portrayed as the picture of death there the speaker uses the Metaphor. In sixth and seventh line there is no literary device is present. Then in eighth line the speaker used crisscrossed phrasing like he first putted the noun first rest and then the possessive words like of their “bones” and “souls”. In the ninth line cataloging is used as it can be seen that speaker used single syllable words like “fate, chances, king”. He also used assonance here. He used “slave” and “fate” word here. In the tenth line the limbic rhythmic used. In the twelfth line of the poem there is a rhetorical question in the very last line paradox is used when he finally claims that death also have to die one day. The rhyme scheme used in this poem is ABBA, ABBA, CDD, and CAA. The meter used in this poem is iambic meter.

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Leisure ( W.H Davies )

The second poem is Leisure by W.H Davies

This poem is about to appreciate the beauty of nature and be thankful to God for his creations.However we get too busy in our lives and we have a lot of worries in our life that we forget to appreciate the beauty of nature. In first two line speaker that what is the purpose of life if life is full of care and worries. We
don’t have time to admire the nature to see the nature around us. There is no time to stand and stare at the beauty and mire the beauty of God and think about it.
In third and fourth line the speaker says that people don’t have time they are so busy in their lives that people don’t have time to stand under the tree and just like the sheep and cows when they come to graze there and they also stand there and stare the nature.In fifth and sixth line speaker says that people are so busy in their works that they don’t have time to see the squirrels when they hide their nuts in the ground while passing from forest.They are so busy in their lives that they don’t get time for all this.In seventh and eighth line speaker say that people are so busy in their lives that they don’t even get time to see the river in the sunlight when the river sparkle in the light of sun it look so beautiful in that light. They don’t have time to see the river at the night when the river look like stars.In ninth and tenth line the speaker personifies the nature as beautiful women. He tells that women when dance he moves his body in a beautiful way. Same is the case with nature when nature changes it is like a beautiful dancer. But the people who don’t have time and are busy in their lives don’t have time to admire all this to notice the little changes in the nature and them admire them.In next two line speaker compares nature with the smile of women he says that when nature changes it is like the smile of a women just like when a women smiles his smiles star with his eyes and then his smile and happiness spread all over his face. The speaker again talk about people that busy people also don’t get time to see all this.In next two which is the last lines of poem line speaker again talk about the busy people who didn’t get enough time to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of nature. He says it is sad if we don’t have leisure time.

There are some poetic devices used in this poem. Rhyme is used in this poem which is at the end of the line of poem repetition of same sounds. Imagery is also used in this poem there is a mental image that attracts a senses of a person like smile of women creates an image of smile

in one mind, dancing women creates an image of a graceful lady dancing gracefully, rivers and stream creates an image of something bright and sparkling. Alliteration is used in this poem the repeated sounds of consonants like stand stare, beneath boughs. This poem starts with a rhetorical question it is a kind of question which can be asked but not to expect that there would be an answer of that question. There was repetition of some sound. There is also the comparison between two things is done and that term is called metaphor there is the use of
metaphor in this poem. Simile is also used in the poem in the third and eighth line of the poem where the speaker makes the comparison between two completely different things.
Personification is also used in the ninth line of the poem where speaker make the comparison of a non living thing to living thing where he compares the nature with the dancing lady and smiling lady.

The Road Not Taken Robert Frost

The main theme of this poem is all about to make a choice. In this poem the speaker is traveling on the road on the way he saw two roads now he has to decide which way he wants to continue traveling.In the first stanza the speaker describing the two roads or paths the woods on the roads are yellow which shows that it is the season of fall due to which the leaves are changing their color.The speaker wants to travel the both roads but it is impossible to walk on two roads so he has to choose one road. The speaker feels so sorry about that he cannot travel two roads at a time so speaker is standing in front of two roads deciding which one to go on. He is standing still and staring both roads trying to see where to go.In the second stanza after seeing the road getting disappear in to the undergrowth the speaker finally decided to go on other road and then he describe about the path that why the path is better he says that the path he chooses seems like no one have walked on it and it is grassy.

Then the speaker says that the road he chooses is may be better because it has the fresh grass on it and it is not used by so many people. When he walks on the road he found that many travelers have passed through this road.In the third stanza the speaker says that both the roads were covered with leaves that morning then he thinks that may be he is the one traveling this morning on the road that’s why the leaves are not turned black. He slightly seems to regret on his decision that may be he will not be able to come on that road again which he does not chooses.In the last stanza the poet thinks that after some ages when some years passed somewhere in the future he will looked back and think whether the decision he made was correct or not. He says he will tell about is choice with a sigh he says if the choice is right he will tell it with happiness and if the choices is wrong it he will tell it with sadness. There a lot of literary devices used in this poem by Robert Frost. First of all Road here is used as a metaphor. The splitting road is a metaphor of the choices which we make in our lives , the fork in the road is also used as metaphor in the sixth line of the poem the metaphor is used where speaker think that which way he should choose. Nature is also used as a metaphor here where speaker talks about the woods and yellow leaves. Consonance and assonance is strongly used throughout the poem as it can clearly be seen in fourteenth line and last line of poem. The repetition is also found in this poem in the fourth stanza of second line. Just like every poem this poem also had rhythm and there is a rhythm of iambic. There is diction and imagery. There is figure of speech and symbolism in this poem. He also used personification in his poem where he says it was grassy and wanted wear. When it comes toward rhythm and meter the same syllable pattern used throughout the poem in the first nine lines the syllables are used. This poem has four line stanzas with two end rhyme and that are (abaab).


 Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Trans. Benjamin Sher. Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive,
 Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution. New York: Russell and Russell, 1957.


Many critics criticize the theory of formalist but after reading the poems in the formalistic way it was more interesting to read the poems it was so easy to understand the text in this way and to interpret things. It gets very easy and interesting at the same time to read the poem in the detailed this theory also appreciate the work of poets. This way of reading poem is very helpful to understand the poem. It also get easy to interpret the text while reading it feels to good to just focus on the text and ignore the other element. Formalism just seem as the theoretical branch to us. Formalism is like revealing the tricks behind the magic it is about what are the factors which make us laugh and made us cry. Those are the devices which forces our emotions out.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Sara hashmi

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