Stanza Structure in The Fish and The Force

Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and Dylan Thomas’ “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” are complex and ambiguous poems that explore the paradoxical forces in a monistic universe where everything is intertwined. Time, nature and humanity are all connected and shown to have contradictory, twin faces: one of creation and one of destruction.  Focus will be given to Moore and Thomas’ use of stanza structure to emphasize and reflect their ideas. The stanza structure of “The Fish” and “The Force” are largely different with subtle similarities, but effectively convey the same message, themes and ideas.

The stanza structure in “The Fish” and “The Force” serves to strengthen their ideas through their respective stanza template. Each stanza can be seen to have a shared basic organization with other stanzas in the poem. Individual verses adhere to a structural blueprint, promoting similarities and reiterating themes. Discrepancies are thus accentuated, so that the evolution and development of ideas can be seen. The way the collective poem is built from individual stanzas, from the template to joining the stanzas to individual incongruities will hence reveal much about the intentions of the poet.

Briefly, some understanding of the general message of the poems are necessary to fully appreciate the efforts of the stanza structure. At their core, “The Fish” and “The Force” are about the creative and destructive duality found in the various machinations of a monist universe. Thomas refers to this concept as “The Force”, with explicit and implicit readings suggesting the force explored to be primarily nature, time and humanity. The title and opening lines of Thomas’ poem immediately supports this, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.” The use of a diazeugma to open the poem with the repeated verb of “drive” emphasizes the similarities and close relationship between the narrator’s age and the flower, indicating a correlation between humanity, time and nature. The repeated pre-modifier “green” has connotations of growth and vitality, especially when coupled with “flower”, a synecdoche here for nature. However, fricative alliteration emphasizes that the force acts like a “fuse”: it is explosive and powerful. The extended metaphor results in a destructive detonation, “that blasts the roots of trees.” Interestingly, the two sentences on growth and destruction are separated by a semi-colon rather than a period, indicating the intimacy of the two aspects. The force drives the persona, but will also destroy him. Despite the force being the impetus, it is also inescapably the ultimate bane of what it creates.

These three forces are also expounded on throughout “The Fish”. It is perhaps exemplified in the cliff. The cliff is both marred and enhanced by nature, time and humanity. The sea has eroded the rock, emphasized through the alliteration “the water drives a wedge”. However, it is this hole that allows nature to grow on the cliff, resulting in the most descriptive and beautiful stanza, “crabs like green / lilies, and submarine toadstools, slide each on the other.” The simile comparing the crab to nature and the final dynamic verb of the sea life mixing invokes the image of natural unity. The human influence on the cliff is likewise plural: it is violent, with “marks of abuse”, but also defining, “these things stand out on it.” The necessary idea here is one of contradiction, that the universe is both creative and destructive.

Keeping in mind the nature of the forces, the basic stanza unit can now be explored in relation to the message being conveyed. Firstly, the stanza structures of both poems are particularly interesting given their contrasting aesthetic formatting which nonetheless express the same paradoxical message: that organization and chaos, creation and destruction are convergent. “The Fish” is notable for having a definite sense of concrete poetry, resembling a sea wave. While at first glance, the fluidity and unorthodox format would suggest a lack of stanzaic structure, each verse strictly observes a quintain template. “The Fish” is eight stanzas of five lines, of one, three, nine, six then eight syllables. There is a definite AABBC rhyme scheme. The regularity of the rhyme scheme mirrors the crest (AA) and fall (BB) of a wave. The fifth line of the stanza (C) has enjambment with the next stanza, indicating the cyclical and connected nature of the sea. This hidden regularity is deliberate: Moore is making a commentary on how even though things may appear chaotic, there is always a logical order on some level, however minute. This rhyme scheme is reflected in the poem’s typesetting, with the rhymes being indented. This is what creates the physical image of a wave on print, particularly as it is repeated in every stanza. Interestingly, indentation by definition can also refer to notches in the coastline or carvings in rock; both of these images are found in the poem. Moore uses the physical appearance and wordplay in the poem to reflect and emphasize its multiple meanings.

In comparison, “The Force” is visually much more orthodox: each stanza ends on a definite thought and period. The lines are of more uniform length, suggesting an established meter. The poem is decasyllabic, with the third line in every stanza having four syllables. While Moore’s stanza structure was organized around the technical aspects of poetry, Thomas based his around the content. Generally, lines one to three in every stanza is a sentence, and four and five a second complete sentence. This obvious stanza division serves to highlight and reflect the clear duality of the stanza’s topic: the first sentence praises the impulse of the force while the second sentence admonishes its caustic nature. “The Force” follows a general series of steps in each stanza. The first line is an example of the titular force infusing nature with vitality and growth; the second line introduces the destructive side of the force; the third line explains the effects the force has on the persona; the fourth and fifth lines espouse the narrator’s inability to understand or verbalize the force and its effects on the universe. Repetition is the most effective method of reiterating a point. By having a general template of points, Thomas ingrains the dual nature of the force and its effects into the mind of the reader. Despite the perceived structure, “The Force” actually shows a lot of variation. There is a distinct evolution as Thomas realizes his inadequacy in explaining the force, not just to outsiders, but to himself, “unto my veins”. Whereas “The Fish” only departs from the stanza template at verse six, “The Force” is constantly developing, until it transforms to a final condensed couplet. This will be explored in much more detail later. The point to draw is that each respective poem defies initial visual expectations: Moore’s perceived fluidity actually has a rigid stanza template while Thomas’ conventional style is much more varied. Each stanza is also part of a larger whole yet distinct, again reflecting the message in both poems of paradox.

The individual stanza unit by itself is indicative of the authors’ intents. However, it is only by viewing the stanza structure as a whole that the growth of the poets’ thoughts can be seen. The ways the stanza units in “The Fish” and “The Force” are linked are also different, although again, their goals and effects are similar. “The Fish” primarily uses enjambment. With the exception of the sixth stanza, each stanza refers to the one before it. What is extremely uncommon about Moore’s style is that the title is also part of the poem. This is evidenced by the syntax and the lack of capitalization in the first line. This again reflects the idea of interdependence: that every individual entity is always part of a greater whole.

Whereas “The Fish” uses enjambment to emphasize that the stanzas are connected, “The Force” primarily uses repetition. Most noticeably, the fourth line of every stanza begins with “And I am dumb to tell”. This emphasizes the ineffability of the force, as well as its magnitude in comparison to the narrator. The recurring phrase serves as an anchor, constantly reminding the reader of the encompassing context, that the force is so much greater than humanity. Line enjambment is also present in “The Force”, although it is self-contained within the stanzas. “The Force” differs from “The Fish” in that there are clear stanzaic divisions. Interestingly, this difference in connecting stanzas reflects how each poet views the universe. Moore sees the universe as connected, hence all her stanzas are linked. Thomas takes a more cautious approach. He believes that the force is present in all things, but that does not necessarily mean all things are directly connected—rather, they are connected through the force. Hence, his stanzas are linked through a phrase that captures his perception of the force.

Finally, deviations from the stanza structure and their effects must be addressed. For “The Fish”, a structural change is evident in the sixth stanza. This is the first stanza not to be in enjambment from the previous stanza. Stanzas one through five can be viewed as microcosmic synecdoches of the sea in general.  Stanza six marks a new approach, heralded by stanza four. The fourth stanza differs from the others in that it focuses on an inanimate object, a cliff rather than living animals. That stanza six is so different from previous stanzas emphasizes the importance of the cliff. This may be a commentary on the transience of life by itself. The cliff can be viewed as symbolic of the duality of the universe. it is an object that has been eroded by time and nature and disfigured by humans, yet simultaneously encompasses all these things. The cliff is personified as being a “defiant edifice”. As mentioned, it is this weathering that defines the cliff, “these things stand out on it.” The final stanza of “The Fish” is fittingly ambiguous. “Repeated / evidence has proved that it can live / on what cannot revive / its youth.” The interpretation here can be positive or negative, of creation or destruction. “It” is the cliff. Positively, the cliff would be seen as enduring, “repeated / evidence has proved that it can live”. However, a negative interpretation would focus on the latter half, “on what cannot revive / its youth.” The sea is slowly eroding the cliff, while also being destroyed itself: “The sea grows old in it.” This mutually destructive circle benefits no-one. Even if neither can be destroyed, they will lose their prestige; the cliff becomes battered, the sea becomes old.

As mentioned, “The Force” is much more variable in format than “The Fish”. All the stanzas are somewhat different from the others, accentuating how Thomas is evolving. Most noticeably, from stanza three onwards, the force is explicitly given human attributes: “the hand” and “the lips of time”. In the latter, sexual and phallic connotations can be seen. “The lips of time leech to the fountain head; love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood/ Shall calm her sores.” The lips are clearly yonic and the fountainhead phallic, in the middle of reproduction. This is an act of creation, of birth, yet simultaneously of loss: the mother loses blood. Like with “The Fish”, the final stanza of “The Force” is ambiguous, and can be interpreted as positive or negative. Positively, the poem ends on a note of guarded optimism and birth: “And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb / How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.” Here, the emphasis is placed upon “lover’s”. The persona could be remarking that even if the lover were to die, birth and life would still continue: “the same crooked worm” would be a euphemism for male genitals. On a negative note, the poem finishes on destruction and death. The emphasis would shift to “tomb”. The narrator is aware of his own impending death, how at his funeral, there will be the same decay, personified through the “same crooked worm”.

“The Fish” and “The Force” are ultimately ambiguous poems about contradictions. By using a basic stanza template, the authors create organization and emphasis. By straying from that template, the authors create development and accentuation. In the end, the reader is back at the beginning for both poems: left with an open and paradoxical interpretation that ironically, could be viewed either as a beginning, or an end.

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2 thoughts on “Stanza Structure in The Fish and The Force

  1. Pingback: Stanza Structure in The Fish and The Force | roundhousepoetrycircle

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