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Formalist Criticism is a school of thought that focuses on the formof a literary work.  Formalists rely on close reading as well as a step-by-step analysis of the elements in a text.  Although Formalists have been faulted for ignoring the cultural and sociological implications of reading and reproducing texts, their methodology is a perfect way to begin analyzing a poem.  

Formalists are sensitive to the denotations and connotations of all words; they look for structural relationships and patterns, including the tone, mood, sequence, and narrative of the text; symbols, metaphors, and images are key. In A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Wilfred Guerin says this about the objective of Formalist critics: 

What did the author do by so arranging those words, those images and symbols, those details of plot and action?  How did the author “achieve” this accomplishment?…We can say that what the author did was to make us see that internal relationships gradually reveal a form, a principle by which all subordinate patterns can be accommodated and accounted for.  When all the words, phrases, metaphors, images, and symbols are examined in terms of each other and of the whole, any literary text worth our efforts will display its own internal logic.  When that logic has been established, the reader is very close to identifying the overall form [and also how form enhances the purpose] of the work. (Guerin 95)




Begin by reading Chapter 25 on literary criticism and the Lecture Notes on literary criticism.  Then, select a poem to analyze and begin your drafting and revising process.  Use the Formalist approach to analyze a poem of your choosing.  The only restriction is that it should be available in the textbook, and it should be original analysis (please avoid repeating work that you’ve already done on a poem before).  

You may want to consider the following questions: What structure, shape, denotations and connotations, contexts, images, symbols, repeated details, climax, dénouement, balances and tensions, rhythms and rhymes, and sounds catch the reader’s attention, and why?  What is the attitude of speaker’s voice?  How do you know?  

What makes this work worth studying—if you believe the poem is indeed worth studying?  Overall, what in this poem contributes to the uniqueness of this work?  What makes it whole?  What makes it come together?  A Formalist would say that whatthe work says and howit says it are inseparable issues.  Learn the trade of a Formalist, and address this last point: that the form and the function of a poem are both integral to overall meaning. Use well-chosen evidence to support your analysis. 

When you’re ready, submit your work in the Session 7 SafeAssign link.  Remember to use MLA format for this submission.  This is a formal academic essay, so please use Standard English and observe academic conventions.  This essay should reach at least two pages, double-spaced. 



ENGL 214:

Grade Sheet

(20 points)


Formalist analysis (close reading of a poem)


Content Check (15): _____ 

  1. 1.Appropriate discussion of Formalist approach 

a. Writer explains and applies the Formalist approach to a poem

b. Key terms identified and analyzed in the essay 

  1. 2.The essay has a main point about the poem; there is a clear thesis statement
    1. a.The writer answers the question: how is the poem’s form--including imagery, detail, structure, voice, climax, rhythm--connected to its purpose or meaning?
    2. b. Sufficient development/evidence supports the thesis statement


MLA format, including header and appropriate documentation (3): _____


Grammar/Mechanics Check (2): _____


Total: _____/20



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