Form and Content

| By Sørina Higgins

Higgins' poem "With What Kind of Body” was featured in a previous post.

A theological belief can grow in our minds unobserved for years, the results of many imperceptible influences, until the full flower bursts into conscious thought. Just so, the idea that our bodies are saved as well as our souls had taken root in my approach to the arts, worship, literature, and fashion long before I articulated it in conscious thought or language. The idea is radical, bordering on monism, and I hope it’s not heretical. I have come to believe that a person’s form—his or her physical organism—is inseparable from his or hercontent—mind, soul, spirit, psyche, personality, behavior…

Where did this idea originate, for me? While I could traces its sources through my reading, or discuss its permutations in Church history, I think it began with poetry.

Coleridge wrote in his Biographia Literaria about poetry: “whatever lines can be translated into other words of the same language, without diminution of their significance, either in sense, or association, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious in their diction.” In other words (although he is condemning exactly other words), there is no such thing as a synonym. In other words again: the vocabulary, rhymes, meter, line length, stanza shape, figures of speech, images, and other technical aspects of the poem—its form—are inseparable from its content: WHAT is says is constituted by HOW it says it.

Take this tiny example. There is a beautiful Puritan classic by Jeremiah Burroughs entitled The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. That’s a weighty, poetic title, heavy with the seventeenth century, implying the value and grace of a seriously pious life. Now, in 1988 a contemporary adaptation was released, entitled Learning to be Happy. Look what has happened in four hundred years. From The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment to Learning to Be Happy is dumbing-down indeed. But what’s worse, the content of Burrough’s title has been altered by the alteration of its form. Indicating a mechanistic program for how to be happy is worlds away from the Christian concept that contentment is a priceless, precious gift. The English civil war; the American, French, and Russian revolutions; Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche; two world wars; and capitalistic health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim-it gospels stand between Burroughs and his Christianity-for-dummies descendant.

Because the words matter. Words have both denotation and connotation, sound and sense, and they resonate with our minds and our bodies. It is impossible to say the same thing in other words, because once it is in other words, it is not the same thing.

To get back to Coleridge: that is why a paraphrase, though an indispensable pedagogical tool, must never be confused with the poem. Students must never read “No Fear Shakespeare” as a substitute for the play itself. Every musical setting of a poem turns the poem into something other than its original self. Every movie adaptation of a book disappoints. The movie must be evaluated on its own merits, not simply compared to the book. Words and images are not interchangeable: the Deconstructionists showed us that when they pointed out that the phonetics of “T-R-E-E” are not the tree.

And what about that tree? Are the color, shape, size, and texture of the tree something apart from the tree itself? Is the oak something separate from those particular leaves, that regal height, those glorious shades of bronze and rust in autumn? If I took away a rose’s petals in their Fibonacci whorl, the inimitable scent, the tiny pain of thorns, and the reddish-green of its woody stem, what would be left of the rose? Would a rose by any other form still be a rose? Of course it wouldn’t. The question is absurd.

But then again, the smartest folks have always been asking that question. It’s the Plato-vs-Aristotle debate all over again, about whether everything exists only here in its particulars, or in the sum total of all its physical examples, or out there somewhere in an eternal extraction from which all instances are copied. If there were a metaphysical form of “ROSE,” I suppose it would still be itself without its petal, smell, and shape. Or would it? Wouldn’t the metaphysical prototype dictate exactly those blossoms on precisely that stem? Isn’t that how it copies its eternal form: by expressing itself in those particulars?

It seems, then, that asking Plato to weigh in hasn’t changed a thing. In the natural world, “form”—like having a certain shape and scent, or like having fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme abba abba cde cde—is inseparable from “content”—the rose-ness of the rose, or a longing for the unattainable Laura. The rose is the aggregate of its essential and accidental characteristics, just as the line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is itself in just those words.

Then leap to the idea that each rose, each oak tree, and each poet is a work of art carefully crafted by the great Creative Artist. Picture God making a tree (either the original Platonic tree or one specific instance in your backyard) with care, defining the path each branch will follow from the trunk. Compare His concentrated artistry to that of a poet bending over a piece of paper, carefully weighing each word and balancing the lines. Perhaps the natural world serves as analogy for the unity of form and content in the art world, or perhaps it is actually the original after which every artistic work is patterned.

This natural analogy, then, is theologically useful. If the true nature of the oak tree is inseparable from the actual material stuff, the atomic matter, from which it is made, why (or how) should I be any different? How can I abstract (in both senses) ME from the-stuff-of-which-I-am-made? This goes beyond “you are what you eat.” My body is inseparable from my personality, just as if my height and weight shape a sonnet or sestina, while my redemption is the volta after the eighth line.

That last is essential. Each human embodied story needs that turn: the about-face of repentance into the narrative trajectory of redemption. If the soul is saved, the body is too. The old faith vs. works debate is moot: either without the other is dead. The soul without the body is a ghost; the body without the soul is a corpse. A saved person must be saved all through that embodied union—in a word, INCARNATION. In flesh. Me in my body, living in grace, living towards heaven. Salvation, to be itself, must be of both form and content. No paraphrases accepted on earth or in heaven.


About the Author

Sørina Higgins

  Sørina Higgins is an adjunct faculty member in English at Penn State (Lehigh Valley) and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published one poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans (Finishing Line Press) and has a full-length collection entitled Caduceus due out from WordTech Communications/David Roberts Books in February 2012. She is the Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal, a staff writer for Curator, and blogs about the arts and faith at She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina and her husband live in Kutztown, PA, in a home they built themselves.