Form Follows Feeling

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by unknown photographer. Public domain.
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by unknown photographer

I recently finished reading What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy in which he meticulously sets out his answer to the titular question. I discovered the work whilst attempting to do the same in an informal essay in 2018, taking particular interest in what I glimpsed of his view at the time because it seemed to reflect my own.

This impression was correct; his thesis presents a simple conception of what is and is not a work of art, and in this essay, I shall weave his ideas into mine. This is not, therefore, a synopsis or critique of the book, but rather a consolidation of my thoughts—which took the form of several notes—on the subject.

Form Follows Feeling

Tolstoy rejects Beauty or Concept as a definition of art, a radical position I find most compelling. A work is not art because it pleases or amuses an observer, it is art because it communicates to him the artist’s feeling. That is the foundation of Tolstoy’s conception—simple and stunning—upon which he constructs his ideas.

To Tolstoy, the ideal artist is moved by natural feeling, embodying in a work emotions common to us all—like awe before the sublime, compassion before suffering, indignation before tyranny. In the ideal work, the artist’s genuine feeling is so powerfully and unambiguously expressed that all who observe it can partake of its significance and meaning.

This makes of art a language universal, the preserve of all humanity whose capacity to recognise and interpret it is instinctive, occurring naturally. For this reason, works of art by their very nature are congruent (harmonious in content and form), clear (universally comprehensible) and concise (epitomising the artist’s feeling).


Each art form has its domain in which, through the quality essential to it, it expresses feeling: melody in music, verse in poetry, plot in fiction, depiction in painting, form in sculpture, space in architecture, movement in dance, performance in theatre and so forth. To be congruent, the art form must be capable of conveying the feeling the artist wishes to express.

The more sophisticated the feeling, the more complex the essential quality required in the art form. For example, music can embody simple feelings like joy or sorrow, but it is incapable of expressing emotions more complex, like hope or despair—it can only approximate tension or relief. Moreover, it cannot articulate the causes of these emotions.1

The artist must choose the art form appropriate in its essential quality to his feeling. In doing so, he remains true to his emotion and the art form true to its nature. An artwork thus harmoniously conceived will be wholly congruent, its form and content inextricable, one so woven into the other that every aspect and quality of the work distils the intended feeling.

  1. Consequently, composers resort to the title—a component external to the work—to communicate context.
Des Glaneuses (1857) by Jean-François Millet. Public domain.
Des Glaneuses (1857) by Jean-François Millet is an example of congruency, clarity and conciseness in a work of art. A brief examination of this and other works can be found in the Addendum.


When the artist is moved by genuine emotion, his goal is to transmit that feeling to others as vividly as he can. To that end, he integrates into his work only that which epitomises his feeling, those elements that allow him to sublimate his emotion in the substance of the art form as plainly and comprehensively as possible.

If a composer, he might use mellifluous phrases to embody “tranquillity”, if a sculptor, robust forms to embody “strength”; whatever the art form, he will so utilise its mechanisms as to enshrine in his work all that is necessary to make his emotion clear. If successful, nothing external to the work will be necessary to explain it—not even its title.2

Only natural and genuine emotion will create in the artist the need for such clarity—the desire so lucidly to express himself that all may participate in his feeling. It is a thing un-summonable, arising spontaneously and occasionally in the course of everyday life, wherefore the output of the artist is correspondingly sporadic.

  1. See the Addendum for examples of such works.


Clarity leads to conciseness, a correspondence between the content of a work and its complexity. The ideas of the work (its concept), the elements that assemble them (its composition) and the style in which they are rendered (its execution) are comprehensive but succinct—they encapsulate the artist’s feeling.

Thus, for example, in a musical composition, the melody, key, tempo, length, instrumentation and performance are selected for their expressive power, and so too in a poem, are the language, tone, voice, metre, rhythm, rhyming scheme, declamation and so forth—in each art form, the respective devices chosen for a specific purpose.

It is a time-consuming process of refinement, a task undertaken with great intensity and resolve, often long after the feeling that first moved the artist has passed. Its impetus is the conviction and insight that genuine emotion provides; its result, a work in which every constituent part performs a necessary function.


These then are the fundamentals of Tolstoy’s view which I have woven into mine—the revised ideal to which I aspire: in fine, that only that is a work of art which every man recognises as communicating to him some natural and genuine feeling, and that in such a work, feeling and form are indivisible, coherent and complete.

Only in such works do our feelings transcend their intangibility, allowing us to perceive them as consummate concretes, translated and transformed that we may do the otherwise impossible: hear them as music, recite them as poetry, contemplate them as painting, stand before them as sculpture or within them as architecture.


To explore the implications of this theory and test its soundness, here in a brief exercise, we shall apply it to six works: “O die Pyn-gedagte”, a poem by Totius; “Chanson d’automne”, a poem by Paul Verlaine; Des glaneuses, a painting by Jean-François Millet; The Shadow of Death, a painting by William Holman Hunt; “Clair de lune”, a musical composition by Claude Debussy and “Une barque sur l’océan”, a musical composition by Maurice Ravel. These we shall consider without recourse to information beyond the works themselves.

An Example of Genuine Art in Poetry

o Die pyn-gedagte: My kind is dood! . . .
dit brand soos ’n pyl in my.
Die mense sien daar niks nie van,
en die Here alleen die weet wat ek ly.3
The first stanza of “O die Pyn-gedagte” (Passieblomme4, 1934) by Totius (Jacob Daniël du Toit)

This is the opening stanza of a work of unfathomable agony. In the poem, Totius wrestles with the untimely death of his young daughter. In simple verses, he recounts the horrifying event, every stanza infecting the reader with a sense of the poet’s suffering. One is overcome with deep sympathy as one experiences with him such tragedy, the unbearableness of which is all-consuming. The composition is raw in theme and style, its heartfelt lines an outpouring of genuine grief at an inconsolable loss. It is not a perfect work; but, it is an unmatched example of the spontaneity, naturalness and honesty that a true work of art possesses.

  1. “o The pain-thought: My child is dead! . . . / it burns like an arrow in me. / People see nothing of it, / and the Lord alone He knows what I suffer.”
  2. Afrikaans, “passion flowers”.

An Example of Imitation Art in Poetry

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
     De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
The first and second stanzas of “Chanson d’automne” (Poèmes saturniens6, 1866) by Paul Verlaine

Verlaine’s poem is an example of a different kind: his undeniable skill allows him so closely to simulate poetic art that it is almost indistinguishable from true poetry. His stanzas overflow with aesthetic frill which he artfully employs to feign emotion; but, if we piece together the allusions, we find in them a quasi-melancholy that leaves one indifferent: the poet gives neither cause nor context wherewith to make sense of its existence, interested only in inducing such a mood. Thus duped by eloquence—having assumed substance where none was to be found—all that remains is to relish the language, a meagre substitute for poetry.

  1. “The long sobs / Of the violins / Of autumn // Wound my heart / With a languor / Monotonous.”
  2. French, “poems under Saturn”.

An Example of Genuine Art in Painting

Des Glaneuses (1857) by Jean-François Millet. Public domain.
Des Glaneuses (1857), Jean-François Millet

Like all true works of art in painting, Des Glaneuses captures with rich economy all that is necessary to show the feeling the subject inspired in the painter; and one need not know who is portrayed, their occupation or station in life to deduce what it is, namely reverence. By placing the figures at the centre foreground of his picture, relegating all else to the distance, and painting them with such care, Millet extends to us an invitation to contemplate the lives of others, to see that their lot might have been ours. So elegant and effective is Millet’s expression of this theme that no other painting before it or since approaches it in beauty.7

  1. One need only look at the many imitations it inspired, such as Léon L’Hermitte’s under the same title (1887):Des Glaneuses (1887), Léon Lhermitte. Public domain.

An Example of Imitation Art in Painting

The Shadow of Death (1873), William Holman Hunt. Public domain.
The Shadow of Death (1873), William Holman Hunt

Hunt’s work stands in stark contrast with the economy with which a true work of art in painting achieves its realism. So perplexing is the painting in subject and execution: from the unnatural tableau—is the man stretching, in ecstasy or both?—to the excessive detail with which it is rendered—what is gained by the addition of the very script on the scroll?—there is no making sense of it without a body of knowledge that we, in this exercise, do not possess. Without understanding what is before us—without universal clarity—there can be no transmission of feeling (other than puzzlement), making this too exclusive a work to be art.8

  1. For an example of a religious theme treated universally in a genuine work of art, there is Caravaggio’s Vocazione di San Matteo (The Calling of Saint Matthew):Vocazione di San Matteo (The Calling of Saint Matthew). Public domain.

An Example of Genuine Art in Music

“Clair de lune” (1905), Claude Debussy (Debussy: Complete Works for Piano (2008), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet)

In the lucid third movement of Suite bergamasque, “Clair de lune”9, Debussy eloquently transmits by means of melody a feeling of quietude and reflection. There is no recourse to superfluous complication, artifice and embellishment; if these exist at all, it is put in the service of melody—the essence of musical language—strengthening its emotional power. Everything within the piece transmits to us what we are meant to feel, and as we listen, instinctively we understand—from the wistfulness of the key (D-flat major) to the ebb and flow of the tempo (compound triple metre)—that we are to be swept inexorably into the artist’s reverie.

  1. Incidentally, “Clair de lune” (“Moonlight”) takes its title from a poem by none other than Verlaine. It was originally titled “Promenade sentimentale” (“Sentimental stroll”) after yet another work by the poet, both suffering from the shortcomings of “Chanson d’automne”. It may be that Debussy is merely the musical equivalent of Verlaine, but this author shall be charitable in his evaluation.

An Example of Imitation Art in Music

“Une barque sur l’océan” (1905), Maurice Ravel (Ravel: Complete Works for Solo Piano (2016), Bertrand Chamayou)

This piece so dazzles that it distracts from its fundamental flaw: the misapplication of music. Whilst we are emotionally affected by the extravagant sounds—evoking music without being music—what they signify cannot be extracted from the music itself; we are forced, like the composer, to rely on the title—that is, something external to the work—to overcome the incommunicability.10 The title, “A boat on the ocean”, reveals that the music is imitating movement, a menial task it ingeniously performs at Ravel’s bidding11, but at the cost of melody (music’s natural domain) and feeling (art’s natural goal) which become mere incidentals.

  1. Music can evoke emotion and suggest movement, but these have no explicit narrative power. Ravel can evoke “turmoil”, but the nature of that turmoil music cannot convey.
  2. Consider how in the notation he illustrates the boat in the upper register and undulating waves in the lower:“Une barque sur l’océan” (1905), Maurice Ravel, Notation.

Paintings: Wikipedia

On Modern Poetry, A Rant

A Rant, 16 May 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.

Poetry is not without its rules, and just as in every other discipline they must first be assimilated before they can be effectively broken, so in Poesy, there are basic mechanisms a poet must grasp and diligently seek to master in his work.

In contemporary poetry, this is a skill notably absent.

A failure to comprehend and appreciate the principles of expressive language is a scourge upon it. Nearly all compositions in the style would be vastly improved had the poet a rudimentary understanding of what makes a poem a poem.

There exists a fine line between prose and free verse.

Writing something that resembles a poem does not make it one. How much of what one reads today has themes not worth contemplating, blurted out (for composed they are not) in lumbering stanzas that do nothing to give them form?

Not every man who fancies himself a poet can verse.

For a poem to be good, it must resound in the halls of human experience. It must elevate the mundane through a celebration of language and a distillation of thought that compels the reader to exclaim: Yes! I know—I feel—your meaning!

Is such a thing too great a task for the modern poet?

Perhaps. Consider what we who long for a sublimation of the modern experience are presented with in vers libre: the poetic equivalent of Yeezy—crude phrasal fragments that barely resemble language, unworthy of the ear and soul.

On Translating Poetry

Young Shepherdess by Jean-François Millet (1870–73) in oil. Public Domain.
Young Shepherdess by Jean-François Millet (1870–73) in oil.

Different Language, Different Opportunities

I recently stated that poetic subtleties rarely migrate between languages, and as I attempt to cast “Shepherd Girl” into “Skaapwagtertjie”1, an Afrikaans translation, the statement rings true with every stanza. Even in the rare instance where the Afrikaans allows for a faithful rendition of any given line, with all its poetic content intact, another becomes semantically impossible—either for lack of an appropriate rhyming word or some other linguistic complication.

This is, of course, the result of the inherent differences between languages, for just as each affords unique opportunities for polysemy and rhyme, so do its mechanisms for producing meaning—what word must go where (syntax), what syllable must be emphasised (accentuation), what rhythm must connect this word with that (cadence)—dictate the rules a poet must follow (or flout) to establish meaning and style.

The poet’s use of expressive device (through onomatopoeia, understatement, alliteration, imagery, cliché, symbol, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, idiom and prosody) in one language, may simply not be available in another, and thus the essence—the gestalt—of his poem is compromised or even lost entirely when translated. The result, therefore, will be an inferior facsimile—an approximation that is no more than a shell of the original. Allow me to illustrate:

An Example

A. G. Visser’s “Die Ruiter van Skimmelperdpan” (“The Rider of Dapple Grey Flat”) is a tense poem describing the gruesome ghost of a headless soldier on a fleeing horse. Impossible to translate in English are the movement and contextual dread contained within what is arguably its simplest line:

“‘Die galop … die galop … die galop?!’”2

In the Afrikaans, the natural downbeat of the syllables and the way in which the sounds of the two words connect in the repetition perfectly mimic the rhythmic doo-doo-DOOF, doo-doo-DOOF, doo-doo-DOOF of galloping horse (and racing heartbeat): [dî-KGa-lop, dî-KGa-lop, dî-KGa-lop].

Moreover, the depth of the [duh] in [dî] has the impact of a hoof stroke and the sliding guttural [KG] connecting the two syllables before and after it imitates the sound of gravel. All of this is lost in the staccato of an English rendering: “‘The gallop… the gallop … the gallop?!’” The downbeats, cadence and pronunciation—the “feel” of the English—deliver none of the urgency, desperation, tension and sheer terror that the very nature of Afrikaans invokes and sustains.

A poem—indeed, any artwork—is untranslatable because its Form and Content are inextricably linked. Just as Millet’s oil painting Young Shepherdess (if I may select a work particularly apt3) in watercolour loses a fundamental part of its import (namely the solemnity that oil imparts), so does rendering “Shepherd Girl” in Afrikaans sacrifice something integral to it. Changing the medium changes the meaning, wherefore a translation must take on a life of its own.

From “Shepherd Girl” to “Skaapwagtertjie”

Thus, I depart from the English where the Afrikaans demands it. I have already moved content from one stanza to another to recreate the narrative of the ballad within the confines of Afrikaans rhyme, introducing different details from my mother’s shepherding youth to facilitate the change. It is an enlightening and thrilling project. As I extract from the English original an Afrikaans counterpart, my goal is not to compose a copy, but an Afrikaans poem in its own right.

  1. Afrikaans, [skaahp-vuKG-teR-ki], pronounced as one word, with the [u] in “up”, the guttural [KG] in the Scottish “loch”, a trilled [R] and the [i] in “in”.
  2. [dî KGalop] with the [î] in “in” and the guttural [KG] in the Scottish “loch”. The line is uttered by the soldier’s wife, who also appears in the haunting, as she implores him to stop tormenting her with his nightly race past their cottage (hence the unorthodox punctuation): “‘Waarom rus jy nie, rus jy nie, Jan van der Meer? / Waarom jaag jy my elke nag op? / Sal daar nimmer ’n einde kom … altyd maar weer / Die galop … die galop … die galop?!’” (“‘Why rest you not, rest you not, Jan van der Meer? / Why chase me up every night? / Will there ne’er be an end … again and again / The gallop … the gallop … the gallop?!’”)
  3. Young Shepherdess was one of Millet’s largest and last works, the lowly peasant elevated to near godlike divinity by medium, composition, pose and halo-like lighting—not unlike the way in which the eight-year-old poet within me elevates his mother. (Incidentally, today is her 66th birthday.)