Organic form

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Organic form

Organic form: Form that evolves from within a work of art, growing out of an idea; the opposite of mechanic form, form that is externally imposed, shaped by rules and conventions. Organic form privileges the whole, emphasizing the assimilation and interdependence of component parts and the unity of form and content; mechanic form depends more heavily on tradition. Organic form is often analogized to the growth or development of a living organism; mechanic form to the use of a preconceived or preexisting mold. The concept of organic unity in art dates back to classical Greek times; in Plato’s Phaedrus (c. 360 B.C.), Socrates asserts that a composition “should be like a living being, with a body of its own as it were, and neither headless nor footless, but with a middle and members adapted to each other and the whole.”

Organic form and mechanic form are generally viewed as a contrary philosophical and linguistic pair, or binary opposition. The distinction was first drawn by German romantics, particularly A. W. Schlegel, who defended William Shakespeare against neoclassical critics who claimed that his plays lacked form in Über dramatische Kunst und Literatur (Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature) (1809—11). Subsequently, English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge adopted Schlegel’s characterization of organic and mechanic form in his own defense of Shakespeare, “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius” (1818):

The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material… . The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes, as it develops, itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. Such as the life is, such is the form.

Coleridge associated imagination with organic form and fancy with mechanic form in his Biographia Literaria (1817).

While organic form has been widely embraced since the advent of romanticism, some critics have challenged the concept or defended mechanic form (though few would use the adjective mechanic). In a departure from most of his colleagues, New Critic John Crowe Ransom, for instance, claimed that “a poem is much more like a Christmas tree than an organism” (“Art Worries the Naturalists,” Kenyon Review, 1945). Deconstructive critic Paul de Man likewise questioned the concept in Blindness and Insight (1971), arguing that irony “can have nothing in common with the homogenous, organic form of nature: it is founded on an act of consciousness, not on the imitation of a natural object.”

EXAMPLE: The contrast between Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816), the structure of which reflects the struggle to recapture a drug-induced hallucination in language, and John Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681), a political narrative poem written in heroic couplets, points up the difference between poetry with organic and mechanic form.