Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Eventfulness in Poetry and Prose Fiction

Peter Hühn

University of Hamburg

The following paper is based on two premises: first, poetry can profitably be analysed on the basis of narratological categories and thus be compared with prose narratives proper (by poetry, I mean the lyric in the narrow sense, not merely narrative poems such as ballads or verse narratives); and second, events are a prerequisite of narrativity in fictional literature as well as in the lived world.

The first premise, the transgeneric applicability of narratology to lyric poetry,1 maintains that narrating is an anthropologically universal device for structuring experience and making sense of the world as well as communicating such ordered structures to others (or to oneself). This ordering function of narrative essentially rests on the combination of two operations - the temporal concatenation of individual elements (existents and incidents) into some kind of coherent sequence and the mediation of this sequence from a particular perspective. I will call these two constituent dimensions of narrative sequentiality and mediacy. Of these, it is primarily the dimension of sequentiality in its temporal organisation which constitutes narrative, differentiating it from other discourse types such as argumentation or description, all of which are also necessarily mediated. To be sure, the sequence does not exist in the world, outside discourse, but is constituted by discourse in the first plac. These two combined operations are generated in an act of verbal articulation and communicated to an addressee. It is my contention that narrative thus defined also underlies the syntagmatic organisation of most if not all poems. That is, lyric poems can be described as modelling temporal sequences of incidents, typically of mental processes comprising reflections, memories, emotions, imaginations, desires or anxieties, but also involving sense perceptions or physical developments (such as walking or dying). They mediate these sequences from a specific, usually personalised subjective perspective, through an act of articulation. This transgeneric approach is by no means intended, however, to subsume poetry indiscriminately under narrative. A number of significant differences can readily be stated at the outset. Because of two generic tendencies of lyric texts, brevity and focus on mental activities, incidents and processes are not rendered with the concrete (social) circumstantiality customary in prose fiction: names, places, dates and outward appearances of characters, situations and developments are not normally specified in poetry; sequences tend to be condensed and implied rather than overtly laid out in detail. One further aspect in which the narrative organisation of poetry tends to differ in degree from that of prose fiction concerns the rendering of eventfulness: This phenomenon I will concentrate on in my paper.

My second premise is that there are two types of narrative - a broader, more general type, process narration, which is characterised by temporality alone and which usually has an explanatory or constative function: report of sequences of incidents, successive changes of state, procedures etc as found, for instance, in the natural sciences, meteorology, historiography, technology. From this one can distinguish a narrower, more specific type which fulfills an additional requirement - a temporal development featuring some kind of surprising point, some decisive turn or deviation from the expected process or course, which I will call an event. This type of narrative can be called event narration. Event narratives have the function of entertaining, amusing, surprising, conveying insight, eliciting emotional or intellectual engagement; therefore, readers or listeners require some kind of eventful turn - otherwise their response may be the one most dreaded by narrators: “So what?” Thus the quality of eventfulness essentially (if not exclusively) accounts for the tellability of such narratives.2 This narrower type of narrative underlies story-telling in the lived world and especially in literature, both in prose fiction and - as I will argue - in lyric poetry.

To describe such events I draw on cognitivist schema theory3 in conjunction with Lotman’s plot concept4. Frames and scripts can be used to describe the normal conventional modelling of temporal sequences. Whereas frames are static, designating the thematic or situational contexts within which poems are to be read and made sense of, scripts, especially relevant as the basis for eventful deviation, are dynamic, denoting sequence patterns, such as natural processes, conventional courses of action or stereotyped procedures.  

In addition, Lotman’s plot theory conceptualizes this kind of eventful deviation from an established norm as a transgression of boundaries. He describes the basic order underlying a narrative text metaphorically in spatial terms as a semantic field with a boundary separating the domain of one particular set of norms from that of a different or opposite order. Crossing the boundary, normally impossible for the figures within this sub-field, constitutes an “event” if it does occur. Moreover, Lotman’s model provides a means of distinguishing degrees of eventfulness, in accordance with the extent of resistance offered by the boundary and the extent of deviation from the conventional course.

Events and the sequences in which they occur are usually ascribed to a figure, an agent or patient. Three event types can be distinguished, according to the level of the narrative text at which the figure is located and at which the decisive turn or deviation takes place or, more precisely, to which it is ascribed:5 (a) events in the happenings or story-world events situated at the level of histoire, within the narrated incidents, with the protagonist as agent (an example in prose fiction: Richardson’s Pamela, where the change of the heroine’s social and marital status constitutes the event); (b) presentation events, located at the level of récit or discourse, with the narrator/speaker as agent who typically undergoes a change in his attitude or consciousness, constituting a story of narration (an example: in John le Carré’s The Russia House the narrator’s change of attitude - in the course of his narration - from committed spy to critic of the secret service is eventful); (c) reception events, located at the level of reading, with the reader as agent - this type refers to cases where neither the protagonist nor the narrator/speaker is able or willing to undergo a decisive change, which the composition of the text, however, signals as necessary or desirable and which the reader is meant to perform vicariously in his consciousness [example: in Joyce’s Dubliners the characters fail to achieve the eventful escape from the paralysing atmosphere of the city, an event the reader is induced to perform in his mind instead].  

As yet there is little systematic research into the types of eventfulness found in novels or stories which could afford a foil against which one might begin to outline differences in the narrative structures of lyric poetry. What I propose to do under these circumstances is tentatively postulate a prototype of eventful plot-structure in prose fiction and use this as a frame of reference for sketching tendencies of eventfulness in lyric poems, illustrated by well-known examples from English poetry. I will use the fairytale as the prototype of literary narration. With respect to mediacy, a fairytale is told by a heterodiegetic narrator, the narrative act is not thematized, the abstract author is ideologically congruent with the narrator, external focalization is used, and narration is retrospective. Regarding sequentiality, the course of the happenings is markedly eventful, the events concern the protagonist’s physical or social status (not merely his consciousness), and central conventional frames and scripts are activated (e.g. proving oneself in a series of tests concluded by a reward). Turning to this prototype as a heuristic - but not normative - point of reference makes it possible to highlight forms of narrativity and eventfulness in the lyric. This is not to say, however, that numerous deviations from this prototypical model are not also found in narrative literature, particularly that of the twentieth century.  

From the event structure of this prototypical prose narrative, poetry tends to differ in two respects:6 first, the temporal relation between narrative act and event, and, second, the event type and the degree of the realisation of the event. As for the first case, in a large number of poems the happenings are not narrated retrospectively, after the event, but simultaneously, in the present tense: i.e. the happenings are narrated while they are purported to be taking place. The reader is given the impression that the speaker’s process of reflection and articulation is being performed in front of his eyes (or, rather, his ears). In regard to the eventful turn, one can distinguish two forms. There are poems in which the development is pursued up to the decisive turn, the eventful crossing of the boundary, which is achieved at the end of the text. The event refers either to the happenings or the presentation, i.e. it consists in a decisive change either of the speaker’s physical situation or, predominantly, of his attitude or knowledge. To illustrate each form by one example: In Browning’s “Meeting at Night” the speaker simultaneously performs and narrates his clandestine movement across boundaries to the passionate union with his beloved: this is an event in the happenings; in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”) the speaker’s sense of personal inferiority and exclusion is suddenly supplanted by joy and contentment when he recollects his friend’s love: this is a presentation event. Most romantic odes conform to this pattern of performativity resulting in an event as in Shakespeare’s sonnet: e.g. Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” (the speaker’s sense of having lost his youthful spontaneity is eventually compensated for by a more detached, reflective attitude, his “philosophic mind”), Coleridge’s “Dejection” and “Frost at Midnight” (the speaker’s depression or stagnation is overcome by the sudden awareness of his love for his beloved and his child, resp.), Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (the speaker’s desire for the revelation of the urn’s meaning is suddenly fulfilled by its pronouncement about beauty and truth). All these poems perform stories of narration with the narrator as the agent, thus constituting presentation events. That is, the event concerns the speaker’s attitude, his mental state, not his situation in the story-world. This form of event is quite frequent in poetry, much less so in prose fiction. 

A reductive variant of this type seems to be particularly characteristic of lyric poetry in numerous periods: poems of this type also narrate simultaneously, in the present tense, but only up to immediately before the event. The event itself does not occur because it is difficult to achieve or associated with danger and the risk of failure. The narration in these cases typically has the function of either attempting to defuse a dreaded event or helping to bring about a desired event. To this purpose, the course of actions potentially leading to a successful achievement of the event is often told prospectively. Examples of negotiating a problematical event are Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” in which the speaker seeks to facilitate his imminent transition from life to death by translating it into the metaphor of a steamer leaving a harbour and crossing the sand bank, guided by a pilot, and Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” whose aging speaker foretells his envisaged transfomation into a work of art (a golden bird) with triumphant self-assurance. Narratives aspiring to desired events are also to be found in many love poems such as Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” or Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”: The speaker addresses the narrative of his desire to his beloved in order to persuade her to grant its fulfilment and complete his story. Other poems which use simultaneous and prospective narration of events to solve a crisis of identity or self-stability include Donne’s “Batter my heart” (envisaging the violent annihilation of the secular self for a union with God), Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (proposing the intimacy of mutual love as a compensation for loss of faith), Tennyson’s “Tithonus” (longing for death to end the process of indefinite decay).

The second aspect in which eventfulness in poetry seems to differ from the prototypical structure of prose fiction concerns the event type and the degree of the realisation of the event. The prototypical form of prose narratives - retrospective narration resulting in a completed positive event in the narrated happenings - can be found in poetry, too. But this is presented almost invariably from an autodiegetic position and as a decisive change of consciousness, as for instance in Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (the sense of loneliness is overcome in the imaginative communion with the daffodils), Donne’s “The Good Morrow” (a series of superficial affairs is superseded by the experience of perfect love), Herbert’s “Love III” (the reluctant and doubting believer is finally persuaded to accept God’s grace in the eucharist) and Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (the sudden discovery of a completely new world in Chapman’s translation after the repetitiveness of ordinary reading experiences). To be sure, eventful homo- or autodiegetic narration occurs in prose fiction, too, but it appears to be much more pervasive in poetry of all epochs. This has to do, of course, with a marked preference for a first-person (or subjective) perspective throughout the history of English poetry: a survey of the three most widely used anthologies7 reveals that a very high proportion of between 75% and 90% of all poems feature homo-diegetic speakers. This observation should not be taken to prove that the genre of lyric poetry is defined by subjectivity but that poetry tends to place narrative sequences in the dimension of consciousness with eventful changes in attitude, knowledge or perception rather than in the physical or social condition, facilitating imaginative reader involvement. The prevalence of autodiegetic perspectives entails the identity of speaker / narrator and protagonist together with a temporal difference between narrating and experiencing self. This constellation is often exploited for shifting the eventfulness from the level of the happenings to that of the presentation, as in D. H. Lawrence’s “Man and Bat” (which narrates the decisive change of attitude towards the animal from past disgust to present empathy) or Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as cloud” (which traces the development from uncomprehended experience in the past to present insight). Although the eventful change is narrated retrospectively, the poem’s perspective (focalisation) frequently mediates this change directly, in the ongoing process of articulation.

A special case of eventful autodiegetic narration in poetry occurs when the speaker’s attempt at eventful change fails, but he remains unaware of his failure: this case constitutes a reception event. Only the reader can observe this and gain the insight of which the speaker is incapable. This narrative event type is characteristic of dramatic monologues, as in Browning’s “My Last Duchess”: through trying to prove his absolute superiority by boasting of having ordered his wife’s killing, the duke inadvertently betrays his internal weakness, his dependence on others’ submissiveness, or in “Porphyria’s Lover”: the lover does not realise that - instead of perpetuating the union with his beloved by killing her at the very moment of fulfilment - he has destroyed it.    

An eminently poetry-specific event type is brought about when the decisive change does not occur on the level of histoire but on that of discours. This is a special variation of the type of presentation event - what may be termed a mediation event, frequent, for instance, in romantic poetry. The sequence typically concerns the striving for imaginative creation (of a work of art or an ideal world) on the part of the protagonist, a desired event which in the course of the poem he ultimately fails to achieve, as in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker tries to escape imaginatively into the perfect world of nature and art but in the end is thrown back upon his imperfect state of human misery. Switching from the diegetic to the extradiegetic level, one can, however, see the verbal text of the poem as the eventful completion of the desire for creation: What the protagonist or speaker fails to achieve is completed by the author, who thus proves and dramatises himself as a creative poet. In these cases the poem itself is, in fact, the event. Other examples are Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and, most ingeniously,  Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, where the lamented fragmentariness and incompletion is to be read as the brilliant eventful fulfilment of the creative longing expressed both in the preface and in the second part of the poetic text.   

By way of conclusion, I would like to exemplify the most prominent tendencies of poetic eventfulness by briefly referring to Robert Browning’s coupled short poems “Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning”8.

Meeting at Night

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Parting at Morning

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

“Meeting at Night” presents a completed event in the happenings conveyed by simultaneous narration: the ultimate amorous consummation in the lovers’ secret embrace. In “Parting at Morning” the speaker retrospectively narrates a contrary development on the level of the happenings, his striving for self-realisation as a (male) individual in the public world, a story which has not yet reached its eventful completion. The temporal succession of these two texts (each referring eventfulness to the happenings) then constitutes a story with a presentation event - the speaker’s decisive change of attitude from absolute fixation on private intimacy with his beloved to aspiration towards solitary individual achievement in the public sphere. Thus, this example combines the following features: the prevalence of autodiegetic narration, simultaneous narration of a course of actions resulting in an event, placing the act of narration before the actual completion of the event, and focusing on eventful changes in the dimension of consciousness.                 



Cook, Guy (1994). Discourse and Literature: The Interplay of Form and Mind (Oxford: Oxford UP).

Hühn, Peter (2004). “Transgeneric Narratology: Applications to Lyric Poetry”, in: J. Pier (ed). The Dynamics of Narrative Form (Berlin / New York), 139-158 

Hühn, Peter (2005). “Plotting the Lyric: Forms of Narration in Poetry,” in: Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric, ed. E. Müller-Zettelmann & M. Rubik (Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi), 147–72.

Hühn, Peter (2008). “Functions and Forms of Eventfulness in Narrative Fiction”, in: John Pier and Ángel García Landa (eds). Theorizing Narrativity (Berlin / New York: de Gruyter) (forthcoming)

Hühn, Peter & Jens Kiefer (2005). The Narratological Analysis of Lyric Poetry: Studies in English Poetry from 16th to the 20th Century, trans. A. Matthews (Berlin / New York: de Gruyter).

Hühn, Peter & Jörg Schönert (2002). “Zur narratologischen Analyse von Lyrik,” in: Poetica, 34, 287–305.

Lotman, Jurij M. (1977). The Structure of the Artistic Text, trans. G. Lenhoff & R. Vroon. Michigan Slavic Contributions No. 7 (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan). 

Schönert, Jörg, Peter Hühn & Malte Stein (2007). Lyrik und Narratologie: Text-Analysen zu deutschsprachigen Gedichten vom 16. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin / New York: de Gruyter)

Semino, Elena (1995). “Schema theory and the analysis of text worlds in poetry”, Language and Literature, 4, 79–108

Schank, Roger C. / Abelson, Robert P. (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum).


1. For the following argument, see Hühn & Schönert (2002), Hühn (2004, 2005), Hühn & Kiefer (2005), Schönert, Hühn & Stein (2007).

2. See Hühn (2008).

3. See Schank & Abelson (1977), Semino (1995), Cook (1994).

4. See Lotman (1977).

5. See Hühn & Kiefer (2005: 246-251), cf. also Schönert, Hühn & Stein (2007: 321-324).

6. Cf. Hühn & Kiefer (2005: 234ff), Schönert, Hühn & Stein (2007: 313ff).

7. See Hühn & Kiefer (2005: 10). The three anthologies are Hayward’s Penguin Book of English Verse (1956), Ricks’s Oxford Book of English Verse (1999) and Keegan’s New Penguin Book of English Verse (2000). The exact figures: 88%, 76% and 74%, resp.

8. Robert Browning: The Poems. Vol. I, ed. J. Pettigrew (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 451 f.