Poets & the Three Unities

Three Unities

Sprawling tree roots support the central tree.

Action.

Time.

Place.

Writing can sprawl into unnecessary digressions.

The struggle for writers is to keep that sprawl focused so that every element seeds ideas relevant to the theme.

When relating the story of father killing daughter, wife killing husband in revenge, and son killing mother to restore a balance, any writer might be tempted to stray away from the central storyline.  Aeschylus managed to stay focused for his trilogy The Oresteia, and he didn’t have the Three Unities to guide him.

I am tempted, just from that previous sentence, to comment that The Oresteia wiped out every family relation or that killing doesn’t restore balance to the scales of justice, even in Greek myth with its differences between revenge and justice and its taboo on kin-killing.  See?  It’s hard to let things go.  Orestes had to argue with the Furies to get them to leave him alone for re-balancing the scales of justice.  And Aeschylus took three dramas to tell that one story.

Action. Time. Place.

Aristotle laid down the law about the Three Unities.  These three “laws” help structure any writer’s work.

To create the law of Three Unities, Aristotle looked at the most impressive dramas (tragedy and comedy) and classified the reasons for their success.

The story should focus on one action occurring over a tightly controlled time frame within a closely bounded place.  For ancient dramas, this meant one conflict occurring during one day and situated in one place, such as the front steps to a palace.

The law of the Three Unities, however, is not limited to ancient Greek dramas.

Novelists are similar enough to dramatists that no persuasive evidence is necessary.  Short stories maintain a tighter control on all three elements while novels might address one single conflict (with subplots) over several days yet still in a closely-bounded culture.

The James Bond sagas focus on one antagonist to be defeated with a close-monitored ticking clock within the culture of the British spy game.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring saga seems to sprawl all across Middle Earth [place] as the Fellowship gathers allies in order to defeat Sauron [action] before he becomes too powerful [time].

When poets work with the Three Unities, something unexpected and extraordinary occurs.

Frost and the Three Unities

Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” presents Aristotle’s Three Unities.

Action:  God considers re-making the world as he did with the Deluge.

Place: The great ocean crashes on to a shoreline saved only because it is “lucky in being backed by continent”.

Time: “A night of dark intent / Was coming”, and it could be that the dark night might turn into an age of destruction.

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.

Several of Frost’s poems use the Three Unities to control their meaning.
  • “Acquainted with the Night” and “Design” are examples of two sonnets controlled by Action, Time, and Place.
  • His narrative poem “Home Burial” reads like an ancient Greek drama. Husband and wife have lost their future together since the day (Time) she watched him bury their child in the family cemetery (Place).  He cannot express his emotions;  she cannot control hers. (Action)
  • Frost’s found poem “Out, Out—” is a Greek tragedy of futility and unexpected disaster. The son is cutting wood while the sister stands close by (Place).  Since the boy does not keep close watch on what he is doing (classic hubris:  challenging Fate), the chainsaw leaps out to take his hand (Action).  His death at the end of the day (Time) with the understated line of “little – less – nothing” has all the inexplicable mystery of Doom.
  • “My November Guest” reports the Action as a conversation between a man and his love: “My Sorrow when she’s here with me, / Thinks these dark days of autumn rain / Are beautiful as days can be . . . She talks, and I am fain to list”.  The Time is the unexpected beauty of November, and the setting is the simple beauty of the land:  “the bare, the withered trees” and “silver now with clinging mist”.
  • “Mending Wall” is another unexpected use. Two neighbors are in unexpressed disagreement over the wall between their properties:  one is instinct, delighting in the fairy shifts to the rock wall, while the other is plodding logic that dislikes sudden changes.  They meet on an appointed day (Time) and repair the wall (Place & Action).

Millay and the Three Unities

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Time Does Not Bring Relief” covers all Three Unities.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The conflict to resolve begins the poem:  her love is gone, and she must go about forgetting him so she can move on.

Time ~ Her entire existence is taken up with remembering him and their love.  Every day of her past year she has tried to forget him only to have her grief renewed:  the rainy season, last autumn, and winter have passed, yet her heartbreak remains acute.

Place ~ Typical romantic places have also served as reminders of him, therefore increasing her loss:  the oceanside, the mountains, country lanes.  We can assume the city from the “weeping of the rain.”

Left unmentioned is Action.  Since time and place have not eased her pain, the Bohemian Millay may move on to action to bring her relief.

More of Millay’s Structural Techniques

A Petrarchan sonnet without the stiff formality of the 19th century and earlier, Millay presents her mastery of the sonnet by providing rhyme we barely notice.  Only occasionally do we slow to read her meter-based lines, which lesser poets must twist to create.

Three coupled images tighten up her structure:  “I miss him / I want him” and “Last year’s leaves / Last year’s bitter loving” and “So with his memory / So remembering him”.  The first two sets are coupled together;  the last set is separated, for the couple is broken apart.

Wrapping Up

Millay constructs her poetry more tightly than Frost does, but both are masters of the poetic line reading like conversation.  With Aristotle’s Three Unities, we can see a bit of their approaches to writing.

The Three Unities become a device for writing.  Skillfully used, the audience doesn’t notice the framework for the poetic lines.

For novelists and dramatists, those Three Unities should also fade into the structure to become unnoticed.

Rhyme and rhythm help structure Pure Verse.  Rhetorical devices from Classical Antiquity structure Free Verse.

Join us August 25 for a reminder of unexpected devices that poets use to structure their works.

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