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Poetry analysis is the process of investigating a poem's form, content, and history in an informed way, with the aim of heightening one's own and others' understanding and appreciation of the work.
The words poem and poetry derive from the Greek poiēma (to make) and poieo (to create). That is, a poem is a made thing: a creation; an artifact. One might think of a poem as, in the words of William Carlos Williams, a "machine made of words". Machines produce some effect, or do some work. They do whatever they are designed to do. The work done by this "machine made of words" — a poem — is the effect it produces in the reader's mind. A reader analyzing a poem is akin to a mechanic taking apart a machine in order to figure out how it works.
Like poetry itself, poetry analysis can take many forms, and be undertaken for many different reasons. A teacher might analyze a poem in order to gain a more conscious understanding of how the poem achieves its effects, in order to communicate this to his or her students. A writer learning the craft of poetry might use the tools of poetry analysis to expand and strengthen his or her own mastery. And (perhaps the best use of poetry analysis), a reader might use the tools and techniques of poetry analysis in order to discern all that the work has to offer, and thereby gain a fuller, more rewarding appreciation of the poem.
This article begins with an Overview that demonstrates the nature, method, and value of poetry analysis through close reading of three poems. Subsequent sections provide readers with terms and methods that will help them analyze poems on their own.
Returning to the mechanical metaphor introduced earlier, some machines — ballpoint pens, flashlights — can be taken apart by hand or with only the simplest tools. Similarly, some poems reward careful reading, and respond to analysis, but do not require of the reader an extensive set of critical terms, such as this short poem written by Robert Herrick in the 17th century.
In the first three lines, the reader understands the speaker to be describing a sleeping baby. At the fourth line, this understanding is shaken. The baby is covered, not by a blanket, but by earth. That is, the baby has been buried. The baby is dead.
This realization can produce a sharp emotional reaction, an almost physical pang. And this reaction, this effect on the reader, is the "work" that this "machine of words" is designed to do. Although this poem is not humorous, its "mechanism" is akin to that of most jokes: a sudden alteration of perspective produces an immediate and visceral response.
At the outset of the joke, the listener imagines the fish to be in a fish tank. For the listener who "gets it" (and who cares for this sort of joke), there is an immediate and visceral reaction (pleasure, perhaps laughter) when this perspective is suddenly altered. The fish are not in a fish tank: they are in a military tank, a tracked, armored, combat vehicle.
Just as one needs no critical terminology or tools to "get" the joke, one does not really need critical terminology or tools to appreciate Herrick's poem. One needs only to read attentively and thoughtfully (it is crucial to recognize the incongruence and significance of the phrase "Th'easy earth"). Critical terminology, though, becomes useful when one attempts to articulate one's reaction to the poem in order to share it with others. A simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another, typically using the words like or as: "My love is like a red, red rose." A metaphor is a figure of speech in which the comparison is implicit, with one thing replacing another: "My love is a red, red rose" or "The red, red rose of my love." Constructions such as similes and metaphors are known as figurative speech.
This terminology becomes useful when one attempts to articulate how Herrick's poem works. Because the poem begins with natural language, and a common, easily imagined scene, and because it does not include "like" or "as", a reader first understands lines 1-3 to be literal (nonfigurative). The revelation that this "sleeping" baby is covered not by a blanket, but instead by earth, causes a sudden and dramatic shift in perspective, and in how the reader understands what he or she has just read. The effect of the poem traces to an almost instantaneous reversal of the reader's own understanding. The preceding lines are not literal, they are instead a sustained metaphor in which an unbearable reality (the baby is dead) is replaced by something else (the comforting but unsustainable fantasy that the baby is merely sleeping).
Similarly, one can derive pleasure from two of the most fundamental tools in the poet's toolbox — meter and rhyme — without necessarily knowing a lot of terminology, as in this, the first stanza of Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib":
Byron's use of meter and rhyme is especially evident and rewarding when one reads the lines out loud. The lines have a powerful, rolling, and very evident rhythm, and they rhyme in a way that is impossible to ignore. In other words, the physicality of the language — how it sounds and feels — accounts for a large measure of the poem's effect. The poem does not have a deep, hidden, symbolic meaning. Rather, it is simply pleasurable to read, say, and hear.
Critical terminology becomes useful when one attempts to account for why the language is pleasurable, and how Byron achieved this effect. The lines are not simply rhythmic: the rhythm is regular, it is the same in each line. A poem having a regular rhythm (not all poems do) is said to follow a certain meter. In "The Destruction of Sennacherib", each line has the basic pattern of two unstressed syllables followed by a third stressed syllable, with each of these basic patterns being repeated four times in a line. Those basic patterns are called feet, and this particular pattern (weak weak STRONG) is called an anapest. A line with four feet is said to be in tetrameter (tetra-, from the Greek for four). This poem has a pleasurable and appropriate rhythm, and that rhythm has a name: this poem is written in anapestic tetrameter. (This process of analyzing a poem's rhythms is called scansion.) The poem also rhymes (not all poems do), and the rhymes follow a pattern (they do not have to). In this case, the rhymes come right next to each other, which emphasizes them, and therefore emphasizes the sound, the physical nature, of the language. The effect of the poem's language derives in part from Byron's choice of an appropriate pattern of rhyme (or rhyme scheme): these adjacent, rhyming lines are called couplets. The sound, the physical nature, of the language is also emphasized by alliteration, as in the repetition of s sounds in the third line.
In these two examples, analytic terms are not needed to appreciate the poem; they are only needed to explain or describe the poem's effect. Sometimes, though, the reader needs a certain skill in analyzing poetry in order to appreciate the poem. If a listener doesn't know what fish tanks and military tanks are, he or she will not "get the joke" about the two fish. Similarly, sometimes a poem cannot work, cannot produce its intended effect, and cannot do what it was designed to do, unless the reader brings a certain level of analytic skill to the experience of reading it. One such poem is Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent".
Often, a good way to begin analyzing a poem is to reword it, putting it in one's own words, or into ordinary speech, in order to get a good grasp of the poem's content. (This is called doing a prose paraphrase.) Like Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day", this poem uses a sustained image to describe another person. Frost draws out an extended comparison between a woman and a silken tent in order to make some essential aspect of the woman's character real and available to the reader. The comparison is not to just any tent, but to a tent imagined in a very specific way. Ropes or cords draw up, become taut, when wet. In this case, the tent is imagined at midday. Any morning dew which would have soaked the tent's guy-lines has evaporated, and the ropes are now somewhat slack. The tent sways slightly in response to the wind. This imagery conveys — at a subconscious but very real and effective level — a sense that the woman being described is not tense or nervous, but is instead genial, relaxed, comfortable to be around. This does not mean, though, that she is wishy washy, someone who is blown about by every gust of fad and fashion. The tent's pole — its upright nature, its strength — conveys a sense of backbone, character, and firmness in the woman being described. In this woman's case, firmness of character does not lead to her becoming dogmatic or insistent. Rather, her character derives in part at least from her deep investment in friends, family, and community, from "countless silken ties of love and thought". Some people would experience numerous relationships — and the obligations they entail — as something entangling, binding, or limiting. This woman does not seem to. She seems to be very much at ease in this situation, so much so that she and those around her are only likely to be aware of their bounds and limits in unusual circumstances.
When one reads this poem aloud, rhythm and meter are much less evident, much less emphatically presented than in "The Destruction of Sennacherib". In fact, most people who hear the poem read aloud for the first time will say that it does not rhyme and it does not have any particular rhythm. Closer examination reveals that the poem does rhyme though. In fact, it rhymes in a specific pattern: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (that is, the first line rhymes with the third line (the A's), the second line rhymes with the fourth line (the B's), and so forth). But, the rhymes are much less forceful, much less emphatic and noticeable, than in Byron's poem. This is in part because Byron arranged the words such that each line ending (and therefore each rhyme) corresponds a natural pause in speech. That is, the lines end at the same places where one would pause if the lines were set as prose and one were reading the words aloud. Such lines are said to be end stopped. End stopping makes rhyme more noticeable. Frost, though, arranged at least some of the lines in "The Silken Tent" such that the line endings do not coincide with natural pauses (such as the end of line 2: someone reading the words "a sunny, summer breeze has dried the dew" would not necessarily pause after "breeze"). This technique is called enjambment. Enjambment de-emphasizes rhyming lines.
And, there is a rhythm, albeit a rather subtle or muted one. Each line has ten syllables, and (with slight and pleasant variations) they follow a pattern of weak syllables followed by strong syllables:
This pattern (weak STRONG) is called an iamb. There are five iambs to the line here: these are pentameter lines (penta- is from the Greek for "five"). The poem does have a meter: it is called iambic pentameter. Frost employs the meter with a very light touch, though, and — rather like a good jazz musician — feels free to "play around with it", briefly departing from the regular pattern as appropriate.
Interestingly, the whole poem is a single sentence:a single, rather long, but nonetheless conversational sounding sentence that covers fourteen lines.
So, this poem, which at first seems rather formless, in fact has a very specific structure: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. There is a term for this structure: it is called the Shakespearean sonnet, and it is regarded as one of the stricter, more difficult forms. Frost is not writing a shapeless poem; he is writing within very strict rules, and in fact has raised the bar by making himself do it all in one sentence. The poem is single, long, graceful sentence that unfolds — in very relaxed, natural sounding way — within the strict boundaries of the Shakespearean sonnet form.
And — going back to the prose paraphrase — it describes a woman whose life unfolds in a very relaxed, natural way, within numerous strict boundaries. In the woman's character, as in the poem's form, one is not really aware that the boundaries are even there. The woman, like the poem, exists comfortably, naturally, easily within numerous limits and boundaries.
And this is the poem's great accomplishment: the form enacts the content; the language of the poem does what the language itself says. Though this analysis proceeded by temporarily separating form and content, the result of the analysis is the realization that in "The Silken Tent", form and content are truly inseparable: they are exact complements to each other. The effect of this poem, the work it is designed to do, is to create a sharp sense of pleasure and appreciation when one recognizes how skillfully and appropriately the poet has used the words.
In this case, a certain amount of critical terminology and analytic skill is necessary in order to appreciate the poem. If the reader does not know what a sonnet is, much less more subtle aspects of form such as enjambment, he or she will have no way to see what the poem does. He or she will have no way to "get the joke". In this case, poetry enjoyment is enabled by poetry analysis.
Poems can have many forms. Some forms are strictly defined, with required line counts and rhyming patterns, such as the sonnet or limerick. Such poems exhibit closed form. Others (which exhibit open form) have less structure or, indeed, almost no apparent structure at all. This appearance, though, is deceptive: successful open form poems are informed throughout by organic structure which may resist formal description but is nonetheless a crucial element of the poem's effect on the reading mind.
A poet writing in closed form follows a specific pattern, a specific design. Some designs have proven so durable and so suited to the English language that they survive for centuries and are renewed with each generation of poets (sonnets, sestinas, limericks, and so forth), while others come into being for the expression of one poem and are then set aside (Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a good example).
Of all closed forms in English prosody, none has demonstrated greater durability and range of expression than blank verse, which is verse that follows a regular meter but does not rhyme. In English, iambic pentameter is by far the most frequently employed meter. Among the many exemplary works of blank verse in English are Milton's Paradise Lost and most of the verse passages from Shakespeare's plays, such as this portion of a famous soliloquy from Hamlet:
Note that Shakespeare does not rigidly follow a pattern of five iambs per line. Rather, most lines have five strong syllables, and most are preceded by a weak syllable. The meter provides a rhythm that informs the line: it is not an invariable formula.
Rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter lines form the heroic couplet. Two masters of the form are Alexander Pope and John Dryden. The form has proven especially suited to conveying wit and sardonic humor, as in the opening of Pope's An Essay on Criticism.
Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged in a more elaborate rhyme scheme form a sonnet. There are two major variants. The form originated in Italy, and the word derives from "sonetto", which is Italian for "little song". The Italian sonnet or Petrarchan sonnet follows a rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, ABBA ABBA CD CD CD, ABBA ABBA CCE DDE, or ABBA ABBA CDD CEE. In each of these, a group of eight lines (the octave) is followed by a group of six (the sestet). Typically, the octave introduces a situation, idea, or problem to which the sestet provides a response or resolution. For example, consider Longfellow's "The Sound of the Sea".
The octave present the speaker's experience of the sound of the sea, coming to him from some distance. In the sestet, this experience mutates into a meditation on the nature of inspiration and man's connection to creation and his experience of the numinous.
English has (proportionally) far fewer rhyming words than Italian. Recognizing this, Shakespeare adapted the sonnet form to English by creating an alternate rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The poet using this, the English sonnet or Shakespearean sonnet form, may use the fourteen lines as single unit of thought (as in "The Silken Tent" above), or he may treat the groups of four rhyming lines (the quatrains) as organizational units, as in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:
In lines 1-4, the speaker compares his time of life to autumn. In lines 5-8, the comparison is to twilight; in lines 9-12, the comparison is to the last moments of a dying fire. Each quatrain presents a shorter unit of time, creating a sense of time accelerating toward an inevitable end, the death implied in the final couplet.
At the "high end" of closed forms are the sestina and villanelle. At the "low end" are forms such as the limerick, which follows a metrical pattern of two lines of anapestic trimeter (three anapests per line), followed by two lines of anapestic dimeter (two anapests per line), followed by one line of anapestic trimeter. (The beginning of the metrical foot does not have to coincide with the beginning the line.) Any poem following this metrical pattern would generally be considered a limerick, however most also follow an AABBA rhyme scheme. Most limericks are humorous, and many are ribald, or outright obscene (possible rhymes that could follow an opening like "There once was a man from Nantucket" are left as an exercise for the reader). Nonetheless, the form is capable of sophisticated and playful expression:
In contrast, a poet using open form (sometimes called "free verse") seeks to find fresh and uniquely appropriate form for each poem, letting the structure grow out of the poem's subject matter or inspiration. A common perception is that open form is easier and less rigorous than closed form (Frost likened it to "playing tennis without a net"), but such is not necessarily the case (skeptics should try playing tennis without a net): success with the open form requires great sensitivity to language and a particular type of adaptable understanding. In the best open form poems, the poet achieves something that is inaccessible through closed form. As X. J. Kennedy has said, "Should the poet succeed, then the discovered arrangement will seem exactly right for what the poem is saying" (582).
Walt Whitman was an important innovator of open form, and he demonstrates its merits in "A Noiseless Patient Spider".
Long, rolling lines — unified, held together like strong cords, by alliteration and assonance — partake of the same nature as the spider's filaments and the soul's threads. Two balanced stanzas, one describing a spider, the other the speaker's soul, perfectly frame the implicit comparison, with neither being privileged over the other. Just as the spider and the soul quest outward for significance, the two stanzas throw links to each other with subtly paired words: isolated/detached, launched/fling, tirelessly/ceaselessly, surrounding/surrounded. As Alexander Pope said so well, in the best poetry, "The sound should be an echo to the sense".
Most poetry can be read on several levels. The surface is not necessarily the essence of the poem although in some cases (notably, the works of William McGonagall) there is little beyond the immediate. Allegory, connotation and metaphor are some of the subtler ways in which a poet communicates with the reader.
Before getting seduced into explorations of subtle nuance, however, the reader should establish the theme of the poem. What is the 'story' that is being told? Not the literal story but the heart of the poem. For example: Another tells of a buried child; The Destruction of Sennacherib tells of the last days of the Assyrian king; The silken tent compares a woman to a tent. Part of this involves recognising the voice of the poem (who is speaking), and the rest of Kipling's "six honest serving men": the events in the poem; when these occur; where is the 'speaker' and where do the events occur; why does the speaker speak? William Harmon has suggested that starting an analysis with: "This poem dramatizes the conflict between …" is a key technique.
George Herbert in his poem Jordan (I) asks if poetry must be about the imaginary. The poem opens:
He was railing against the prevalent enthusiasm for pastoral poetry above all other forms (as becomes apparent in subsequent verses). Curiously, this verse uses metaphors to challenge the use of indirect approaches to their subject. False hair and a painted chair are decorations of the mundane. The winding stair is obstructive concealment of meaning. Herbert is criticising the overuse of allegory, symbolism or elaborate language.
For most poets—even the plain-speaking Herbert—metaphor is the fundamental means of communicating complexity succinctly. Some metaphors become so widely used that they are widely recognised symbols and these can be identified by using a specialist dictionary.
Allegorical verse uses an extended metaphor to provide the framework for the whole work. It was particularly prevalent in seventeenth century English but a more recent example is Charles Williams' The Masque of the Manuscript, in which the process of publishing is a metaphor for the search for truth. Allegories are usually readily apparent because of the heavy use of metaphor within them.
The symbolism used in a poem may not always be as overt as metaphor. Often the poet communicates emotionally by selecting words with particular connotations. For example, the word "sheen" in The Destruction of Sennacherib has stronger connotations of polishing, of human industry, than does the similar "shine". The Assyrians did not simply choose shiny metal; they worked to make it so. The word hints at a military machine.
Other tropes that may be used to increase the level of allusion include irony, litotes, simile, and metonymy (particularly synecdoche).
English language poetic meter depends on stress, rather than the number of syllables. It thus stands in contrast to poetry in other languages, such as French, where syllabic stress is not present or recognized and syllable count is paramount. This often makes scansion (the analysis of metrical patterns) seem unduly arcane and arbitrary to students of the craft.
In the final analysis, the terms of scansion are blunt instruments, clumsy ways of describing the infinitely nuanced rhythms of language. Nonetheless, they provide a tool for discerning and describing the underlying structure of poems (especially those employing closed form).
The terms fall into two groups: the names of the different feet, and the names of the varying line lengths.
The most common feet in poetry written in English are the iamb (weak STRONG), the anapest (weak weak STRONG), the trochee (STRONG weak), and the dactyl (STRONG weak weak). The iamb and anapest are known as rising meters (they move "up" from weak to strong syllables); the trochee and dactyl are falling meters (they move "down" from strong to weak). Less common, but frequently important for the variety and energy they bring to a line, are the monosyllabic foot (weak) and the spondee (STRONG STRONG).
The terms for line length follow a regular pattern: a Greek prefix denoting the number of feet and the root "meter" (for "measure"): monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, and octameter (lines having more than eight feet are possible but quite rare).
Another useful term is caesura, for a natural pause within a line.
Meter and line length are not formulas for successful lines of poetry. They are rough forms of notation for the many satisfying and variable rhythms of language. Slavish adherence to meter produces doggerel. Skillful poets structure their poems around a meter and line length, and then depart from it and play against it as needed in order to create effect, as Robert Browning does in the first line of "My Last Duchess":
The opening spondees, which throw the iambic line out of pattern, gives the Duke's words a certain virulent energy: he's spitting the words out.
Gerard Manley Hopkins took this idea of poetric energy through departure from meter to its extreme, with his theory and practice of sprung rhythm, an approach to poetry in which the language constantly frustrates the reading mind's expectation of a regular meter.
Analyzing diction and connotation — the meanings of words as well as the feelings and associations they carry — is a good place to start for any poem. The use of specific words in the poem serve to create a tone — an attitude taken towards the subject. For example, consider the words "slither" and "sneak." When used in a poem, the words conjure up images of a snake. The sibilant s sound reinforces the image. The connotations of the words suggest something surreptitious and undercover. From the tone, one can infer that the author is suspicious or fearful of the subject.
A detached tone, or an opposite tone than the reader would expect, are sometimes purposely employed to elicit more of a response. In the opening lines of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", T. S. Eliot quickly sets a certain tone, and then creates effect by juxtaposing it with a very different tone:
Poets such as E. E. Cummings experiment with punctuation and the words' layout on a page. In doing so, they venture into a realm of poetry that really cannot be read aloud: it can only be experienced through the eye.
There are many different 'schools' of poetry: oral, classical, romantic, modernist, etc and they each vary in their use of the elements described above.
The Imagists were (predominantly young) poets working in England and America in the early 20th century, including F. S. Flint, T. E. Hulme, and Hilda Doolittle (known primarily by her initials, H.D.). They rejected Romantic and Victorian conventions, favoring precise imagery and clear, non-elevated language. Ezra Pound formulated and promoted many precepts and ideas of Imagism. His "In a Station of the Metro" (Roberts & Jacobs, 717), written in 1916, is often used as an example of Imagist poetry:
Poetry analysis is almost as old as poetry itself, with distinguished practitioners going back to figures such as Plato. At various times and places, groups of like-minded readers and scholars have developed, shared, and promoted specific approaches to poetry analysis.
The New Criticism dominated English and American literary criticism from the 1920s to the early 1960s. The New Critical approach insists on the value of close reading and rejects extra-textual sources. The New Critics also rejected the idea that the work of a critic or analyst is to determine what author's intended meaning (a view formalized by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley as the intentional fallacy). The New Critics prized ambiguity, and tended to favor works that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
Reader Response developed in Germany and the United States as a reaction to New Criticism. It emphasises the reader's role in the development of meaning.
Reception aesthetics is a development of Reader Response that considers the public response to a literary work and suggests that this can inform analysis of cultural ideology at the time of the response.
Poems may be read silently to oneself, or may be read aloud solo or to other people. Although reading aloud to oneself raises eyebrows in many circles, few people find it surprising in the case of poetry.
In fact, many poems reveal themselves fully only when they are read aloud. The characteristics of such poems include (but are not limited to) a strong narrative, regular poetic meter, simple content and simple form. At the same time, many poems that read well aloud have none of these characteristics (for example, T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"). Poems that read aloud well include:
"The Frog", by Hillaire Belloc
"One Art", by Elizabeth Bishop
"Tyger", by William Blake
"Meeting at Night", by Robert Browning
"She Walks in Beauty", by Byron
"The Song of the Western Men", by Robert Stephen Hawker
"November in England", by Thomas Hood
"Dream Variations", by Langston Hughes
"The Jackdaw of Rheims", by Thomas Ingoldsby
"To put one brick upon another", by Philip Larkin
"Paul Revere's Ride", by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Adventures of Isabel", by Ogden Nash
"Nothing but Death", by Pablo Neruda translated by Robert Bly
"A Small Elegy", by Jirí Orten translated by Lynn Coffin
"Ozymandias", by Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Sea Surface Full of Clouds", by Wallace Stevens
"Silver", by Walter de la Mare
"How to Tell a Story", by Robert Penn Warren
"On Westminster Bridge", by William Wordsworth
This article is focussed on poetry written in English and reflects anglophone culture. Other cultures have other poetic forms and differ in their attitudes towards poetry.