POETRY ANALYSIS A Quick Reference Guide–Span. 301– 1
A Quick Reference Guide
When analyzing a poem, it is often best to structure your answer into two key categories:
Theme and meaning, including symbolism and imagery; and
Poetic genre and Technical structure, including rhyme, rhythm and meter.
Usually the meaning is more important, and needs much elaboration, so many people find that it helps (especially
when writing an examination) to discuss the technical aspects first, to "get them out of the way" so the rest of the
allotted time period may be taken up with an interpretation of the meaning.
When stating your views on anything in analysis, you must be very careful to make sure to explain yourself. This is
usually done by quoting (or, if this is impossible, making reference to) a passage in the piece which illuminates your
viewpoint. Then elaborate upon this passage and how it proves your stance. For example, it is not enough to define
irony and then quote a line. You must show how this line is indeed ironic.
Meaning and Theme
There are often two types of meaning: literal and figurative. The literal meaning of a poem is what actually
happens in the poem, on a purely superficial level. What is the story or observation found in the poem? Is it simply
telling you a story about the death of a king? Is it just describing a Grecian urn with the figures painted upon it?
The figurative meaning is generally associated with the theme, and is usually more abstract (i.e., a concept, rather
than a concrete physical description). It is the meaning behind the action. Almost every piece of literature, whether
poem or story or song, has a theme. This is the main idea, or main meaning, behind the piece. You can usually
discover this by asking yourself the question, "What did the author expect me to learn from this piece?" For
example, is the poem a lament on the short duration of beauty ("pluck ye rosebuds while ye may"), or might it be a
celebration of a past that shall never be again ("The Passing of Arthur")?
A common term that surfaces again and again in the discussion of theme is the human condition. Simply put, this is
a general statement on what it means to be human. Are we basically good or evil, saved or damned, honorific or
cowardly, godlike beings of limitless possibility or simply small beasts stirring in our cages? A great number of
poems make some sort of comment on the human condition, so it helps if you are aware of this term and use it
One chief way of conveying theme is through the use of symbolism, the concrete representation of an abstract
concept. These objects or persons are so universal that they have a meaning in themselves, and so when they are
used within a poem or piece of prose, they bring that meaning to the piece. For example, one commonly used
symbol for peace is the dove, and so when one flies over a battlefield we may take this as a symbol of a ceasefire,
that peace is on its way. If the dove is shot down, we may take this as a symbol of the shattering of hope for peace.
Sometimes it is more difficult to find the meaning behind certain symbols. The mention of a unicorn, an Irish
freedom fighter or a mythological figure might take a little more specialized knowledge or research to discover the
full significance of the poem.
Imagery and Figurative Language
Imagery is the use of language to represent objects, actions, feelings, thoughts, ideas, states of mind and any
sensory or extra-sensory experience. An image may be visual (sight), olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), auditory
(hearing), gustatory (taste), abstract (appealing to the intellect) and kinaesthetic (related to movement or bodily
effort). Imagery is often tightly linked to the symbolic.
Many images are conveyed by figurative language, such as simile, metaphor and personification.
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A simile is a comparison of one unlike thing to another, whereby the comparison is explicit (i.e., directly stated)
using a comparative such as "like" or "as". Examples: "The clouds drifted past as lazily as swans on a summer
night," "The evening smothered us like the heavy down quilt on my grandmother's bed."
A metaphor is a comparison of one unlike thing to another, whereby the comparison is implicit (i.e., not directly
stated), and there is no use of a comparative. Examples: "The clouds drifted past, lazy as swans on a summer night,"
"The suffocating quilt of the evening descended upon us, stealing our breath and weighing us down."
Personification is the attribution of anthropomorphic (human) qualities to something which is not human. An
example might be, "The wind climbed into the tree, curling up on a hidden branch and crying out a long and
mournful lament of loneliness." Note that the attribution of animal qualities ("The river slid serpentine down its
accustomed path") is usually not considered personification, but metaphor or simile.
Onomatopoeia (onomatopeya) is the formation and use of words to imitate sounds. The sound of the word reflects
the sense, as in crack, whiz, whoosh and sputter.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, often close together, to produce euphony (a pleasing sound). Note the
drowsy sonority in Tennyson's "Lotus-Eaters":
The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
The Lotos blows by every winding creek:
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone
Thro' every hollow cave and alley lone,
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonants, especially at the beginnings of words or stressed syllables. This may be
to produce a particular effect concerning its subject (e.g., "the slippery snake slithered" forming the hiss of a snake),
a sort of unity within the line or verse, or simply a melodic or lyrical rhythm.
Although characterization often takes a much less important role in poetry than in prose, it may nevertheless be an
integral component in the analysis of a poem dealing with a story (a ballad, for example) or a particular person
whose needs and motivations should be understood in order to gain a full appreciation of the poem.
One of the most important parts of any piece of literature is the title. It often forms a cohesive "banner" under which
the main idea of the piece is conveyed. Is the title indicative of a struggle, or of the human condition, or is it
symbolic of something else? Is it sarcastic or satiric or humorous, or is it fully serious? Is it simply a descriptive title
(one that simply states the object or person described in the poem)? Why did the author choose this particular title?
Poetic Genres and Forms
Although "genre" in prose usually refers to a vague subject area such as science fiction or comedy, in poetry it often
refers to the technical form of the poem, such as sonnet, free verse or ballad. There have been literally hundreds, if
not thousands, of forms defined by literary critics, but most poems fall into the following general categories.
Ballad (sp. = romance)
A ballad is fundamentally a song that tells a story. The folk ballad is traditionally an anonymous poem that has been
passed on through oral tradition (spoken aloud or sung) from generation to generation or by travelling entertainers
like bards or minstrels. A literary ballad is one that is not anonymous, but is written down by a poet as he composes
it, and is not necessarily meant to be sung. Most ballads tend to follow these elements:
1. the beginning is often abrupt;
2. the language is usually simple;
3. the story is told through dialogue and action; and
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4. there is often a refrain, or chorus.
Although there are exceptions, most ballads have four-line stanzas (not counting musical refrains) and follow an
ABAB or ABCB rhyme scheme. A ballad with six lines per stanza is not uncommon.
An epic poem is usually a very long poem of several thousand lines relating the story of a hero and his struggle
against impossible odds. This is one of the oldest forms of poetry, and was usually recited orally by professional
storytellers or singers over several nights, often at a court or feasting table. In fact, the oldest poem in any modern
European language is the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) epic Beowulf.
A lyric is traditionally fairly short, between four and sixty lines, and usually expresses the feelings and thoughts or a
single speaker in a personal and subjective fashion. The range and variety of lyric verse is immense, and lyric poetry
composes the bulk of all poetry. If the poem is not narrative or dramatic (which usually follow the other genres
given here), it is probably a lyric poem. Most poems fall into the general categories of love, lamentation (sadness)
and the pastoral (dealing with the natural world).
A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (see Meter). For high school purposes, they are usually
divided into two main types:
Petrarchan, or Italian Sonnet
This sonnet consists of an octave (eight lines) rhyming ABBAABBA and
a sestet (six lines) rhyming CDECDE or CDCDCD. This octave develops
a thought, and the sestet is a comment on it, a completion of it, or a volta
('turn') on the idea. This is the most common type of sonnet.
Shakespearean, or Elizabethan Sonnet
This type of sonnet derives its name from the many sonnets composed by
William Shakespeare in this form. It is composed of three quatrains (four
lines each) rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF, each one with a different idea
building upon the one before it, and of a couplet (two lines) rhyming GG,
with the conclusion.
Blank verse consists of unrhymed five-stress lines, properly iambic pentameter (see Meter). Much of the poetry of
Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Romantics were composed in blank verse. For example:
For you I'll hazard all: why, what care I?
For you I'll live, and in your love I'll die.
Free Verse (verso libre)
Free verse has no regular meter, line length or rhyme, and often depends on natural speech rhythms. Although a
poem can be both a lyric and free verse, this latter term is usually more apt for longer pieces, especially when
elements of the narrative or the dramatic are present.
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Technical structure, or simply just form, is conveyed through an analysis of several things, including rhyme,
rhythm, meter and poetic genre (sometimes -- confusingly -- also referred to as form). Although the technical
structure of most poems is usually less important than the discussion of theme, it is nonetheless an integral part of
analysis, as well as often being more difficult, due to the confusion of terms and endless jargon of literary critics.
Don't be surprised if different books label a poem to be different forms, or to see one critic use a term with a
completely different meaning than that of another critic. However, play it safe... the terms and examples that follow
are well-defined even within the circle of critics. Not every poem has every element; this would be improbable, if
not impossible. If you cannot reasonably find an element, don't go chasing ghosts: it probably isn't there.
verse has many meanings, and is often best reserved as meaning "poetry in general";
use line to mean a particular line of the poem, as in "we see in line 43 that...";
use stanza to mean a collection of lines separated by a blank line, as in "the third stanza discusses the
representation of the Holy Grail as the modern ideal." It is often much the same as a paragraph in prose,
and usually concentrates on one main idea.
Although most people are familiar with rhyme, it may be formally defined as the use of words in which there are
similarities in an accentuated vowel and the consonants that accompany it. It is said to have two chief functions:
it echoes sounds and is thus a source of artistic satisfaction. There is pleasure in the sound itself and in the
coincidence of sounds, and this is associated with music, rhythm and beat;
it assists in the actual structure of verse, organizing it and opening and concluding the sense. It is thus used
to 'bind' the verse together.
Although rhyme is often thought of as being at the end of a line, it may be anywhere, such as in the middle of a line,
e.g., "For this very jest among all of the rest." In this case, this is called an internal rhyme.
When analyzing rhyme, mention the rhyme scheme by labelling the end of each line with a letter, using a new one
every time that you come across a new rhyming sound. For example:
As Robin Hood in the forest stood, ...............A
All under the greenwood tree, .......................B
There he was ware of a brave young man, .....C
As fine as fine might be. ................................B
The youngster was clothed in scarlet red, ......D
In scarlet fine and gay, ..................................E
And he did frisk it over the plain ...................F
And chanted a roundelay. ............................E
If you were pressed for time, and did not have the opportunity to either label the poem on the page, or write out the
lines, you could say that this poem follows an ABCB rhyme scheme which varies in every stanza.
Keep in mind that not everybody who speaks (or spoke) English uses the same pronunciation. In Scottish poetry for
example, as in medieval poetry, vowels are often pronounced quite differently, and if we were to read the poem
aloud, we would not actually rhyme the words (e.g., "Little John" and "my son", "is taken" and "is slain"). Whenever
you analyze a poem not from our time and area, look carefully for evidence that words rhyme, such as the fact that
most of lines do contain a particular pattern of rhyme.
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Rhythm is defined as the movement or sense of movement communicated by the arrangement of stressed syllables
and by the duration of the syllables. It usually depends on the metrical pattern (see the following section). This is
rather a broad definition, and it is often very difficult to analyze rhythm in a poem. You can sometimes think of it in
terms of music, and how the words fall in 'beats'.