Poetry analysis is focused on:
THEME AND MEANING AND
POETIC GENRE AND TECHNICAL
(rhyme, rhythm and meter).
THEME AND MEANING
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
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
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.
One chief way of conveying theme is through the use of
symbolism, the concrete representation of an abstract
concept. These objects are so universal that they have a
meaning in themselves,
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.
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.
Many images are conveyed by figurative
language, such as simile, metaphor and
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
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
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."
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?
Onomatopoeia 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
together, to produce euphony (a pleasing sound).
Note the drowsy sonority in Tennyson's "Lotus-
The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
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
Most ballads tend to follow these elements:
the beginning is often abrupt;
the language is usually simple;
the story is told through dialogue and action; and
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 follows 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 ealing 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:
- Petrarchian, or Italian Sonnet and
- Shakesperean or Elizabethan Sonnet
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
For you I'll hazard all: why, what care I?
For you I'll live, and in your love I'll die.
Free verse has no regular meter, line length or
rhyme, and often depends on natural speech
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.
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.
It is the pattern of stressed and
unstressedsyllables to communicate rhythm.
The best way of analyzing a regular meter is
to write out at least two lines, writing "/" (a
sharp accent) above stressed syllables (those
that carry more emphasis) and "U" (a
short accent) above
For example, read the following line aloud and notice what syllables
you pronounce more forcefully:
U / U / U / U / U /
The world is too much with us late and soon
A line following the above pattern is common in English literature,
especially in sonnets (see poetic genres), and is called iambic
pentameter. "Iambic" means it follows an "unstressed-stressed"
pattern, and "pentameter" means that it has five sets of two
syllables each, amounting to ten syllables.
Be sure to note that not all stressed/unstressed syllables
fall in an alternating pattern like the above.