To analyze a poem, you must break it down into all its important elements and explain how they work together to create an effect or reinforce a meaning. Read your assignment carefully to find out what you’re being asked to do, since there are many ways to present an analysis. You may, for example, be required to do research in order to incorporate the opinion of literary critics into your own analysis. Or you may be asked to present only your own interpretation. In any case, before you write, you need a solid understanding of the poem or poems you’ll be analyzing. This handout will help you break down a poem into its key elements and get you started on writing a thesis.
Before you break the poem apart, identify its basic content. You should be able to summarize your poem. Creating a summary will focus your thoughts about the poem. However, you may not need to include it when you write your analysis, since you can usually assume your readers will know what the poem is about.
Ex. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is about a man who is haunted by a raven and the memory of the woman he loved.
It‘s also sometimes helpful to label the sections of a poem. Can you find a pattern of organization? Stanzas may be a guide, but even poems not divided into obvious stanzas may have sections that function differently. A Shakespearian sonnet, for example, can be divided into four parts. It may help to write down what each section says.
Ex. Shakespeare’s Sonnet XIV, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”
Section 1- She’s more lovely than summer because she’s warmer and gentler than summer.
Section 2 – She’s fairer because the sun doesn’t always shine and summer’s beauty fades.
Section 3- Her beauty will never fade and she will never die.
Couplet – All of this is because the poet has made her and her loveliness immortal with his poetry.
You may not need to write about all these elements in your essay, but think about them all before you begin writing so you can decide which contribute most to the poem’s effect or theme.
Narrators, Characters, and Setting
Consider the narrator. Remember, the person voicing the words is not necessarily the author. For example, in “The Forsaken Merman,” the speaker is the merman rather than the poet, Matthew Arnold. Also consider to whom the poem is addressed. Gwendolyn Brooks’ famous poem about abortion, “The Mother,” first speaks to other mothers who have had an abortion, then switches to addressing the babies who were never born. These speakers and addressees are like characters in the poem. How do they affect the poem’s words? Why did the poet choose them as vehicles for the words?
Setting can also be important as can the poet’s personal history. In Claude’s McKay’s “Harlem Shadows” we see the image of prostitutes “wandering” and “prowling” the streets of New York City on a cold night in the 1920s. Harlem, the setting for the struggles of McKay’s “fallen race,” is also symbolic for the whole country, the larger site of struggle and oppression. If you also know that McKay was a communist as a young man and that he eventually converted to Catholicism, it may shed some light on his attitude toward the women in the poem.
Look at the structure of the poem and consider the type of poem the author chose to write. There are a number of poetic forms, and poets will choose one carefully. Think also about the poem’s rhythm. Is it fast and breathless or slow and halting? Did the author use a specific meter? Meter measures the number of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line. For example, in iambic pentameter, the most commonly used meter in English, each line is ten syllables with a stress on every second syllable.
Ex. That time / of year / thou mayst / in me / behold (Sonnet 73, Shakespeare)
Once you’ve looked at structure, ask why the poet made these choices. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sestina,” for example, uses the traditional French sestina to tell about a grandmother and granddaughter in a kitchen. The sestina is a classic form of poetry that does not rhyme but has repeating end words according to a strict pattern. The style is somewhat artificial and not very popular. So why did Bishop choose not only to write in this form, but name the poem after the form? In the poem, Bishop is presenting the façade of happy home life and hinting at the sadness behind it. By using the sestina, Bishop brings more attention to the artificial structure, using the rigid sestina to control and conceal the poem’s emotion just as the grandmother tries to conceal her heartbreak.
Tone is difficult to define concretely because it’s essentially the mood, which can be personal to each reader. Consider the effect of these words from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
but I have promises to keep
and miles to go before I sleep
and miles to go before I sleep
The first line creates a comforting haven of the woods, a slumberous peace. The next three lines are those of a weary traveler. The repetition of “miles to go before I sleep” makes the reader feel the narrator’s longing for rest along with his resigned determination to finish what he’s started. Contrast Frost’s words with these from “The Congo” by Vachel Lindsay:
barrel-house kings with feet unstable
sagged and reeled and pounded on the table
pounded on the table
beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom
hard as they were able
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM
Lindsay writes about the way men in the African Congo murder over diamonds and gold. A heavy, deep, chanting rhythm creates a primal tone of force and foreboding to match his subject matter.
Diction, Imagery, Metaphor
Because a poem is generally compact, every word is important. Examine the words (diction) and how they’re used to create an impression that evokes the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, or sound (imagery). Comparisons (metaphor or simile) are also powerful ways poets create an impression or convey an idea. For example, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Two Countries” is about loneliness and finding love again:
Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw it was a feather.
Nye uses metaphor by comparing loneliness to “a gray tunnel” and a “feather lost from the tail of a bird.” The tunnel signifies a void with no end. The fact that the tunnel is gray renders it vague and ghostly. Consider the difference it would have made if she’d described the tunnel as black. The feather, a delicate, tiny thing that was once part of a greater whole, is now listless and lost. These metaphors portray loneliness as an empty and floating nothingness, without direction or end.
Nye also uses imagery. She talks of the feather “swirling onto a step” and “swept away by someone who never saw it was a feather.” Here, the feather is personified, looking for welcome but carelessly brushed aside by someone who just didn’t see it. This imagery evokes the sense of touch, presenting the human as a delicate, hopeful thing easily brushed aside. Finally, Nye chose to refer to a person as “skin.” This diction immediately creates an intimacy between the subject and the reader, something we can feel and touch.
After you determine the key elements of the poem, you can begin to write your thesis. Start by making an observation about the poem; then explain how it is achieved. Usually in an analysis you can focus on one key element, such as imagery, and show how it works in the poem; or, you can focus on a theme or mood or some overarching aspect of the poem, and show how the parts contribute to that.
Ex. (Statement of meaning) T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is about a man imprisoned in the mediocre life he has chosen, dreaming of things he lacks the courage to do.
Ex. (How meaning is conveyed) To convey the ordinary and oppressive world Prufrock lives in, Eliot talks about the smoke and smog, clinking coffee spoons, and trivial social aspirations of women chattering in a drawing room.
One way to write a thesis for your analysis is to link these two sentences. You may have to rephrase it or omit some words, but your basic ideas will be the same.
Thesis Ex. In the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot writes about a man imprisoned in the mediocre life he has chosen, dreaming of things he lacks the courage to do; Eliot creates this portrait of a trapped man by alluding to the fantastical world Prufrock dreams of and contrasting it with the oppressive ordinariness of his real life.
Once your thesis is written, outline your paragraphs and choose your evidence. Include specific examples quoted from the poem. Don’t forget to check your assignment for particulars about how you’re supposed to write the essay.