Poetry can be difficult to understand, but there are certain techniques that can help you analyze poetry. In this lesson, we’ll lay out a plan for how to approach a poem and how to understand what it means.
Poetry can be difficult to understand.
What does a poet mean when he says that the ‘Frost performs its secret ministry?’ Or when someone talks about ‘The yellow fog’ rubbing up against windows? What, exactly, is a ‘pilgrim soul,’ and how does one love it?When you read a novel or essay, it’s likely that you understand it. After all, most prose writers come right out and say what they mean. But poets don’t often come right out and say what they mean. Instead, they depend on the reader to interpret what they are saying.So, what can you do when you get a poem and are asked to analyze it? How can you figure out what the poet means? Let’s look closer at how to analyze poetry, especially British poetry.
The Big Picture
Imagine that you are given a test. Your teacher gives you a poem and asks you to write an essay analyzing that poem.
Where do you even begin?The first thing that you should do is to read the poem over once or twice and to look at the big picture. You want to get an idea of what the poem is about on a literal level. For example, take these lines from Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ poem ‘When You Are Old’:How many loved your moments of glad grace,And loved your beauty with love false or true,But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,And loved the sorrows of your changing face…When you first read through this stanza, your only goal is to figure out what the poet’s main point is. In this case, he talks about how a lot of men loved the woman when she was glad and beautiful, but how only one loved her ‘pilgrim soul’ and her sorrow.
Even before we try to figure out what a ‘pilgrim soul’ is, we can see that he’s contrasting himself with her other suitors and that he’s saying they love the good things about her, but he also loves the deep and not-so-good things about her. That’s the big picture.Once you have the big picture, you should read through again and look for tricky passages and things that confuse you. For example, what does the line ‘But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you’ mean? What is a pilgrim soul?A pilgrim is someone who travels and wanders, so a pilgrim soul might indicate that the woman to whom the poet is writing is someone who is filled with a restless spirit. Perhaps she’s always looking for something better, or perhaps her mood changes frequently. At any rate, we know that she’s not a constant, dependable person, and yet he loves her anyway.By smoothing out any confusion that you have, you can make sure that your big picture idea of the poem is correct.
OK, so you’re in a test and you’ve been given a poem to analyze. You’ve figured out the big picture and made sure you understand any tricky passages. What now?Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of the poem. You know the big picture idea, sometimes called a ‘theme,’ and now you have to find evidence that your analysis of theme is correct. That way, when you write your paper, you can say, ‘The poem is talking about XYZ, and here is the evidence that I’m right about that.
‘What evidence am I talking about? When a poet writes a poem, each word is carefully chosen. Poets use specific techniques to make their point. Those techniques are what will give you evidence that your big picture idea is correct.One technique that poets use is meter, or the rhythm of a poem. For example, look at the first two lines of William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’:Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,In the forests of the night..
.Do you notice how the rhythm of the lines kind of sounds like jungle drums? Blake chose a specific meter (called trochaic verse) to make the poem sound menacing and scary. The meter sounds like ominous drums echoing through a forest, which matches the theme of the poem that the tiger is a fearsome animal.Another common technique used by poets is personification, which is when a non-human object is given human qualities. Check out the opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Frost at Midnight’:The Frost performs its secret ministry,Unhelped by any wind…
Ministry is a holy act, something that humans do. But here, Coleridge makes the frost do the ministry, which strengthens the message of the poem that nature is an important part of human life and experience.Poets also like to use similes, when two things are compared explicitly, often using the words ‘like’ or ‘as,’ and metaphors, when two things are compared implicitly. To tell the difference, let’s look at two different passages from T.
S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ The first passage is the beginning of the poem:Let us go then, you and I,When the evening is spread out against the skyLike a patient etherized upon a table…Here, Eliot explicitly compares the evening sky to a patient who has been given an anesthetic, ether.
He uses the word ‘like’ and makes it clear that he’s comparing these two things. This is a simile.Compare that to the opening lines of the poem’s third stanza:The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panesLicked its tongue into the corners of the evening…Here, Eliot implicitly compares the fog to a cat, describing how it ‘rubs its back,’ ‘rubs its muzzle,’ and ‘licked its tongue,’ all actions that a cat would do.
He’s using a metaphor here to compare fog and a cat.Both of these passages have similarities in that they link the natural world to the human world: the evening is compared to a patient given a man-made anesthetic, and the fog rubs up against human-made window-panes. They also both offer images that are of decay: evening, a patient passed out, yellow fog..
.all of these are things that are not what you think of when you think of health and vitality. Since the poem is about the inevitability of aging and the toll that nature takes on a person, this makes sense.
Poetry can be difficult to understand because poets do not usually come right out and say what they mean. To analyze a poem, you should first look at the big picture of what the poem means, and examine any confusing passages closely to make sure that your big picture analysis is correct.Then, you’ll want to look at some of the details, specifically the techniques that the poet uses to get his or her point across. Among others, these may include meter, or the rhythm of the poem; personification, or giving non-human objects human characteristics; similes, or explicitly comparing two things; and metaphors, or implicitly comparing two things.
After you’ve completed this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall the importance of first finding the big picture of a poem when analyzing it
- Define meter, personification, similes and metaphors
- Explain how to use these techniques to analyze a poem