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How to Analyze Poetry

How to Analyze Poetry, Part I

Dec 03, 2012
Writing about poetry is often one of the toughest challenges for English students. Just trying to figure out what's happening in Beowulf or a Shakespearean sonnet can be difficult, and it's even harder when you have to analyze the rhyme, tone, imagery, and other literary devices. But with a little preparation, writing about poetry doesn't have to be a chore.

Terms

In order to be able to write about poetry, you first need to know the important terms that are used to describe the language, style, and format of poems.

Technical terms

Anapest

A type of meter with two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one.
Example: comprehend, I must finish my journey alone.

Blank verse

Unrhymed poetry or prose written with a consistent meter. Examples include Milton's Paradise Lost and Shakespeare's plays.

Caesure

A complete pause in a line of poetry.
Example: To err is human; to forgive, divine. (When reading, you pause at the semicolon.)

Closed form

A poetry format in which there is consistency in such elements as meter, rhyme, and line length. Most traditional poets, like Shakespeare, Donne, and Frost, wrote in closed form.

Couplet

A pair of rhyming lines.
Example: So, till the judgment that yourself arise,/You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes. (Shakespeare, Not Marble, Nor the Gilded Monuments)

Dactyl

A foot with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
Example: Just for a handful of silver he left us. (The Lost Leader by Robert Browning)

Diction

The writer's choice of words and style of expression.

Falling meter

A meter that moves from a stressed to an unstressed syllable, for example trochaic and dactylic meter.

Foot

A repeating unit of meter composed of stressed and unstressed syllables. Common feet include iamb, trochee, dactyl, and anapest.

Free verse

Poetry without regular meter or rhyme. Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and E.E. Cummings all wrote in free verse.

Iamb

A foot with one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
Example: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson)

Meter

The rhythm of a poem created by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

Octave

An eight-line unit of a poem.

Open form

Describes a poem will irregular meter, rhyme, and line length.

Pyrrhic

A foot with two unstressed syllables. It's not usually used throughout an entire poem.
Example: When the blood creeps and the nerves prick. (Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam)

Quatrain

A four-line stanza.

Rhyme

The repetition of the final sound in two or more words.
Example: line/mine/define; book/look/took

Rhythm

The pattern of accents or stresses in lives of verse.

Rising meter

A meter that move from an unstressed to a stressed syllable, for example iambic and anapestic.

Sestet

A six-line unit of verse.

Spondee

A foot with two stressed syllables.
Example: knick-knack

Stanza

A group of two or more lines set apart by white space in a poem. The lines within a stanza usually have a set meter and rhyme.

Tercet

A three-line stanza.

Trochee

A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.
Example: Should you ask me, whence these stories?

Types of poems

Aubade

A poem about lovers who must separate at dawn; for example, John Donne's "The Sun Rising."

Ballad

A poem that tells a story and is written in four line stanzas.

Elegy

A lyric poem that is mournful or melancholy and is usually a funeral song or lament for the dead.

Epic

A long narrative poem that describes the adventures of a hero. Beowulf is an example.

Epigram

A short witty poem.

Lyric poem

A short poem that expresses feelings that is often set to music.

Narrative poem

A poem that tells a story.

Ode

A long poem composed of stanzas that usually describes an exalted subject.

Sestina

A thirty-nine line poem written in iambic pentameter composed of six six-line stanzas and a three-line closing stanza.

Sonnet

A fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. There are many different types of sonnets with different conventions for rhyming and stanza length.

Villanelle

A nineteen-line lyric poem with heavy repetition.

Literary devices

Alliteration

The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
Example: fierce forces, majestic mountains

Assonance

The repetition of similar vowel sounds.
Example: Hear the mellow wedding bells. (Edgar Allen Poe)

Chiasmus

A figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversed structure or inverted parallelism.
Example: Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly love. (Shakespeare's Othello)

Consonance

The repetition of consonant sounds within a line of poetry.
Example: all mammals named Sam

Elision

The omission of an unstressed vowel or syllable to preserve the meter of a line.
Example: Whiles crooning o'er an auld Scots sonnet. (Tam o'Shanter by Robert Burns)

Enjambment

When a sentence or clause is broken up between two lines or verses.
Example: Commonly are; the want of which vain dew/Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have/That honourable grief lodged here which burns/worse than tears drown. (Shakespeare, A Winter's Tale)

Kenning

When a compound word is used figuratively in place of a concrete noun. Kennings are used widely in Old Norse and Old English poetry.
Example: whale-road (meaning ocean)

Metaphor

A comparison between two things that doesn't use comparative words such as like or as.

Metonymy

A figure of speech in which a related term is substituted for a larger object or idea.
Example: Hollywood (to refer to the film industry); crown (to refer to the monarchy)

Onomatopoeia

Words that imitate the sounds they describe.
Example: Pop, buzz

Periphrasis

Using many words for something that could be described using a more concise, commonly-known word.
Example: the soft place where we lay down to sleep (in place of bed)

Personification

Giving an inanimate object or concept the characteristics of a living person.
Example: The leaves danced happily in the breeze.

Simile

A comparison between two things that uses the words like or as.

Synecdoche

A figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole.
Example: She got a new set of wheels. (a part of a car used to describe the whole.)
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