ENGL 204 / 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

An Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems

1. Read the poem aloud several times to determine the tone.  (Is it bitter, cheerful, colloquial, formal . . . ?)

2.  Identify the theme or central idea and the "message" of the poem.

3. Pay careful attention to the punctuation in order to determine the structural and/or rhetorical units into which the poem is divided.

4. Observe the relationship, if any, between the structural units and the rhyme scheme.  Do not merely identify the rhyme scheme; if you are going to talk about rhyme, you must explain how it affects the tone of the poem, relates to the structure, or helps communicate its "message."

5. Identify images.  Remember that images are always concrete; they create a mental picture, e.g. trees, sunset, fire burning out in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73.  Consider how the images affect the tone, theme and "message" of the poem.

6. Identify figurative language used in the poem; know proper terminolgy for the types of rhetorical figures of speech used.  Consider how the figurative language affects or contributes to the tone, theme and "message" of the poem.

7.  Consider the effect of the diction (word choice), e.g. Shakespeare's Sonnet 30 uses terms from finance and law.  How does the use of particular words or a pattern of diction affect tone and meaning or contribute to the "message" of the poem?  Here you should also notice any unusual word choice and consider its function.

8.  Natually, look up all allusions and any word you do not understand.  If your dictionary does not satisfy your needs, go to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which gives the range of historical meanings of the word and cites examples of how it has beenused in various contexts.

9. Verbal devices:  notice e.g. patterns of word repetition within the poem.  Consider the effect of such repetition, of the inversion of normal word order, etc. (see e.g. Sonnet 129).

10.  Consider the use of conventions, e.g., the "blazon" in which the poet itemizes the charms of his mistress from head to waist.  In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare treats this convention ironically in the first twelve lines; in the concluding couplet, he turns around and adopts the stance of the admiring lover.

11.  Carefully analyze the way in which each unit of the poem and each device fucntions in relation to the whole.  (How do they contribute to the poem's "message" or help to get its meaning across?)

PLEASE NOTE: you will go through the above process BEFORE writing a formal analysis of a given poem.  But the above process does NOT in and of itself constitute formal literary analysis!  It is note-taking for the essay, not the essay itself. You will go through the poem line by line, stanza by stanza, in order to figure out what the poem is trying to communicate and how it gets that "message" across -- how the poem "works."  But your essay should be organized according to the logic of what you have to say about the poem's "meaning" and how that meaning is communicated through the poem's formal characteristics.  The essay should NOT be a line-by-line or stanza-by-stanza analysis, which would result in confused organization and painful repetition. 

The formal analysis of a poem should begin with a THESIS which identifies the central "message" of the poem AND should allude to the WAY(S) IN WHICH FORM CONTRIBUTES TO THIS MEANING -- how the formal elements you noticed in doing the preliminary line-by-line analysis help the poet communicate his or "message."  After you state your thesis, you will demonstrate its validity AND the show how the poem's formal characteristics contribute to its "meaning," citing specific textual evidence in support of EACH STEP in your argument.  Include only observations which are genuinely related to your interpretation of the poem. 

Remember: the best reading of a poem accounts for each part of the poem in relation to the whole.  Explain the poem and show how if works AS A POEM (it is not just a prose paraphrase of the poem's content). Omit all phrases such as "it seems to me," "I feel" and "I think" -- after all, the whole analysis is YOUR interpretation.  Your job is to explain the poem -- not your feelings about it.

Click here for Sonnets study guide

Click here for Other Elizabethan Lyrics study guide

Click here for 17th-century Lyrics study guide

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