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Analysing a poem you have never seen before under exam conditions needn’t be a frightening prospect. You can improve through practice and by following these steps:
First of all, read the poem. It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many students dive straight in and begin writing having only read the title or first few lines. Take the time to read the poem through two or even three times. Really try and hear it in your head, getting a feel for the sounds and rhythms and noticing any strange rhymes or interesting words.
Your analysis should then work through the following:
Who is the speaker in the poem? The voice in the poem isn’t necessarily the poet himself – poets often speaker through personas, real or imagined, personal or impersonal – though of course it can be. Is it in the first or third (or second) person? Is there anything that reveals or implies anything about the speaker? Who are they speaking to?
What is the poem’s setting? Where does the poem take place? A poem can be set anywhere, in the past, present or future. How does this setting/location influence the atmosphere of the poem?
What is the form of the poem? Poems can be written in various forms (see below for summary of the most common) which dictate their length, their layout on the page, the line length, whether they rhyme or not and how they rhyme (the rhyme scheme), their meter (the rhythmic structure of the line.) Some forms are associated with certain themes or genres – sonnet form, for example, is commonly used for love poetry; ballad form for narrative (story) poems. Poets make deliberate decisions about which form to choose, and form always interacts with content, whether to reinforce it or to work against it – a sonnet about the end of a relationship might have a particular poignancy, for example.
The best way to work out and begin talking about the form (and also a good way to calm exam nerves) is to start counting. Count the number of stanzas, the number of lines, the number of syllables in the lines if they are regular or there is a pattern. Mark the rhymes and the stresses (see below for summary of common stress patterns). This should help show up any patterns, and crucially, where the poem deviates from or tries to break away from the pattern. Thinking about rhyme for example – are all the rhymes full/perfect rhymes? (i.e. night/light, sky/high) or are there some variations?
Subject matter – what is the poem about? If you aren’t sure, try to describe exactly what is happening in the poem. It’s absolutely fine to express a difficulty in understanding as the poet has probably made it intentionally complex, reflecting something about what they’re trying to say.
Look at the imagery used in the poem. Poets often use figurative and metaphorical language that take words beyond their literal meanings, and attempt to do so in novel ways. Perhaps choose a couple of the most interesting images in the poem and comment on them. Why are they interesting? What is the poet doing? What does the choice of a particular word do to our understanding, or how does an image create an atmosphere in the poem?
Finally, what does the poem mean? You can write an excellent essay covering all of the previous points and ignoring this one, but if you can it’s a good idea to end with a summary of what the poem means; what the poet was trying to say, and, perhaps, whether you think they were successful in saying it.
Common poetic forms and literary terms
Alexandrine: A 12 syllable poetic line
Alliteration: the repetition of consonants at the beginning of words e.g. ‘the lazy languid line’. When consonant sounds are repeated within words it is called consonance e.g. ‘some mammals are clammy’
Assonance: the internal rhyming of vowel sounds e.g. ‘on a proud round cloud in white high night’ (ee cummings)
Ballad: A poetic form mostly written in four line stanzas (quatrains) of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four pairs of unstressed-stressed syllables) and iambic trimeter (three pairs). Usually, only the second and fourth lines are rhymed (abcb), although there is considerable variation in the form.
Blank verse: A type of poetry with a regular meter (generally iambic pentameter) but no rhyme.
Cliché: a saying, expression or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning; a stereotype.
Dramatic irony: a rhetorical device where the author causes a character to behave in a way that is contrary to the truth, or that the audience is aware is wrong.
Free verse or vers libre: A form of poetry without any regular patterns, rhymes or meters. Its form is its irregularity.
Heroic couplet:Commonly used for narrative poetry, heroic couplets are rhymed iambic pentameter pairs of lines.
Metaphor: an analogy between two words or ideas where one stands for the other e.g. ‘his smile was the sun’ – not to be confused with the simile.
Personification – ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects or forms
Simile – a kind of metaphor which uses the words as or like – e.g. ‘he fights like a lion’
Sonnet: A poetic form. Fourteen lines long. Can be rhymed in a number of ways, but the most common are Shakespearean and Petrarchan. Shakespearean sonnets are rhymed in three groups of four lines rhymed alternately, followed by a couplet – i.e. abab cdcd efef gg. The closing rhyming couplet often sums up the sonnet. Petrarchan sonnets are divided into a group of eight lines, called the octave and a group of six lines called the sestet. The octave is usually rhymed abba abba, and the sestet cde cde. Usually there is a ‘turn’ or ‘volta’ - a change of direction or mood between the octave and the sestet. Traditionally, the octave put forward a proposition and the sestet offered a solution.
Terza rima: A rhyming verse stanza form consisting of an interlocking three line rhyme scheme – aba bcb cdc ded etc - Acquainted With The Night by Robert Frost
Villanelle: A nineteen line poem with a complex scheme consisting of alternating refrains. The best way of describing the form is to look at a villanelle itself. The most famous example in English is Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
We often talk about meter as the sequence of feet in a line, with each foot a group of syllable types. The most common syllable groupings are:
- Iamb – unstressed/stressed or short/long e.g. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Shakespeare)
- Trochee – stressed/unstressed or long/short e.g. Tyger Tyger burning bright (The Tyger, William Blake)
- Dactyl – stressed/unstressed/unstressed or long/short/short e.g. Just for a handful of silver he left us/ Just for a riband to stick in his coat (The Lost Leader, Robert Browning)
- Anapaest – unstressed/unstressed/stressed or short/short/long e.g. Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house/ Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse
- Spondee (stressed/stressed) and Amphibrach (unstressed/stressed/unstressed) are also quite common.
Lines are named for the kind of feet (whether they are iambic or dactylic etc) and then for the number of feet. If there are three it is trimeter, four is tetrameter, five is pentameter, six is hexameter etc.