The purpose of a poem analysis is to enrich the poem for other readers, to allow readers to see what you have seen in the poem. Approach the poem analysis by keeping a journal, a day-to-day account of your feelings and interpretation of the poem. On some days you may focus on just a single line or even a few words in the poem, while on other days you may consider a whole stanza and its relationship to the meaning of the whole poem. Work very closely with the poem, its sound, its rhythm, the various associations and connotations of words, because the thrill of a poem comes not from its overall prosaic meaning but from the intricacy through which the poet has expressed that meaning. Take account of all there is to see, hear, and think about in the poem (see below). At times you will find that a word or line may suggest two or more meanings, all of which could be relevant to the meaning of the poem, so mention them all. If you don't understand the meaning of something, make intelligent guesses at it. In dealing with any part of the poem, show how it helps convey the overall meaning and feeling of the poem. Don't treat any line as though it's in a vacuum, completely separate from the rest of the poem. When your preliminary "journal" is near completion, edit out the remarks that don't sound reasonable and restructure your analysis in an essay.
The Structure of the Poem Analysis
In your first paragraph, give a full, thorough explanation of the overall meaning of the poem. The thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph may narrow its focus on some particular theme and devices in the poem (ex. "The imagery of birds, wild berries, and oranges in Wallace Stevens' >Sunday Morning' asserts the idea that people should be attuned not to some vague notion of an afterlife, but to this earth, because this earth, despite its imperfections, is a paradise").
The rest of the essay may be structured in any number of ways. You may move chronologically through the poem, from beginning to end, analyzing how the poem develops as it moves towards its climax or resolution. Or you may spend a separate paragraph on each important device in the poem (ex. imagery, rhythm, alliteration, myths and legends, structure, etc.). Or you may focus on three or four important themes within the poem, spending a paragraph on each one of these themes and showing how the devices of imagery, rhythm, etc. convey those themes. Whatever structure you choose, open each paragraph up with a topic sentence that summarizes the paragraph and reminds the reader of the overall meaning of the poem (ex. "The sounds in the poem - - the alliteration and onomatopoeia - - make you feel you are in the middle of a storm with things whirling, cracking, and breaking around you").
One thing to definitely avoid in composing your opening paragraph is making empty remarks about the poet's style:
"Dylan Thomas was a great Welsh poet of the 20th century. His poetry is interesting to read because his symbols can be interpreted in a number of different ways. His poetry is also rhythmical and fun to read aloud . . . ."
Such remarks could be made about any poet. They don't deal with the meaning and specific techniques of the poems at hand, and therefore are a waste of the reader's time.
The Devices of a Poem
Consider these devices as you analyze a poem and incorporate them into your analysis.
What do you SEE in the poem?
Discuss each important image. What emotions and ideas are evoked by each image? Relate each image to the meaning of the poem. Remember that an image is not a single picture, but a combination of pictures blending together in your imagination. For example, in the opening lines of "Oread" (printed in its entirety later)
Whirl up, sea - -
whirl your pointed pines
the image is of a forest of pine trees swaying back and forth like the sharp-cresting waves of a stormy sea. The pictures of sea and pine together form the image.
What do you HEAR in the poem?
(How do the sounds help dramatize the meaning and feeling in the poem?)
Which words are onomatopoeic? Explain how each of these words is onomatopoeic by analyzing its vowel and consonant sounds. Onomatopoeia is a word which imitates a sound (ex. crack, splash, squeak, pitter patter).
What assonance and consonance are important in conveying the poem's feelings?
Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u) to produce a particular effect.
The following is an extract from Dylan Thomas' "Vision and Prayer" poem to commemorate the home birth of his son. The "o" sound has a ghostly effect to imitate the mystery of creation and the "boom boom" sound of a heartbeat beginning. (You must use your imagination in trying to figure out the effect of an assonance or consonance in a poem):
Who is born
In the next room
So loud to my own
(from "Vision and Prayer" by Dylan Thomas)
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound for a particular effect.
You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch:
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.
(from "Storm" by Hilda Doolittle)
In this poem, the "bra" and "cr" sounds imitate the cracking of the branches in a storm. The repetition of "sh" and "ch" imitates the sound of the rain and wind in a storm.
Is the length of lines in the poem significant?
Are they short of long? For what effect? Does it suit the feeling and meaning of the poem?
The lines in the following poem are short, perhaps to imitate the cautious, insecure movements of old people:
Old age is
a flight of small
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and falling
they are buffeted
by a dark wind . . .
(from "To Awaken An Old Lady" by W.C. Williams)
How are words positioned for maximum emphasis? Look especially at the effect of beginning or ending a line with a certain word.
Rhythm: how does the poem flow? Does it have a lilt or a beat? What effect does that regular beat have? Most free verse poems don't have a regular beat throughout the poem, but there may be a regular beat at certain places in the poem for a particular effect. In the poem "I Hear An Army" by James Joyce, the poet has a nightmare about charioteers clad in black armor and with long green hair, riding out of the sea and charging towards him. The beat in certain lines imitates the galloping of the horses' hooves as well as the beating of the poet's anxious heart. See if you can detect which lines have that beat. To detect a beat, read the poem out loud, emphasizing the accented syllables.
I HEAR AN ARMY
I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their
Arrogant, in black armor, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the
They cry unto the night their battle-name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame.
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.
They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me
What do you THINK in the poem? (the dance of the intellect among the words)
What myths or legends help you appreciate the content in the poem?
In Ezra Pound's poem "In A Station Of The Metro" it helps to know that Persephone, the goddess of flowers, lived with her handmaidens in the underworld for six months of the year, and their faces had the gentleness and colorfulness of flowers.
In A Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Check the denotation (definition) of a word. The dictionary may offer two or three subtly different definitions of the same word, each of which or only one of which may be relevant to the poem.
What are the connotations of some of the key words? Explain how the connotations enhance the meaning of the poem (ex. the denotation or definition of "water" is "a common liquid that forms rivers and lakes and is commonly drunk by people" but it has connotations of baptism, spiritual healing).
Check the derivation of some key words in an etymology dictionary: how does the original meaning of the word help you appreciate the use of the word in the poem?
Point out motifs (recurring elements) in the poem.
As you read through a poem, from one line to the next, keep in mind all the previous lines. Watch for certain ideas or pictures that recur. These are called motifs. For example in "I Hear An Army" the "whirling laughter" (line 6) in its whirling movement resembles the "fluttering whips" (line 4). The motif here is meant to show the unbridled assertiveness of the charioteers.
Point out any contrasts in the poem.
The meaning of many poems emerges from a contrast (ex. heaven vs. earth; noise vs. quiet; passion vs. indifference)
Point out effective repetitions for emphasis.
Notice, for example, the repetition of "They cry . . . They cleave . . . They come . . ." in "I Hear An Army" to express the relentless aggression of the army.
Quote passages from other poems by the same poet that express the same theme. This will show you are an astute reader.
Try substituting words of similar meaning for words in the poem. For example, what would happen if "appearance" instead of "apparition" were used in "In A Station Of The Metro"? How would this change the sound, meaning, and image in the poem? Substituting like this will show you the appropriateness of the original word in the poem.
- Include a bibliography or list of works cited with your poem analysis.
- The title of the poem should be put in quotation marks.
- When quoting from the poem, use a slash / to show where one line ends and another begins (ex. A poem should be palpable and mute/ As a globed fruit").
- Use quotation marks around words cited from the poem (ex. The word "globed" has a connotation of perfect, self-contained).
- Paragraphs in poetry are called "stanzas", and separate lines are referred to as either "lines" or "verses".
- The voice speaking within the poem is referred to as "the poet," or you may refer to it as "the persona" if you believe it is not the poet himself/herself talking, but only a temporary attitude he/she is assuming.
- Interpret the poem on your own without help from classmates, friends, or tutors.
- If you know certain facts about the poet's life that relate to the poem, consider mentioning them.
- The better informed you are about myths and legends, and the more sensitive you are to the connotations and associations of words, the better you'll be able to appreciate poetry.
- Explain symbolism carefully: if you feel, for example, that a swan in a certain poem is a symbol of Christ, explain the characteristics it has that make it so.
- Avoid far-fetched interpretations; don't grab at thin air.
- Consonance and assonance (as already mentioned) are the two kinds of alliteration.
Consonance is a pattern of consonant sounds. Two kinds of consonants are plosive and yielding consonants.
Plosive consonants include b, p, t, k, and hard c. Words beginning with these consonants (ex. "pierce", "punch", "cut", "burst") have an exploding or bursting sound. Yielding consonants include w, s, and y. These consonants give a flowing, uninhibited feeling as in the words "wind", "whirl", "sweep", "surge" and "yield". Assonance is a pattern of vowel sounds. Words with long vowels have a sharp, excited feeling suggesting intense emotion such as pain or joy (ex. "pain", "glee", "cry", "alive"). Words with short vowels have dull muted sound and feeling (ex. "sad", "spirit", "dust"). Words with deep vowels have deep bellowing sounds ("gloom", "doom", "tomb", "loom").
- Use ellipsis (three spaced periods . . .) for omitted material. For example, "Disdaining the reins . . . the charioteers." This will save you from quoting long passages. Instead, you will be able to quote only the parts of the passage that are relevant.
- Do whatever research you can to help you understand the poem: books on mythology,symbolism, etymology dictionaries, books about the poet's life, etc. The only thing not to look at is an interpretation of that poem written by someone else.
- Besides being a combination of overlapping pictures, an image may be a combination of overlapping smells, (ex. "the piney-evergreen smell of freshly sliced watermelon rind"); or overlapping sounds (an example would be the poet Allen Ginsberg's hearing within a crow's cawing a cry of praise for the Lord: "caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord"); or even a combination of sound with picture (ex. "Cathedral evening: the tinkle of candles on the frosted air:)" or any combination of senses mixed together.
- When you use a poetic term, for example, "lyrical", "elegiac", "enjambment", etc. make sure you use it correctly.
APPROACHING HOOFBEATS: TROUBLED DESTINY IN "I HEAR AN ARMY"
In "I Hear An Army" by James Joyce, the poet is jarred awake by a nightmare in which an army of black-clad charioteers rides full-tilt out of the sea towards him. He feels threatened. Is this a nightmare of personal calamity, provoked by anxiety over the loss of a loved one ("my love, why have you left me alone")? Betrayal is a theme in many of Joyce's writings, and Joyce could be expressing his fear of being abandoned by his wife for another lover. Or is the nightmare a political prophecy of World War I? The poem was written in 1904, about ten years before "the Great War" began. In the years preceding the war, there was already sabre-rattling amongst the European military powers which alarmed citizens of all Western countries. Joyce could be drawing a parallel in this poem between the old Roman legions (with their chariots) and the armies preparing to fight in the First World War. Both Rome then and Germany in the early 20th century wanted to conquer Europe. The reference to "horses" in the poem is appropriate since horses were still being used at times in World War I to lead a battle charge. At the end of Joyce's autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, written just prior to the war, he again mentions his dream being disturbed by "the sound of hoofs upon the road", and "the silence is cloven by alarm as by an arrow" (A Portrait 251). His prophecy of crisis came true since Joyce himself became a refugee of the war, having to move his family from Italy to neutral Switzerland when war broke out.
In this poem, Joyce, as the poet-dreamer, feels terrified by the war. When he cries out, "My love . . . why have you left me/ alone?" the "love" he addresses, in this case, may be civilization in general (poets, after all, are in love with the world) which has abandoned its sanity for the sake of war.
Rampaging charioteers, and thunder and lightning ("a blinding flame") conjure up visions of the end of the world as depicted in the Book of Revelation (also known as Apocalypse) in The New Testament. Apocalypse means "revelation" and this biblical book is a prophecy of the final day of judgment when good people will be saved and wicked people destroyed, Satan will be overthrown (at least for 10,000 years), and the city of God in the new world will be established. Revelation describes how the angels of the Lord open up the gates to "the bottomless pit" and unleash "an army of two hundred thousand thousand horsemen" (Rev. 9:16-17) to slay all the sinners of the world (who number one-third of humanity). Like the horsemen in Joyce's poem, they are menacing in appearance: they wear "breastplates of fire" and their horses snort out fire, smoke, and brimstone which kills people. But these horrifying horsemen who have been vomited forth from the "pit" only destroy evil people, and therefore their ultimate purpose is noble. In contrast, it is hard to guess at the purpose of the demonic army in Joyce's poem, though at first glance they seem only intent on inciting mayhem and terror. Joyce could be suggesting that the imminent world war could be as destructive as the one depicted in Revelation (but without good people saved). In this case, when he says, "My love . . . why have you left me/ alone?" he could be imploring God (his ultimate love) to rescue him and the rest of humanity from the forces of destruction.
Still another interpretation could be that Joyce was fearful for his own spiritual salvation. He was, afterall, a heretic, a man who had renounced the Catholic Church and its dogma. When he was young, his aunt told him that thunder and lightning were God's warning to sinners to repent of their sins or suffer eternal damnation. Despite his break from the Church, Joyce remained afraid of thunderstorms throughout his life. The thunder in this poem, depicted in the form of the thundering hooves of horsemen (coming to slay sinners?) could be frightening him and making him "despair" of his own salvation.
Many of the words in the poem are demonic or ominous, predicting death and destruction. Horses are sometimes associated with demons since "witches [and even the devil himself] can easily change into horses" (Jung 277). Horses are also associated with death. Death often appears on horseback. For example, in Revelation 6:8 Death is depicted as riding a horse, and Charon (in Greek mythology), who transports people to the region of death, sometimes rides a horse. Blackness (in "black armor", "night", and "gloom") is a color associated in the Bible with evil. The word "night" itself portends doom. The Bible says that "the day of the Lord [the day of judgment and doom] comes like a thief in the night" (Thessalonians 1, 5:2). Death itself is sometimes depicted as a grinning skeleton - - hence, the "whirling laughter" of the horsemen.
Some words with traditionally positive associations have negative associations in this poem. For example, the fact that the horsemen come out of the sea is ironic. The sea usually has a positive association since it is the cradle of life. In this poem, however, the sea, instead of giving life, delivers the forces of death. "Anvil" too is ironic since anvils have a positive association with "beating swords into plowshares" (Isaiah 2:4) - - changing the tools of war into those of peace and fertility. Here, however, the anvil is associated with war, and the beating upon it with the clock of doom ticking in the poet's frightened heart. "Green" too usually has a positive association with water, vegetation, and thus life. But in this poem it seems evil. That the charioteers' hair is green is bizarre and nightmarish: their hair is the colour of seaweed or serpents. Joyce may have had in mind the horses of the Apocalypse whose tails were like serpents (Rev. 9:19), and serpents, of course, are associated with Satan. The charioteers' "long hair" is a symbol of strength (ex. Samson's long hair) but also suggests that these horsemen are unkempt, uncivilized, obeying bestial instincts.
This vision of this army occurs to the dreamer like "a blinding flame". Flames are associated with light, and light with truth. Therefore, a "blinding" flame, the brightest light of all, might be God's Truth (almost too powerful for man to behold). Though described as "blinding", it paradoxically gives the dreamer insight into his own destiny or the destiny of mankind. Perhaps through the dream, God is warning him to repent of his sins, or warning him of the imminent world war, or even of the final day of judgment. Conversely, the dreamer may be "blinded" in the sense of "confused" by the dream, and wonders if he is bereft of the "wisdom" to understand and thereby overcome his nightmarish vision. In either case, what he has seen is so powerful that he feels hopeless and forlorn. "Flame" also has negative associations with war, death, and the fires of hell, and in this sense is appropriate to this army of demonic charioteers.
There is an implied contrast in the poem between tender human love and harsh, inhumane militancy. Also, between wisdom and ignorance (represented by the unbridled forces of war). Wisdom speaks in words; ignorance is rough and inarticulate, "shouting" and laughing. Wisdom is restrained, in control; while ignorance is unbridled: "disdaining the reins . . . the charioteers."
Joyce's words are well chosen, not only for their connotations, but for their etymological meanings as well. "Wisdom" is derived from the Latin word videre meaning "to see", wisdom being associated with insight. The poet wants the insight of wisdom so he won't be "blinded" by the "blinding flame." It's interesting to note that "clanging" is a cognate of "laughter", both derived from a Latin word meaning "(an animal's) loud cry". This is appropriate for the bestial or coarse meaning these words have in the poem. The word "triumph" is derived from a Greek word meaning "march music" or walking "triple time", appropriate to the militant "charging" of the horsemen.
If you try replacing words in the poem with their synonyms, you will see that Joyce's choice of words is perfect. For example, "clanging" (line 11) is better than "beating" since "clang" has the shrill ring of metal banging upon an anvil, and it continues the alliteration of "cl" along with "cleave". "Proud" would not be as good as "arrogant" (in line 4) since "arrogance" means overbearing or excessive pride, and thus has the desired negative connotation.
The poem opens with the words "I hear" showing that sound is important in this poem. You can overhear the thunder of the horses' hooves and the battle cries of the horsemen. A recurrent (though irregular) iambic beat (an accented followed by an unaccented beat) gallops through the poem, imitating the galloping hooves of the horses and the frantically beating heart of the dreamer:
u / u / u / u u / u /
I hear an army charging upon the land . . .
u / u / u / u / u /
They cry unto the night their battle name . . .
u / u / u / u / u /
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame . . .
u / u / u / u / u / u
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me
The trochee "clanging, clanging" also imitates the incessant, nerve-wracking pounding in the poet's brain and heart.
The assonance of long vowels ("clanging", "blinding", "flame", "cleave", "green", "sea") imitates a prolonged cry of pain from the person suffering the nightmare, or imitates the shrill battle cries of the horsemen. Also, the long "~" assonance in "reins", "name", "flame", and "clang" sounds like metal banging upon an anvil. The assonance of the low base sounds in "thunder", "foam", "gloom", "come", "run", and "moan" sounds like the deep low thunder of an army of galloping hooves or a person moaning in his nightmarish sleep. The plosive consonance of hard "c" in "cry", "cleave", "clanging", "clanging" cuts through the poem like horsemen piercing his peace. Another plosive consonance occurs in "black", "battle", "blind": it too has a cutting, piercing effect. The only yielding consonance occurs in "whips" and "whirling", imitating the unrestrained movement of the whips and the unabated laughter of the horsemen as they strike terror in those around them.
Onomatopoeic words are important here since they put you into the middle of the nightmare where you can hear the sound of the army and the anxiety of the dreamer. In addition to "clanging" and "thunder", whose onomatopoeic value has already been explained, are the words "whip" and "fluttering". "Whip" begins with a yielding consonant "w" just like a whip whirling unimpeded through the air, and ends with a sudden snap of the "p".
"Fluttering" too is onomatopoeic since the consonants "f", "t", and "r" break up the word, making it flap irregularly.
The repetition of "my love, my love, my love" imitates the fast pounding heartbeat of the nightmare victim as well as emphasizing his earnestness. Other effective repetitions are "clanging, clanging" and the word "they" in "They cry", "They cleave", "They come". These repetitions enhance the military rhythm of the pounding hooves. The repeated words begin their lines for maximum impact. The inverted sentence "Arrogant, in black armor, behind them stand,/ Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the/ charioteers" is effective in suspending the meaning till the end of the sentence. This is appropriate for a nightmare in which mystery and suspense are protracted. The last word in the poem is "alone" on a line by itself, providing a feeling of utter desolation.
Joyce, James. Collected Poems. New York: Viking Press, 1946.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Markham: Penguin Books, 1977.
Jung, Carl. Symbols of Transformation. New York: Bollingen, 1956.
Revelation. The New Testament (King James Version).
ZEST FOR LIFE IN "OREAD"
"Oread" by Hilda Doolittle
Whirl up, sea - -
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
According to Greek mythology, an oread is a nymph, a free-spirited wild woman who wanders happily through the woods, hills, and mountains. She symbolizes the zest of life, the elan vital or vital life-force that imbues life. As such, she is appropriate for the spirit of this poem which is about the freewheeling wildness of nature. The persona in the poem (the person speaking within the poem) might be an oread herself since she addresses the sea as though she's on a first-name basis with it, in communion with it. "Whirl up, sea", she says, as though it will respond to her command. The word "oread" is derived from the Greek word "oros" meaning "mountain" (the oread is primarily a mountain spirit) which, in turn, is derived from the Latin word "oriri" meaning "to rise up" (a mountain is something that has risen up). The meaning "rise up" is important since the person in the poem (perhaps the oread herself) is calling upon the trees and sea to "rise up" and express their vigour and vitality : "Whirl up, sea - - /whirl your pointed pines . . ./hurl your green over us . . . ."
The poem's main image is ambiguous since, when she addresses the "sea" it's not certain whether she means the sea of water or the sea of pine trees. It could be either. A forest of pines looks like a sea during a storm when the wind blows the trees this way and that, and their sharp, pointed tops look like cresting waves, and the multitude of swaying green branches like a green turbulent sea. When she asks the sea to "splash your great pines/on our rocks" it could refer to the tree branches broken off during a storm and crashing to the earth below. Similarly, a sea of water can look like a pine forest during a storm (the wavecrests like pine-tops), so the image works both ways.
This poem is a call-to-arms, asking the forces of nature to "whirl", "hurl", and "splash" us with their "pointed" weapons. But the intention is not to destroy us, but rather to arouse us to life. The persona seems, at one point, to identify with the "rocks" when she says, "splash your great pines/ on our rocks." If she is like a rock, then she would be a lifeless, unmoving object. In that case, she could not be an oread but perhaps only a being who secretly longs to be an oread. In asking the pines to splash her, she wants to be awakened, brought back to life (back to her true oread nature) by the green life-energy of the trees and sea. She want the points of the pines to pierce her, so that her innermost being can experience the freshness and force of nature. She wants the "green" to "hurl" itself over her, so she can be overwhelmed and captivated by its beauty and liveliness. She does not want to be a bystander. She wants to be covered and submerged in nature.
"Green" is an important colour here since it is the colour of chlorophyll which is the essential element of plant-life and therefore of life itself. A pine tree, with its stiff branches and sharp needles, is fierce with life, and thus appropriate to this poem. With their bristling needles, pine trees look electrified. The persona wants to feel their electricity. She wants to experience the greatness of these "great pines."
The sounds in the poem make you feel you are in the middle of a storm. You can hear the wind roaring in the "ir" sound of "whirl", "hurl", "cover", "over", and "fir". You can hear the explosive force of the storm in the plosive consonants of "pointed", "pines", "pools", and "splash". It sounds as though the water and wind at first meet resistance from the rocks and trees, but then pierce through. Many words are onomatopoeic in the poem, thus imitating the sound of the storm. "Whirl" begins with a yielding consonant imitating the uninhibited fury of the storm. The yielding "s" in "sea" conveys the same effect. In "splash" you can hear the waves at first rolling in uninhibitedly in the "s" sound, and then meeting the resistance of the shore in the "p" sound, but finally breaking through and lashing out in the "sh" sound. The sound of the foam or perhaps the sound of the rain is echoed in the "s" sound at the end of "pines", "rocks", "us", and "pools". If the persona feels like a rock, she must feel confined since "rock" (in its singular form) comes to an abrupt stop with its hard "k" sound like the edge of a rock. You can also hear the cry of life in the assonance of "green" and "sea." The long "ee" vowel sounds like life, aroused by the storm, is screaming out to proclaim its existence. The assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia therefore dramatize the sound of the waves, the wind, and the life cry of nature.
The length of the lines is mimetic too. You might imagine each line to be like a separate wave crashing upon the shore, with the first and fourth lines being shorter waves. Or you might imagine each line being a wavecrest, some higher, some lower. The unevenness of the lines could also imitate the erratic fury of the storm, blowing things helter-skelter. It's appropriate that the last line is the longest since it "cover(s) us with your pools of fir", leaving you completely covered and overwhelmed.