Analyzing Poetry

When asked to analyze or "explicate" a poem, it is a good idea to read the poem several times before starting to write about it (usually, they are short, so it is worth the time). Remember that no one was born reading a book of poetry, but that it is a learned skill that gets easier with practice. 

When I read a poem for the first time, these are the general steps I follow:

When writing in response to an assignment, keep in mind the constraints put upon you by the assignment itself and the actual questions you are answering.  A written analysis of a poem should not simply paraphrase it, although the analysis may include paraphrase.

The following are questions you can ask about any poem you encounter. Remember, however, that not all of the questions will apply to every poem you read, and also that  you do not have to write about every answer to every question.
  1. Who is the speaker? Is it the poet or a character/persona the poet takes on?  What is the tone of voice adopted? Can you detect any irony? How precisely is the speaker defined?  (Note:  You should refer to the speaker as "the speaker" and not as "the poet," even if the voice seems to be the poet's own.
  2. Who is the speaker's audience? Does the audience help to define the speaker?
  3. What is the poem's literal meaning?
  4. What is the poem's theme? Is the theme stated explicitly or implicitly?
  5. What is the poem's structure? Does it develop in a straightforward manner to a logical conclusion? Is there a shift or turn in its development? How is the shift indicated? Why does a shift take place?
  6. How is the poem organized? How does its organization contribute to the development of the poem's subject or theme?
  7. What is the poem's meter? How does it contribute to the development of the poem's subject or theme? Are there any strategic points where the poem breaks with its rhyme scheme? Why?
  8. What is the poem's rhyme scheme? How does it contribute to the development of the poem's subject or theme?  Is there any evidence of internal rhymes, slant rhymes, etc?
  9. Do the lines end with a completion of a thought or closed punctuation (i.e., are they end-stopped)? Or do the lines flow without pause, from one to the next (i.e., are they enjambed)? If enjambed, does it occur from one couplet to the next, one quatrain to the next, etc?
  10. How would you characterize the poem's language or diction ? What effect does this choice of language have on your response to the poem and its speaker?
  11. What imagery is developed in the poem? Does the poet use metaphor, simile, personification, etc? Does he/she use symbolism? Considering the poem's subject matter, are these images obvious ones, or are they unusual and unexpected? Do they contribute to the poem's subject or theme? If so, how?
  12. Is there any evidence of repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia, or other sound effects in the poem? What do they contribute?
  13. Is there any significance to the placement of words in the poem? Is the rhythm of any particular words or lines noteworthy?
  14. Is there any significance to the poem's punctuation or the capitalization and spelling of words? (Note:  These features are often the result of modern editing and not original to the author)

Specific Terms


An allegory is a narrative in which all (or most) of the events, locales, and characters correspond systematically to the events and characters in a completely different context.  Some elaborate allegories can have several sets of correspondences simultaneously. The contexts within which the correspondences operate can include religious, moral, political, personal, or satiric. 
AllusionAn allusion is a figure of speech that makes a brief reference to a historical or literary figure, event, or object.


A popular oral poetic (and later written) form that relates a dramatic episode or story, often set to music and usually written in ballad meter, or fourteeners (a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter line, giving fourteen syllables total).  Ballads often have refrains, which are stanzas that repeat.  Some refrains change slightly each time they are repeated; these are called incremental refrains.


Diction is the term used to refer to the poet's choice of words in a poem. Words vary in their levels of abstraction, and we can speak of words as being concrete or abstract.  Words also vary in their formality, and some genres, such as epic and tragedy, call for use of elevated rather than colloquial or plain language.  Words also have specific or direct definitions (denotations), as well as implied meanings (connotations) associated with their use.  Connotations as well as denotations of words can vary in meaning historically and geographically.


An epic is a long, narrative poem whose hero is a noble person, upon whose actions hinge the fate of a nation or a people.  Conseqently, epics tend to be of national or even of cosmic importance.  The diction of the poem tends to be formal, elevated, and decorous.  The setting of the epic is expansive and even global, as the hero embarks upon journeys that may take place over many years, often decades.  The gods, referred to as the epic machinery, are interested in and take an active part in shaping the events of the epic.  Several epic conventions include the poet's invocation of the muse, a beginning in medias res (in the middle of things), epic battles and/or epic games), catalogues (of ships, warriors, horses, etc), delivery of set speeches, arming of the warrior, performance of religious rituals, and (sometimes)  transmogrification of a dead hero to the celestial sphere.

Figurative Language

Figurative language occurs whenever a poet uses words in ways that deviate from their usual meaning.  A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are otherwise unrelated.  A simile is a kind of metaphor that uses like or as  in the comparison.  A mixed metaphor occurs when the metaphor used produces an incongruous or impossible image; such metaphors are often unintentionally funny.  Metonymy occurs when the name of one thing is replaced by the name of something closely associated with it. Synechdoche occurs when a part of something is used to describe the whole. Overstatement (hyperbole)  may be used to exaggerate what is being described; understatementdescribes something as less than it is. Both can be used ironically. Personification occurs when a non-human animal, object, or abstraction is given human qualities. Apostrophe is a direct address to something not actually present or without actual human form; consequently, an apostrophe tends to personify its object. Onomatopoeia is used describe a word or words that sound like the thing they describe.  A pun is a word that refers to two very different meanings simultaneously.  A paradox is a statement that simultaneously contradicts itself and makes sense.


Form refers to the overall design of a poem, including the patterning of its rhyme, meter, and stanzas.  Form can be open in form or closed (highly structured).  Blank verse is verse written in unrhymed iambic pentameter; it is the poetic form that is closest to spoken English. A couplet is two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme.  An heroic couplet consists of two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter.  A tercet has three rhyming lines.  A quatrain has four. Common closed forms include the sonnet, limerick, villanelle, sestina,odes, and ballad.


Imagery refers to words used to evoke a sensory experience, including sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.  Consequently, although image seems to refer to something that can be seen, imagery is also the term used to describe anything in a poem that appeals to the senses. Euphony refers to words that sound harmonious together. Cacophony refers to words that jar against one another.


Irony is a way of speaking that implies a discrepancy between what is said and what is meant, or between what appears to happen and what actually happens.  Ironic speech consists of saying one thing and meaning another.  Verbal irony occurs when the actual words used are ironic.  Dramatic irony arises from the situation; frequently, this occurs when the audience knows or understands something that the characters in a drama do not.  Cosmic irony occurs when an outside force, such as fate, seems to be operating despite the best efforts or intentions of the speaker or a character.


Limericks are (usually humorous) poems consisting of five anapestic lines that rhyme aabba; the a-lines are written in anapestic trimeter, whereas the b-lines are written in anapestic dimeter.


Line refers to the way in which the poet decides where to stop and start a line of poetry. An end-stopped line ends with some kind of punctuation. An enjambed line ends without punctuation, though usually, in reading it, the reader will pause slightly.


A lyric is a brief poem that expresses private thoughts and emotions, originally set to music (lyric is derived from the lyre, a musical instrument Greek poets used to accompany recitation).  Ballads, sonnets, and odes are all forms of lyric poetry.


Meter, rhyme, and subject together are used to identify form in poetry.  Often, deviations from the expected form are more important to the poet's artistry than a poem's regularity.

Metric Feet:

Iamb--unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable
Trochee--stressed syllable followed by unstressed syllable
Anapest--two unstressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable
Dactyl--one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
Spondee--two successive syllables with approximately equal strong stresses
Pyrrhic--two successive syllables with approximately equal light stresses

Metric Lines:

Monometer--one foot
Dimeter--two feet
Trimeter--three feet
Tetrameter--four feet
Pentameter--five feet
Hexameter--six feet (a line of six iambic feet is called an Alexandrine)
Heptameter--seven feet (also called a fourteener [14 syllables], also called ballad meter])
Octameter--eight feet

End-stopped--a line of poetry which ends with a period or other punctuation

Enjambed--a line of poetry which carries over syntactically to the next line

Caesura--a strong pause in the middle of a line of poetry, often marked by punctuation


An ode is a relatively long, serious poem that discusses a noble subject in a thoughtful and dignified manner. The ode is Greek in origin and was originally recited by a chorus.  Pindaric odes (after the Greek poet Pindar) were meant to be performed by a chorus and originally consisted of three stanzas; the chorus  moved in one direction for the first stanza (strophe), in the opposite direction for the second stanza (antistrophe), and remained stationary for the third stanza (epode). Such odes often resemble a meditative argument. Horatian odes (named after the Roman poet Horace) were meant to be read and consisted of stanzas of equal length and with the same rhyme scheme and meter.  During the British Romantic period (1798-1820), the term ode was used by poets more to describe the meditative mood of a poem rather than its form; consequently, odes from this period to be irregular both in meter and in rhyme


Personification is a kind of figurative language in which a non-human object, animal, or abstraction is given human qualities.


Meter, rhyme, and subject are used to  identify form in poetry.  Often, deviations from the expected form are more important to the poet's artistry than a poem's regularity.  A rhyme scheme is the overall pattern of rhyme in a poem.  A pair of rhymed lines is called a couplet. Alliteration refers to the repetition of similar consonant sounds. Repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of words is called initial alliteration.  Repeated consonant sounds in the middle or at the ends of words is called internal alliteration. Repetition of vowel sounds is called assonance.  Although definitions differ, slant rhyme can be said to occur in near rhymes (for instance, cat and cot, but not cat and coat). Consonance is a repetition of consonant sounds.  A line is said to have a masculine ending when the line ends with a stressed syllable (either a one syllable word, or a word of multiple syllables with emphasis on the last syllable).  A line is said to have a feminine ending when the line ends on an unstressed syllable.


A sestina is a form written in six six-line stanzas.  The end words in the first stanza are also the end words of the other stanzas, but they occur in a different order in each stanza, often following a fixed pattern.  In the final envoy (last three lines) of the poem, the six end words are repeated again in any order.


A sonnet is a closed poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Because Italian is an easier language to rhyme than English,  Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets have tighter rhyme schemes than Shakespearean (English) sonnets. Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets rhyme abba abba cdcdcd (with some variation in the last six lines).  Shakespearean ( Engish) sonnets rhyme abab cdcd efef gg (with some variation).  Sonnets may be structured as an octave and a sestet or as three stanzas of four lines, followed by a couplet.  Structure and meaning often intersect in the sonnet; a Shakespearean sonnet often changes the direction of its argument in the 9th line or 11th line.


A symbol is an object or action that carries with it meaning that goes beyond the object or action itself.  Symbols are often specific to a particular culture rather than universally recognized. Allegory makes extensive use of symbolism to work on several levels at once.


A villanelle is a nineteen-line lyric  with only two rhymes and with certain lines repeating in a specific pattern.  Lines 1, 6, 12, and 18 are the same, as are lines 3, 9, 15, and 19.  Lines 1 and 3 form a final couplet.  The lines rhyme aba aba aba aba aba abaa
Created by Dr. Roxanne Kent-Drury
Last revised 11 October 2015

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