This is the most important part of analysing a poem. Many GAMSAT questions will ask you what the underlying tone is, or the poet/character’s attitude towards their subject. A poem can embrace more than one tone and it is important to identify the nuances between different words, e.g. nolstagia vs regret.
Other tones could include: irony, sadness, joy, acceptance, wonder, confusion.
If you’re having trouble deciding a poem’s tone, look carefully at the poet’s choice of words. For example, in ‘Song for a Birth or a Death’ by Elizabeth Jennings, the words ‘savage‘, ‘blood‘ and the ‘owl’s shrewd pounce’ all suggest that something ominous is happening.
Last Night I saw the savage world‘Song for a Birth or a Death’ by Elizabeth Jennings (1st Stanza)
And heard the blood beat up the stair
The fox’s bark the owl’s shrewd pounce
The crying creatures all were there
And men in bed with love and fear
What is the story created by the poem? E.g. a mother walking along the beachside, of a bird trying to find an object, the experiences of taking a train ride. Try to take yourself through a journey and dissect the poem stanza-by-stanza.
Why has the poet used particular words (e.g. the oozing of the river vs the meandering river flow) and how this affects the TENSION or IMAGERY they want to create in your mind.
Work through each stanza of the poem and translate the poem into straightforward language that you can understand. Put it into your own words. For example, a poem might be about a description of an individual living anonymously in society (look below for analysis of the Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden) but is it JUST about that?
You should be able to simplify your poem into 1-2 sentences.
First, identify the speaker in the poem. Is it the poet, or an animal or an inanimate object?
Second, who is the speaker referring to? Are they talking to themselves, to another person, to an animal, an idea (e.g. love, hate, courage) or to an object. In the poem ‘Bright Star’ by John Keats, he famously uses an apostrophe to directly address a star/his lover.
The poem can be written from the poet’s or character’s perspective. Identify how their tone shifts in the poem, e.g. despair, joy and nolstagia.
Revise common literary devices
Learning to interpret a poem can be like learning a new language but it can be made easy! Literary devices are tools used by poets to convey meaning, just like how a scientist might use PCR in order to amplify DNA to study a particular idea.
There are some common literary devices used to convey meaning. They can help to present an image or emphasise what is important to the poet.
- Apostrophe: A figure of speech in which something inanimate (dead or nonhuman) is addressed as if it were alive and could reply.
- Alliteration: The repetition at close intervals of a consonant/vowel sound.
- Allusion: A reference, explicit or implicit, to something in literature or history.
- Connotation: What a word suggests beyond its basic definition.
- Denotation: The basic definition or dictionary meaning of a word.
- Hyperbole: A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for the sake of revealing detail.
- Metaphor: A figure of speech in which an implicit comparison is made between two dissimilar things.
- Simile: A figure of speech in which an explicit comparison is made between two dissimilar things.
- Metonymy: A figure of speech in which some part of a whole or something similar is used to represent something else.
- Visual Imagery
- Onomatopoeia: The use of words that represent sounds.
- Paradox: A statement or situation containing apparently contradictory or incompatible elements.
- Personification: A figure of speech in which human attributes are given to something inanimate (nonhuman or dead).
- Symbol: A figure of speech in which something means more than what it is.
- Tone: The writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward the subject, or the audience, or herself/himself.
A. Visual Imagery
These appeal to the reader’s five senses and help you create the narrative of the poem in your head. Look out for words that the poet uses such as ‘peat brown river’, ‘savage world‘ and how this creates atmosphere and tone.
A symbol is a person, place or thing used to represent an idea. This is pivotal in many poems as it helps to portray the main message. Some common symbols used are mirrors = reflection, red = passion/danger, light = hope.
Other examples of symbolism: https://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-symbolism-in-poetry.html
In the poem below ‘To the moon‘ by Percy Bysshe Shelley , the moon symbolises loneliness and unrequited love. He describes the moon as ‘wandering companionless‘ and other words used such as ‘weariness‘ or ‘joyless‘ invoke a sense of loneliness experienced by the moon.
Example – Futility by Wilfred Owen
Move him into the sun— Gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of fields unsown. Always it woke him, even in France, Until this morning and this snow. If anything might rouse him now The kind old sun will know. Think how it wakes the seeds— Woke once the clays of a cold star. Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall? —O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth's sleep at all?
Tone: Despair, contemplative, poignant
Narrative Voice: The poet is the speaker and is exploring the hopelessness he feels with the unnecessary death of his comrade.
Narrative: Of the sun and how it used to wake up his friend, and the sense of despair of being unable to do so with his death.
Main Message: Owen adopts a contemplative and poignant tone to convey to the audience the vulnerability of human life in warfare with the death of the ‘still warm’ soldier.
Wilfred Owen’s poem is an expression of his grief where he laments the loss of his fellow soldiers. He expresses this in Futility by questioning the meaning of human existence and demonstrating the hopelessness of the war. He longs for his comrade to be revived as seen by ‘If anything might rouse him now…the kind old sun will know’ and the futility of this is realised in the rhetorical question ‘Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?’. The anonymity of the poem is effectively in representing all nameless soldiers who die needlessly in the war.
Owen explores his grief in the needless death of the young soldier and the hopelessness of reviving him. His grief is demonstrated through the abundance of possibilities, as seen in the nostalgic tone in the metaphorical ‘fields unsown’. He utilises the personification of the sun that is described as gently touching him and ‘always [it] awoke him’ in contrast to ‘until this morning and this snow’. His emphasis on a life that is not fully lived capitulate the audience to feel emotions of pity and hopelessness at being able to rouse his metaphorical sleep of death. Their desperate hope is evoked in the use of phrases related to his being ‘woken’, where they hope to ‘rouse’, ‘stir’, and ‘break…sleep’. Their state of denial and refusal to accept is highlighted in the loss of the ‘still warm’ body where the rhetorical question ‘too hard to stir?’ ultimately encapsulates their loss as well as despair and vulnerability as a soldier in war.
Take our quiz!!
We’ve created a series of poetry MCQs to mimic ACER GAMSAT and help you practice!
The trick with poetry questions is to be as precise as possible. The more accurate you are in identifying the main message of your poem, the likelier your interpretation of the question will be correct. Make sure to deduce why some answers are wrong, and why are are more correct than others.