Excerpts adapted from Many Worlds of Poetry, by Jacob Drachler and Virginia B. Terris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.


We shall now examine the poet's use of images, figures of speech, and symbols--all of which are addressed to the imagination. The only link between the poet's mind and the reader's is the verbal performance, which is the poem. And this performance, although it happens in the mind, is remarkably physical in character. One reason for this is that poetic language carries an unusually high concentration of sensory images, of which the most frequent are, as might be expected, visual images.

However, poetic images draw upon all types of sense impressions--of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or bodily movement--which help the poem to transmit an experience of special intensity in memorable form. Thus, poetic language is deeply rooted in physical fact.


Poetic images are generally of two sorts: those that present sense data directly by literal statement and those that do this indirectly by figurative statement. The descriptive image (or direct image) builds an impression entirely out of sensory details. The figurative image (or metaphor) presents sensory data indirectly in the form of a comparison or analogy. Both types of images are used by the poet as his intentions require. Strong as the sensuous nature of a poem must be, the emotional and intellectual currents of the poem are of primary importance. The poet shapes his images for depth of feeling and meaning, not for mere physical sensation.

In Robert Browning's poem "Meeting At Night," a powerfully romantic mood is built almost exclusively by direct images which involve virtually all the senses. Only in the language of the third and fourth lines is there a hint of a metaphor in the implied analogy between waves and living creatures:

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

In "The Skaters" by John Gould Fletcher, direct images and metaphors are combined in a single dominant impression of ice-skating as flight--swift, sudden, intersecting, entangled lines of flight. Here, also, three or four different bodily senses are involved in bringing the scene to life.

Black swallows swooping or gliding
In a flurry of entangled loops and curves;
The skaters skim over the frozen river.
And the grinding click of their skates as they impinge upon the surface,
Is like the brushing together of thin wing-tips of silver.

Lines 3 and 4 are clearly examples of direct description. The other lines contain two figurative images, or metaphors. The attentive reader will perceive by the time he finishes the first sentence that the black swallows in the first line are the skaters. How are skaters like swallows? They swoop and glide, they execute loops and curves as they skate. By making this comparison (which is actually in the stronger form of an equation since it does not use like or as, or even are), the poet transfers the attribute of flight from the swallows to the skaters. (The Greek word metaphor means transfer.) It is precisely because a bird and a person are so different in so many ways that this carrying over of one characteristic that they have in common becomes effective. To make a metaphor the objects compared must be basically unlike each other.

The second figurative image in the poem is contained in the last two lines, where the actual sound, the "grinding click" of the skates, is compared to an imaginary sound (the sound that would be made by a flock of swallows if their wings were made of silver and they brushed their thin wing-tips together in flight). Apparently, Fletcher could not rest content with the direct image, the "grinding click," until he had associated with it another image of flight, thus fulfilling the expectation be had aroused in his first metaphor.

Until now, we have used the word metaphor as a general term to cover all images that are not literal, but figurative that is, all images that are based on a comparison, analogy, or association between dissimilar things.


We now need to differentiate several classes of metaphor. The word metaphor is also used in a more limited sense to indicate a type of comparison in which unlike things are equated through the use of forms of the verb to be or similar verbs. The simile makes a comparison through the use of connectives such as like or as. Thus the second comparison in the previous poem may be called more specifically a simile. The poet often gains a more powerful effect by omitting such connectives.

A few more examples of similes and metaphors are drawn here from Andrew Marvell's poem "The Garden". The poem is about a man finding himself in a rare state of happiness as he lolls in the solitude of a luxuriant garden. He feels as if his soul is parting from his body in an ecstasy.

Marvell might have said, "My soul is like a singing bird" (simile) or "My soul is a singing bird" (metaphor). Instead he wrote, "Casting the body's vest aside,/My soul into the boughs does glide:"

which is an implied metaphor. In the next line he went on with a simile: "There like a bird it sits, and sings," and then, carrying the figure of speech further he used an extended simile:

Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Had Marvell left out the word "like," the lines quoted would comprise an extended metaphor. When the extended simile or metaphor becomes quite elaborate in a witty or intellectual way, it is called a conceit. When, on the other hand, the extended simile develops the description of the object used for comparison, rather than the object the comparison explains, the extended simile is called an epic simile. An example is Milton's description of the beauty of the garden of Eden:

Not that fair field of Enna,
Where Proserpine, gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and th'inspired
Castalian spring, might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive.

While the epic simile seems to wander off the subject, the myth by which the Greeks explained the seasons (the daughter of mother earth is held for part of the year in captivity by the Lord of the Underworld) is obviously emotionally and thematically supportive of the comparison of the two beautiful (but also doomed) gardens.

Personification is that form of metaphor which treats an object or an abstraction as if it were a person. Emily Dickinson transforms death into a courtly gentleman:

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
And Immortality.

In his poem "The Snowstorm," Emerson speaks of the north wind as a mad architect who builds a fantastic world out of snow:

Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. . . .

Two related classes of metaphor, which create an equation or identity between a part of a thing and the whole or between two things connected in some way, are synecdoche and metonymy. Synecdoche uses the part for whole, as in the famous lines of Christopher Marlowe about Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium?

The term synecdoche may also be applied to the use of a special case in a generalized way as when a rich man is called a Rockefeller. The use of the name of one thing for that of another, closely associated thing is called metonymy, as in saying "the bottle" for "strong drink," or in referring to "the crown" when "the king" is meant.

At a high level of intensity, a metaphor goes beyond comparison and succeeds in creating an aura of transformation. An example of this is the following passage from Romeo and Juliet. Romeo, standing unseen for the moment beneath Juliet's window, has been smitten by the beauty of her eyes. The comparison of a lady's eyes to stars was an old one even in Shakespeare's day, but what happens in these lines goes beyond the ordinary simile or metaphor:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her bed?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

The passage has some of the elaborateness of a conceit, but the main element here is not wit or intellect, as in a conceit, but passion. The imagination is made to leap across the gap between the image of eyes and the image of stars in such a way that a new entity comes into being: the eyes-as-stars. The line in which the transformation culminates is "Would through the airy region stream so bright." It is with language of such energy and radiance that the poet's "imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown."


All the types of metaphorical language thus far dealt with may also be referred to as figures of speech, or tropes. Tropes are sometimes called "figures of thought," to distinguish them from poetic effects that depend on sound, which may be called schemes.

In addition, there are certain other tropes which are used by the poet to dramatize his ideas, but which are not strictly metaphorical. The figures we are about to present have in common the effect of contrast, contradiction, or surprise. The first, antithesis, places within one line or sequence of lines ideas that boldly oppose each other. Alexander Pope uses this figure frequently. Here in a couplet from Moral Essays Epistle II) he is satirizing the weaknesses of a certain eminent lady:

Chaste to her husband, frank to all beside,
A teeming mistress, but a barren bride.

Additional examples of antitheses are seen in these famous lines describing mankind from Pope's An Essay on Man:

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

A similar figure of speech is paradox, a statement which seems to contradict itself, but which, on closer examination, reveals a truth. A paradoxical proverb is: "The longest way round is the shortest way home." John Donne combined passion and wit in such paradoxical lines as the following from "Batter My Heart,"  a sonnet addressed to God:

Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The oxymoron (from a Greek word meaning pointedly foolish) is a combination of qualities or ideas that seem absurd. This figure is not necessarily comic, however. It may be used to convey the straining of a mind trying to understand something beyond it, such as a religious mystery, or it may express the "heart's oppression" as in this outpouring of oxymoron from a love-stricken Romeo:

0 heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this. (I, i)

The last line of the above passage is paradox; all the previous epithets are oxymoron.

Another figure, hyperbole, expresses our natural tendency to exaggerate when excited. Hyperbole derives from the Greek word for "overshooting" or "excess." An example from ordinary speech is to say, "I'm dead," for "I'm very tired." Here is an example from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself: "And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels." From the point of view of a prosaic mind, all poetry is compounded of overstatements. But what the poet seeks in hyperbole, as in all figures of speech, is a new truth. He is, as A. R. Ammons says, "the listener/to lies that/they may become truth."

The figure opposite to hyperbole is understatement, also known as meiosis, which is another way of dramatizing a perception. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when the unlucky Mercutio has received a fatal rapier wound and is asked if he is hurt, he replies, "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, 'tis enough." And a moment later, he says, "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve."


An image or figure of speech may be used by the poet in such a way that it acquires the force of a symbol. Sometimes a poem as a whole is endowed with this symbolic force. Since many of the poems in this collection are of a symbolic nature, and since we encounter symbolism throughout literature, it is useful to make clear just what the symbolizing process is.

To begin with, one should distinguish the conventional symbol from the literary one. In general, a symbol is any object, sign, or expression that stands for something other than itself, something more than itself. In this primary sense, every word is a symbol because it represents a meaning, something beyond its sequence of letters or sounds. A flag is a conventional symbol representing a nation, a government, a people, a history. A flag salute is a ritual or symbolic act. Giving a visitor "the key to the city" is another symbolic act. These and other conventional symbols and symbolic acts--a marriage ring, a cross, a handshake, a black arm band--carry ideas and emotions that are understood by everyone sharing a certain culture. Their meanings, because they are habitually observed, tend to be standardized.

The literary symbol, and more specifically the poetic symbol, is the creation of an individual artist. When most successful, it sends out many rays of meaning rather than a single established meaning. An analysis of William Blake's "The Sick Rose" indicates how a very vivid, definite image of a worm destroying a rose gives off a cluster of suggestions, powerful though ambiguous. Does the worm represent death, or envy? Is this an account of a betrayal or a self-abandonment? Each reader may settle on the interpretation that seems most compelling, but he remains aware of other possibilities. The most effective poetic symbols convey the necessity of further exploration and discovery.

Very often it is in the beings or forces of nature that poets find their most moving symbols. To take another example from Blake, his poem "The Tiger" goes far beyond our usual image of the tiger's ferocity and beauty. As we read, we are compelled to feel that we are being shown an awesome tigerishness at the heart of existence, and "forests of the night" that exist not in India or Africa, but in the human being. In D. H. Lawrence's "Snake," we meet a yellow-brown snake who is no less than "a king in exile" and "one of the lords,/ Of life." With Lawrence, explicit comment and a very casual style may actually detract from the intensity of the symbol, which is nevertheless clear. The wind that Shelley invokes in his "Ode to the West Wind" is much more than a meteorological phenomenon. The tide that Longfellow describes in such appropriate rhythms in "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" belongs more to human life than to marine lore.

In their eagerness to grasp the symbolism in poems, inexperienced readers may make two mistakes. They may concentrate on symbolism and forget the concrete reality of the poem, which is to be enjoyed in and for itself and not as a problem needing solution. Or they may become a symbol-hunter who tries to uncover symbols where they do not exist. To avoid both of these errors it is necessary only to respect the poem, to read and reread it closely, and to let it lead us where it plainly wants us to go.

It will not do, for instance, to force symbolism on John Clare's "Badger," which is as straightforward as a good news report. We can draw our own conclusions about the badger and the people who hunt him, but the badger remains very much himself throughout the poem and so do his hunters. Tennyson gives his eagle some human qualities, as if to draw us closer to him but, essentially, not to make the eagle something he is not. And the same goes for Elizabeth Bishop's fish, William Cowper's snail, and the hawks of Jeffers and Hughes. These particular creatures remain themselves.

Nor will it do to confuse an extended metaphor with a symbol. In Delmore Schwartz' "The Heavy Bear" the bear is a metaphor for the author's (and everyone's) grosser physical nature. The author explores the sundry follies and embarrassments that he attributes to our insistent physical egoism, but these explicit excursions of the poem do not carry us outside the range of what is stated there. The bear and all his synonymous epithets ("brutish one," "crazy factotum," "inescapable animal") are really terms of an extended poetic conceit:

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly. . ..

This is an essayistic poem. It does not point to something mysterious outside the metaphor, and therefore it is not symbolic. However, the bear in William Faulkner's story of that name is a symbol, because everything in the story points not only to his being tremendous in size, but to his being larger than the bear species itself. The bear is presented as an incarnation of all that is wild and untamable in nature, and that is at the same time inviting the engagement with itself of something similar in man. Herman Melville's whale, Moby Dick, similarly is entitled--and not because of size alone to--the designation of symbol. Metaphors are self-enclosed; symbols point beyond themselves.Explicitness tends to weaken symbolism. Symbolism presents; it does not explain.

"Imagery," then, includes not only direct description, but all the imaginative ways of representing thought in language that we have surveyed in this chapter.


The smallest meaningful part of the poem is the word. But a single word already contains within itself more thanan unwary reader might suspect. The basic elements of a poem-image, sound, and meaning-may all be found in the isolated word, although, of course, these elements acquire richness and precision when the word is placed in the context of other words. The study of poems is necessarily a study of context, that is, of the surrounding words that modify and influence any particular word. The fabric of words that is the poem depends on the strength, color, and texture of each individual thread. The poet's manner of choosing and weaving these threads is referred to as his diction.

A word has a physical nature (its vowel and consonant structure), a history (its origin and the subsequent changes in its usage), a "family life" (kinships and affinities with other words), and a future (the new and unpredictable life that the poet can give to it). These are the conditions that affect the word's power to radiate image, music, and meaning.


The meaning of a word can reach far beyond its dictionary definition. The dictionary tells us, for example, that a rainbow is an arc of prismatic colors. This is the denotation of the word. Its connotation, however, includes feelings, ideas, and images that have come to be associated in our minds with the word.

Let us now consider the word "rainbow" as it occurs in the climax of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish":

I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels--until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

And I let the fish go.

The sense of excitement and elation is built up by the details of the entire narrative, but the word "rainbow" here helps to raise these feelings to the point of rapture. How does the word do this? First, there is the image projected by the word: we see in our mind's eye those brilliant melting arcs of color. Behind that image are memories and associations: the clearing away of a thunderstorm; the dispersal of gloom and discomfort; the fresh-washed air and the return of sunshine; and then that rare magical sign in the heavens. Beyond our own personal experience of this heart-lifting sight, there is the accumulation of cultural experience in traditions, songs, art, literature, and religion. Thus the rainbow has acquired such associations as happiness, peace, good fortune, beauty, victory, and divine mercy.

In the passage from "The Fish," the idea of victory is intimately associated with the rainbow. What unexpressed connections exist between victory and rainbow? Is it simply that both are usually connected with a feelig of happiness or elation? No doubt. But what kind of victory occurs in this poem when the fisherman lets the fish go? She relinquishes her initial physical triumph over the fish for the sake of a greater and rarer triumph: she pays homage to the creature link between himself and the fish. Earlier in the poem, she finds the fish "venerable" even though it is "homely" and "a grunting weight," "an object." But then she sees "five old pieces of fishline,/....with all their five big hooks/grown firmly in his mouth" and can no longer will this creature's death. Over this victory, "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" waves like a banner.

Does the poem also echo the reference to the rainbow in the biblical story of Noah and the flood? After the flood recedes, God makes a covenant with Noath, and through him, with all future generations, wih the rainbow as a token of this covenant. It is not necesssary to assume that Elizabeth Bishop was consciously thinking of the Bible story when she wrote the poem. The creative mind of the poem does not work only on the upper levels of awareness. But this is the kind of association that any word radiates and echoes from the rich stores of the reader's and the poet's experience.

We have not yet considered the physical character of the word "rainbow." It is a pleasant, "musical" word, but it is hard to say exactly why. It is hazardous to evaluate the sound and meaning of a word. "Brain gone" has almost the same sound pattern as "rain bow" but certainly sounds less pleasant!

Yet the meaning is not all important-the physical nature of the word also counts. What would happen if instead of "rainbow" Elizabeth Bishop had written "prism, prism, prism!" Certainly, a different poem-probably a spoiled one.

When Marianne Moore writes, "the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea," "twitching" conveys the required effect better than, for example, "jerking" or "fluttering" would. The sound of "twitchingg" somehow suggests precisely the motion involved, and as a rhyme-word for "itching," it suggests the right association. The critic is made to seem more laughable, and deseredly so, for while he is "immovable" (insensitive to the vlaues of the work he is criticizing), he nevertheless has an itch to criticize which is unappeasable, so he "twITCHes."

Words can "act out" or mimic the thing the name. This is one form of mimesis, which Aristotle said was a major function of poetry. Note how the italicized words of the following lines suggest texture and movement (italics added):

There is a whole class of words that imitate or suggest the sounds or motions they name: for example, crash, bang, hiss, whine, murmur, grunt, cackle, groan, roar.  Another name for sound mimesis is onomatopoeia.


The history of a word begins, of course, with its birth; and, at its birth, as Emerson said, "every word was once a poem."  Every new word represents an exciting leap of the imagination.  As the imagination and newness go out of the words, they are no longer poems; they become the matter-of-fact names of things.  To some names, like starfish and sea lion, some original glamor may still cling, particularly if they are not part of our ordinary life.  The image-making of such flower names as buttercup, baby's breath, lady's-slipper may still seem vivid to us.  But how many of us think of the metaphor-spark that leaped in the mind of the first person to speak of the arm of a chair, the face of a clock, the neck  of a bottle,  the veins in a rock?

In certain other words, the implicit poetry becomes available to us as we learn their derivations.  We may say, "Why fret?" without realizing that it carries some of the force of "What's eating you?" The word fret in its Old English form meant "eat up," and even today, the dictionary tells us, a secondary meaning currently in use is "to cause corrosion" or "to gnaw."  Knowing the etymology of supercilious, we see raised eyebrows; influence, a flowing current; climax, a ladder; droll, a little man; cordial,  a heart; isolation, an island.

According to some estimates, the poet writing in English draws upon a language that is about 40 per cent Latin-derived (much of this by way of French).  The rest of its words are of "native" English origin (actually Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Scandinavian, or Celtic).  Of course the language is enriched by borrowings from virtually all of the other languages of the world.

Very often the Latinate words are longer, more learned-sounding, more abstract. The native words are usually shorter, plainer, more concrete.  The poet–and his knowledgeable reader–are alert to the varied shades of meaning (particularly through connotations and sound effects) of words from these different stocks.  For a famous example, consider Macbeth, who is agonizing over the blood of murder on his hands, which cannot be washed out:

The five syllables of "multitudinous" suggest vast oceans.  "Incarnadine" suggests a deeper, more permanent reddening than the native "turn red" would have done.  These two long Latin-derived words, by extreme contrast with all the other native words, make even more emphatic the slow single syllables that end the next line.

Here is an example from a modern American poem:

The Latin (in two cases, ultimately Greek) words are "precise," "counterpart," "cacophony," and "sphere."  These are intellectual, somewhat abstract words that   Williams uses to comment on the art of the orchestra.  But the sequence "bird calls/lifting the sun almighty," in entirely native English, is not about the art of the orchestra; rather, it is about the physical world of nature, and a feeling about that world.  Williams needs both classes of words because the theme of his poem is precisely the interplay of nature and art, of feeling and form.


In looking at the physical nature and history of the word, we have incidentally glanced at the "family life" of the word.  A more direct inquiry is now in order.  In the act of composing a poem, the poet's ideas and feelings work like magnets in searching out and attracting to themselves clusters of words with special kinships and affinities.  Some words have natural attractions for each other.  Others acquire these magnetic charges when draawn into the intense field of forces of the poet's vision.  For glimpses into this process, let us examine Herman Melville's "The Maldive Shark":

Of all the strange things to be observed in nature, this creature--with attendants--must be one of the strangest and most disquieting.  This shark, whose jaws are identified with "the Fates," is a peculiar cousin to Melville's famous whale, Moby Dick, who is also presented as an embodiment of malign fate, but on a grander scale.

There are three themes or motifs dominating the poem: the shark's listlessness, his deadliness, and the innocent liveliness of the pilot fish.  There are powerful ironies in the situation, for we tend to expect that destructiveness will manifest energy and demonic activity.  However, here deadliness is almost corpselike in its inactivity, so that there is something revolting as well as frightening about the combination.  A further irony is that the monster is served by the pretty innocents who not only lead him to his prey--and since they do, can we still call them innocent?--but are themselves safe in his very jaws.  If we make a chart of the words clustering about these three themes, we may be helped to perceive how connotation is an organizing agent in the poem:
Listlessness Deadliness Innocent Liveliness
phlegmatical glittering gates liquidly glide
sot saw-pit sleek little
lethargic dread azure
ghastly flank Gorgonian slim
haven serrated teeth alert
port  jaws of the Fates nothing of harm
asylum ravener friends
dotard horrible meat treat
dull maw

The words interact, reinforce, and influence each other in ways that a chart cannot show--hence the metaphor "family relations."  The subtle dynamics can be felt only in the poem itself.  For example, what makes "glittering gates" a chilling image of deadliness?  Only its association with "serrated teeth."  Likewise  "treat" is a benign word in itself, but rhymes with, and refers to, the deadly "horrible meat."  A Gorgon, though deadly, was also passive; without any action on her part, the snake-locks of the Gorgon turned her victims to stone.  Perhaps the most active of the deadly words is "ravener," which is related etymologically to "rape" but which can connote a scavenger, one who eats corpses.  It calls to mind the behavior of beasts who tear and devour their prey, like "Maw" which gives the image of a large, devouring mouth but which originally meant "stomach."  So, mouth is instantly stomach, prey is instantly corpse, but the deadly creature hardly bestirs itself.

Under "listlessness" we have "sot" and "dotard," both selected with uncanny connotative precision.  The sot is a confirmed drunkard; the dotard has become weak-minded with old age.  Neither can find his way without aid; each has to be led, as the shark is piloted by the pilot-fish.  This sot, this dotard, is called "pale" twice and "ghastly" once.  He has the pallor of the zombie or the vampire.  He is "phlegmatical" (sluggish, like thick mucous); "lethargic" (a word derived from Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Hades); his maw is a "haven," "port," "asylum" for the pilot fish, but a "charnel" (place where the dead are deposited) for his victims.  Melville's task is to make us see the ironic wonder of his shark and his alliance with the pilot fish.  He makes us share his own paradoxical response, partly repulsion, partly fascination.


The choice of words in this particular poem is merely a selection, appropriate for the occasion, from a broader word fund characteristic of Herman Melville's work.  In the most ancient of English poems, those written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), the phrase most often used to describe a poet beginning a poem was, "He unlocked his word hoard"--his treasure chest of words.  Diction is the term applied to such characteristic vocabularies and to the way in which writers use words and phrases in particular works.  Every good poet must be a master of diction--of his own special diction--developed in a lifetime of "hanging around words," as Auden puts it.  The poet devotes his or her craft to the development of a word hoard not just to have such a treasure chest of his own, but because that is the necessary equipment for the representation of his or her vision of life.  In understanding why a poet's repertory of language includes or privileges certain words and kinds of words, rejects or uses sparingly other kinds, we go a long way towards understanding that poet's art.

Diction involves phrases as well as individual words, as we have already seen in Melville's case.  Just as the word must be chosen, so the phrase must be shaped, with a "wise heart."  We have seen that even a single word carries within itself something of image, music, and meaning.  A phrase unites these three elements in a more ponderable, more memorable, because more sizeable, part of the poem.


In the earliest poetry, we find a love of the terse and impassioned phrase.  For example, in The Odyssey, an oral composition from about the tenth century BC, written down at a much later date, there is a lavish and affectionate use of the epithet.  The epithet sums up in a brief phrase a salient trait of a person or thing.  In oral poetry, it was desirable and necessary to repeat these key traits frequently.   Thus, over and over again, Odysseus is referred to as "that kingly man,"
"raider of cities," "master-mind of the war," or "the wiliest fighter of the islands."  These epithets were often small poems in themselves--the "wine-dark sea," Troy, the "wild-horse country."

Anglo-Saxon poetry was so much based on these metaphorical epithets that they have a special name, kenning.  Examples include "the whale road" (i.e., the ocean); "the helmet of the air" (fog); "the sweat of war" (blood).  Some present-day set phrases are also implied metaphors: "cold war," "paper tiger," "satellite nation."

Here are some examples from famous poems:

As can be seen from these examples, the grammatical form of the epithet tends to be adjective + noun or noun + preposition + noun, with, of course, any number of possible variations.

Perhaps no other poet has made the phrase, almost independent of sentence structure, deliver so much poetic power as has Walt Whitman.  An example is this passage of thirteen lines from Song of Myself:

A sequence of seven "night epithets" is followed by eight "earth epithets."  The repetitions, far from being monotonous, are full of richly varied images impelled by passionately felt personifications.  The long chain of phrases about the earth hangs, grammatically, from a single hook: the verb "Smile".


The power of the poetic phrase is present also in the vigor and impact of popular sayings, slogans, and proverbs.  Phrases of color and verve originating with "anonymous" indicate that the impulse to poetry is wide-spread, perhaps universal.

Consider what elements give effectiveness to the following expressions.  Group slogans: "Remember the Alamo! "    "Burn, baby, burn!"  Colloquialisms: "Money thinks I'm dead." "With a friend like that, who needs enemies?"  Proverbs: "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."  "To sup with the devil, you must use a long spoon."  Aphorisms: "Speak softly and carry a big stick" (Theodore Roosevelt). "Seek simplicity and distrust it" (A.N. Whitehead).

All epigrams, whether of popular or literary origin, have the qualities of form, rhythm, terseness, and aptness--essentially poetic qualities as we can see from the following examples from various poems:

The effective phrase is usually concrete and projects physical images.  But powerful lines can be made with abstractions, as in the proverb-like  Blake example, or by juxtaposition of the abstract and the concrete, as in Eliot's "life" and "coffee spoons."

Here are two famous epigrams in verse that derive their power not from imagery, but from the whiplash of motion and counter motion:

Nouns and verbs usually constitute the strength of the poetic line, but no rules can be made.  Consider the adjectives in this passage from Macbeth: Macbeth wants to convey his shock and profess his love for his liege-lord by representing him as precious and royal.  Simplicity is not always the best policy.  Here, the ornate effect of "silver" and "golden" is memorable--even if we suspect that Macbeth "doth protest too much," as Hamlet's mother says of the Player Queen.


One way of arriving at an appreciation of effective diction is to examine the vices and weaknesses of ineffective diction.  In the examples below we display faults of diction in deliberately spoiled versions, set beneath the original versions.

In the first spoiled version, "juicy bunches" falls short of conveying richness of taste and luxurience of growth, as the real poem does.  In the second, "slithery" is descriptive, but conventional, whereas Dickinson shows the snake's movement in the lines of the whole poem.  Moreover, the spoiled version contains a cliche, something of which Dickinson is never guilty, especially when the cliche is totally inappropriate to the context, which here is to admire and appreciate the snake, not to use him as a stereotyped negative figure.  "Approaches" has no imagistic power, unlike "rides," because it is relatively abstract.  "Denizen of the deep" is another cliche, and again, the cliche is inappropriate not only because it adds nothing, but because, just  by being a set, glib phrase, it takes away from the particularity of the animal the poet is describing.  "Encrusted," a good, particular image in itself, describes this animal falsely; it is only "speckled" with barnacles.  Bishop's words--rosettes, lime, white, infested, sea-lice--are particular, whereas the substituted words are looser and more general.  "Tiny" is smaller than "small."  In the final example, "canine existence" is an example of the writing "sin" of "elegant variation"--changing words just to be fancy, not to represent a distinction in meaning--and "rubs itself" sounds like a euphemism for the down-to-earth "scratches its behind."  It is also less horselike--the fog-cat who "rubs its back against the window-pane" in Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," however, illustrates that "rubs" can be a powerful imagistic word in the appropriate context.

In this chapter we have tried to show how the effectiveness of a poem depends very largely on its diction, and why the readers' full enjoyment of the poem depends on their sensitivity to the nuances of diction.  The diction of a poem is also crucial to its tone, to which we will return in a later chapter.


Rhyme, like rhythm, sets up an expectation and then fulfills it.  In the following light verse, "The Hardship of Accounting," by Robert Frost, we see how rhyme works first to capture interest, then to arouse expectation, satisfy it,and secure meaning in a memorable way.

Consider what happens when we spoil the above by leaving out the last three rhymes: The disappointments, of course, involve not only rhyme but connotation.  The thought-train, derailed by sonal sabotage, lies in disarray.

The pleasures of fulfilled expectation need not be simple.  Rhythm establishes a beat and may then expressively skip or misplace it.   Rhyme announces a consonant-vowel pattern and then echoes it exactly--or on a slant.  We should not make the mistake of identifying music solely with harmony.  As the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye once pointed out, music is even more dependent on discord than on harmony.  The most truly musical poets, Frye says, are those who know how to create tensions and not merely soothing monotonies of sound.  Varieties of rhyme, other patterns of word sound, and cacophonous as well as euphonious combinations of sound contribute to a poem's music.


An exact rhyme is a sound identity following an initial difference. A word that is an exact homophone of a prior word, or a repetition of it, does  not rhyme with its predecessor because there is no difference.   Die and dye are not exact rhymes, but die and fly are.  Note that rhyme is based on the word's sound, not its spelling, though sometimes the sound has changed in modern times from what it once was.  Such formerly exact rhymes can be called "eye rhymes," or they may be varieties of slant or half rhyme.  Rhymes that involve single syllables (fuse/use, invent/content) are called masculine rhymes; rhymes that involve two or more are called feminine rhymes (master/faster; hilly/silly; portentous/prevent us; quivering/shivering); some prefer to call rhymes involving more than two syllables "multiple" rather than "feminine."  Feminine, and especially multiple, rhymes, since they tend toward overemphasis and suggest an indulgence in the pleasure of sound for its own sake, are often found in light or humorous verse.  But feminine rhymes are often used seriously as well. Note the italicized examples from W.D. Snodgrass's "Mementos ii":

The feminine rhymes come with all the more impact because the rhyming words have opposed associations, the one happy, the other unhappy.

W may also use the above example to consider how all kinds of  rhyme work to stress the poet's most important ideas and at the same time to assist in the movement of the ideas through the poem.  The final couplet of the stanza, for instance, not only by its powerful image of love as a "gown of lead" but also by the rhyming of "down" and "gown," draws attention to the image of a sad weight.  Another rhyming word,"crown," in the simile "crown of (flowering) thorn" is attached by its sound to the same image.  "Thorn" itself rhymes with "warn" and "scorn," all suggesting painful disaster.  Even "of," not itself a powerful word, links "pride" and "fear" to "love," with which it rhymes.

Rhymes, then, especially if not all the lines in the poem are rhymed, are used to stress important ideas  or to create units within the poem.  For instance, rhymes were often used at the ends of scenes or acts in blank verse plays, to indicate the conclusion of a unit of action.  All schemes, or figures of sound, have these two functions: emphasis, and unit-creation.  End-rhymes are particularly strong markers in many poems because they reinforce or function in tension with another organizing device, the line end.  Line ends are important even in unrhymed verse because they stand out clearly and compel some kind of pause that affects the cadence.

In addition to end-rhymes, the poet may also use medial  (internal) rhymes.  Internal rhyme occurs anywhere within a line, as in "And the bay was WHITE with silent LIGHT."

Compared to languages like French and Italian, English is not rich in exact rhyming possibilities.  There are many common English words for which there is no exact rhyme: for example, circle, desert, month, wisdom.  Weak poets may succumb to hackneyed rhymes like moon/June/tune, or mispronounce words, or (worse yet) distort meaning to fit whatever rhymes come to mind.  Strong poets come up with fresh solutions, for example, renewing an old rhyme in a next context.  Or they invent a new type of rhyme.

One significant adaptation to the limited reservoir of exact rhymes in English is the use of slant rhyme (also called near-,half-, oblique-, or off-rhyme).  This kind of rhyme usually has the same final consonant, but a different final vowel (or the same final vowel but a different final consonant).  Here is a beautiful example from Walt Whitman, who did not often use rhyme:

 This near-rhyme is really very near; the vowels here all have the same general sound and some are actually exact rhymes.  But slant rhymes can be much more different than this example suggests.


There are other instruments in the poetic orchestra which are very similar to rhyme, in that the involve the repetition of vowel and consonantpatterns.  One of these is alliteration--the repetition of the same consonant sound in a sequence of words.  If the sound occurs at the beginnings of words, it is called "initial alliteration," or just alliteration for short, since this is the most common and powerful form of alliteration.  But if the repeated consonant occurs in various positions within the word, we may call it medial alliteration or simply consonance. An example of initial alliteration appears in the first two lines of Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay":

As in rhyme, the functions of alliteration are to emphasize, especially in a kind of subliminal way that might better be called suggestion, and to organize--to create links and subdiviisons.

A sequence of repeated vowel sounds is called assonance.  In Hart Crane's "The Hurricane," this device is among a number of methods the poet uses to try to give the reader a sense of the storm as opposed to a commentary on it:

Lo, Lord, Thou ridest!
Lord, Lord, Thy swifting heart

Naught stayeth, naught now bideth                                bideth = abideth = endures
But is smithereened apart!

Ay! Scripture flee'th stone!                                            flee'th = flayeth
Milk-bright, Thy chisel wind

Rescindeth flesh from bone
To quivering whittlings thinned--

Swept--whistling straw!  Battered,
Lord, e'en boulders now out-leap

Rock sockets, levin-lathered!                                        levin-lathered = whipped by lightning
Nor, Lord, may worm out-deep

Thy drum's gambade, its plunge abscond!                       gambade = leap   abscond = escape
Lord God, while summits crashing

Whip sea-kelp screaming on blond
Sky-seethe, high heaven dashing--

Thou ridest to the door, Lord!
Thou bidest wall nor floor, Lord!

The cumulative effect of the short i sounds, especially in "quivering whittlings thinned," is to indicate the shrillness and sharp, high pitch of the fierce winds.  The imitative effects of these word sounds, however, is greatly dependent on their meaning, unlike those words that have a direct imitative effect, onomatopoetic words (the name of the device is onomatopoeia).

That the poet has at his command a wide and subtle range of means for imitating sound, going far beyond the onomatopetic hiss, buzz, gurgle, and mumble, is obvious.  Consider this passage from Delmore Schwartz' "A Small Score."  The "score" is for the concert that the birds give as dawn breaks:

The sound of words does more than suggest the sound of birds; it also undertakes to transpose the sun's "blaze of majesty" into auditory terms in the internal rhyming with "roar" ("disorder, chorus, soaring, oars, more") and in "saw" and "awe."  Thus the brroad sound of aw dominates the end of the poem.

Sound patterns of verse also assist in rendering motion.  Consider the following sound combinations describing the motion of snow in Robert Bridges' "London Snow":

Clearly this is no blinding blizzard, but a gentle but insistent, slow, fluttering, long lasting snow fall, almost surreptitiously invading the city.  Indeed, this passage illustrates several effects of verbal music discussed in this chapter.


The patterned sounds of poetry-rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance-are often referred to as the "music of poetry." This is a useful and suggestive phrase, but an impotant reservation must be kept in mind: poetry can never be the music of pure sound. Poetry is made with words, which are in fact sounds when uttered, but these sounds are always meaningful in a way that the sounds of music cannot be. In music a sound may be recognized as associated with or imitative of a sound that occurs outside the musical composition-for instance, a bird's song or the sound of a cannon-but its acoustic message is independent of this association. In a song, words may have an instrumental accompaniment and will have an arrangement of pitch and duration that complements and complicates their effect. But the music in a poem is inseparable not only from the words chosen, but specifically from their meaning. Consider the difference between "whisper" and "whisker."


Rhythm is something that seems to be instinctively loved and understood by all human beings.  Our very bodies are alive only so long as the rhythms of blood and breath continue.  Basically, rhythm is created by the repetition of an event in a sequence that is perceived as significant and often may be measured.  Some of the rhythmic events in a poem are measurable, but some are not.  Unlike the rhythm produced by a metronome, with exactly equal intervals between the beats, a poem is affected by human speech, which is a matter of breathing, uttering, and pausing, all impelled by movements of thought and feeling.  Consequently, certain elements of poetic rhythm are not measurable.  However, arrangements of syllables and syllable-stresses (the stress of a syllable is determined by how loud, how high-pitched, and how long it is, relative to other syllables around it) can be counted in their recurrence.  These arrangements are called feet.  Counting the stressed syllables, figuring out what kind of feet that constitute, and the number and sequence of feet in a particular line is called "scansion."  When you are asked to "scan" a poem, you are being asked to mark the stressed and unstressed syllables, to divide them into groups of two or three that comprise a foot, and to determine the prevailing pattern of feet in a line  This underlying pattern, different from the actual rhythm which sometimes follows and sometimes varies from the expected pattern, is called  the meter of that poem or section of a poem.

The human ear seems capable of recognizing consistently four different amounts of syllable stress, but for purposes of scansion, we usually reduce the varieties to two, called "stressed" (relative to adjacent syllables, and usually marked by a /) and "unstressed" (again, relative to adjacent syllables; to indicate an unstressed or less stressed syllable, many use a mark like a parenthesis on its side, but I  (P. Craddock) like to use an x).  Another device is to CAPITALIZE the stressed syllables and leave the unstressed syllables in lower case.  The placement of accents in words of two or more syllables is at least partially determined by standard pronunciation (of the time and place at which the poem was written).  For instance,  I can't choose to emphasize the middle syllable of "syllable" without appearing ridiculous (putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.  But the stress or lack of stress on a one-syllable word is determined by the meaning of the statement, which may sometimes be determined by an individual interpretation. For example, "This is the face that launched a THOUsand ships" might be read "THIS is" or "This IS, " etc.  But there are constraints; you could not stress "that" instead of "launched," and if you stressed "the" instead of "face," you could not avoid implying a constrast with other, lesser faces that had also launched a thousand ships.  After the first pair of syllables in the line, therefore, the unavoidable conclusion is that there is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the line that goes x / x / x / x /.  Thus the rhythmic pattern is clear: the feet typically contain two syllables, and the feet are of the type called iambs.  Since there are five feet in the line, the length is named pentameter, from the Greek word for five (penta) plus the Greek word for measure.  The technical names for the various metrical line lengths are

Other important kinds of feet are trochees, dactyls, anapests, spondees, and pyhrruses.  The omission of a syllable that is expected in a particular foot is called "catalexis"--cutting off.  An extra unstressed syllable, especially before a pause or at the end of a line, is usually called a "hypermetrical" syllable because it counts in the rhythm but is ignored in figuring out the meter, the rhythmical pattern.


blank verse--unrhymed iambic pentameter.  Not to be confused with free verse.
heroic couplets--rhymed pairs of lines in iambic pentameter, most of which form a strong unit in themselves.  The difference between a heroic couplet and any old rhymed iambic pentamenter couplet is the way the heroic couplet calls attention to the two-line package.  In general, rhymed iambic pentameters are considered "heroic" if the majority of the pairs of lines end in a strong pause, such as the ones marked by periods, colons, exclamation points, semi-colons, and question marks. If, on the other hand, you hardly notice that the poem is written in couplets, as in Browning's "My Last Duchess," clearly the writer is not trying for the epigrammatic effect of heroic couplets.


Syllable-stress meter has been the dominant form in English poetry between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries.  However, poems may use a measure that is not dependent on the stress or accent, but simply on the number of syllables; this type of poetry is called syllabic verse (Marianne Moore provides modern examples).  Another type of meter ignores the number of syllables and counts only the stressed syllables.  This was the method of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which had a number of different line patterns related to stressed syllables (marked by alliteration) and various kinds of pauses (the technical name for a pause in poetry is caesura, plural caesurae).  Recent poets like William Carlos Williams, Robert Creely, and others have worked with a short poetic line that seems to observe a flexible count of stresses.  Here is an example from Williams:



We know that poets vary meter to accommodate speech rhythms.  Some rhythmic variations within poems have nothing to do with meter.  One of these is cadence, the rise and fall of the voice, the connections and pauses that make up any utterance.  If we take a bit of conversation such as "I THINK | you were CRAzy || to come OUT here | in this WEATHer ||| but I'm GLAD you CAME," we note pauses of different lengths, and an overall intonation pattern that tells us, for example, that we are hearing a statement, not a question, or an exclamation.  In "My Last Duchess," the pause-pattern might be read as follows:

While some readers would undoubtedly want to arrange the pauses differently, it should be clear that the distribution of pauses does affect the rhythm of the above rhymed iambic pentameter.


In unrhymed, unmetrical verse, the cadences become far more important, because rhyme and meter are not present to draw attention away from all the nuances of pace, pitch, loudness, and intonation.  Consider the cadences in the following passage from Robert Creeley's poem "The Rhythm":

This could be called accentual verse, with a norm of two stresses per line.  But more significant are the varied pauses that build up to the high-pitched repetition of line 3 and the falling effect of line 4.  It is difficult to separate here the function of cadence from the patterns of parallelism and repetition, since these latter also control cadences.  Note, for example, how the parallel "If in death . . . then in life" forces equal stress on "death" and "life" with pauses following each.

In the following passage from T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," repetition of the "time" phrases puts a counter-rhythm into play within the underlying iambic rhythm:

    And indeed there will be time
    For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
    Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
    There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a fame to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate;
    Time for you and time for me,
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions,
    Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Repetition of a word usually involves, as it does here, the repetition of an idea with variations, as well as the parallelism of grammatical forms.  Through the King James version of the Bible, Hebrew poetry has had a very deep influence on poetry in English, and for that matter, on prose also.  Its building of rhythmic movements by means of the balanced repetition of ideas and the parallelism of sentence form is seen in these verses from the Book of Job:


About a century after the American Revolution, Walt Whitman started a second American Revolution--this time in the field of poetry.  His free-verse rhythms used, among other resources, the rhythmic structures of biblical poetry.  The opening lines of his Song of Myself  illustrate this:

But long before Whitman, this type of rhythm had already been adapted to the purposes of emotional prose, by preachers, orators, and poets.  Shakespeare put the following speech in prose into Hamlet's mouth in a play that is, of course, mainly blank verse: This is cadenced prose, employing repetitions and parallel structure to build up rhythms of intense feeling and exalted conception.

Just as meter can be employed for an infinite variety of effects, so can non metrical rhythms.  The nature of any poem, lyric of otherwise, will determine which type of rhythm the poet uses and the way he or she uses it.  Many modern poets have things to say that they feel can be said better in nonmetrical rhythms.  Good free verse has its own kind of rhythm, as does much good prose.  There are also various kinds of free verse.  The verse movement, which continues to develop, covets for poetry the rich resources of prose, but not necessarily to the exclussion of syllable stress patterns, freely employed.  As we have seen, the order of meter is based on syllable and stress patterns.  The rhythmic order of non-metrical poetry--free verse--is based on breath and pause patterns and grammatical patterns.  But these forms of order are not absolutely separated from each other.

According to William Butler Yeats,

A different emphasis was introduced by Theodore Roethke, who said, "Repetition in word and phrase and in idea is the very essence of poetry";  the poet's "rhythm must move as the mind moves, must be imaginatively right, or he is lost" (Tape recording, Conversations on the Craft of Poetry, ed. C. Brooks and R.P. Warren, 1961)


A structural process gathers the parts of a poem into a living whole. For purposes of analysis we will distinguish three types of structure. One type of structure is PLOT-the temporal pattern of the events in the story of the poem. A second is SYNTAX-the grammatical pattern of events in the sentences of the poem. A third is ARGUMENT-the logical pattern of the line of reasoning that develops in the poem. In any particular poem all three kinds of structuring may be present to some degree, but one may do most of the unifying work.


The following two-line poem, "Upon the Death of Sir Albert Norton's Wife," by Sir Henry Wotton, is almost purely plot:

He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, liked it not, and died.
Why is plot so effective here, and what happens in poems where plot is the chief structuring element? There is an eventfulnes, a forward movement in time, and a feeling at the end that everything has moved toward a destined point. Frequently, when plot is at its best, the reader experience first a sense of journeying and finally a sense of the journey completed.

A somewhat longer example of plot in a mood of lightness and fascination is Robert Herrick's "Upon Her Feet":

Her pretty feet
Like snails did creep
A little out, and then,
As if they started at bo-peep,                                                                             started at = began to play
Did soon draw in again.
Of course one must have in mind the ground-sweeping skirt of Herrick's period, to see how he combines the exactness of the camera eye and the excitement of the sensual eye in one action, continuous although reversed in midcourse.

An example of plot with powerful emotional overtones is William Blake's "The Sick Rose":

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Plot, aided by syntax, sound, and imagery, serves symbolism in this poem.

For a final illustration of plot as unifying structure, we take William Carlos Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." Wiliams transforms the all-in-one-moment (spatial) impression of Brueghel's painting into the moment-after-moment (temporal) sequence of images going down the page:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning.

The climax of this plot, as of the original legend, is the drowning of Icarus. In the painting, Brueghel wants to show visuall and spatially the insignificance of this mythological death in the setting of the workaday world. The painter shows only Icarus' up-ended legs as the sea closes over him. The poet arranges to render this impression in terms of time instead of space. So as the poem proceeds, having first announced the painting as its subject, it tells of spring, plowing, pageantry, the sea, and the sun. Then, tucked in, casually, there is the clause "that melted/the wings' wax." There follows some further stretching out of "unsignficantly," and so on (as with a yawn), then the unnoticed "splash," and finally the "drowning," the last word of the poem and last events of the plot. The intention of the poem being an ironical climax of unimportance, its structure must meander rather than stride purposefully. The climax must slip in as if by an oversight.


As oour first example of the way in which syntax structures a poem, let us look at this prayer for a son lost at the age of seven, "Of His Dear Son, Gervase," by Sir John Beaumont:

Dear Lord, receive my son, whose winning love
To me was like a friendship, far above
The course of nature or his tender age;
Whose looks could all my bitter griefs assuage:
Let his pure soul, ordain'd seven years to be
In that frail body which was part of me,
Remain my pledge in Heaven, as sent to show
How to this port at every step I go.
The poem is made up of four rhymed couplets, which are formed into a single sentence. The adroit management of this eight-line sentence, with compactness and grace, supports the current of grief and hope that runs through the poem. How is this managed? The syntactical spine of this sentence may be shown as follows by omitting modifying elements: "Dear Lord, receive my son...Let his pure soul...Remain my pledge in Heaven...." Running through the first, ffifth, and seventh lines, this spine holds the body of the poem firm and knits together the other clauses, which carry important emotions and ideas. The parallel "whose" clauses modifying "son" take us to the midpoint of the poem and to the second predicate, "Let . . . Remain. . . ." This second predicate is divided but linked by the modifiers beginning with "ordain'd." The subordinate clause "as sent..." becomes climactic not only because of its idea (the speaker's going to Heaven where he trusts he will be reunited with his son) but because of its suspenseful syntax. A test of this analysis would be to see what is lost when the line is rearranged to read, for example, "how I go to this port at every step." Of course, meter and rhyme are also spoiled by such a rearrangement, but the keeping of "go" as the last word links it, as a destined completion, to the idea of the first line. In effect, the syntax of the poem achieves the compactness of "Lord, receive my son as a pledge that you will receive me," but says it with all the feeling, thought, and grace that is missing from this summary.

The following poem, by Sir Thomas Wyatt, is knitted into effective unity chiefly by the little word "it," functioning repeatedly as object (or less frequently as subject) of various verbs from the first line on:

Help me to seek, for I lost it there
And if that ye found it, ye that be here,
And seek to convey it secretly,
Handle it soft and treat it tenderly,
Or else it will plain [complain] and then appear:

But rather restore it to me mannerly,
Since that I do ask it thus honestly:
For to lose it, it sitteth me too near.
Help me to seek.
Alas, and is there no remedy?
But have I thus lost it wilfully?
I wis [know] it was a thing all too dear
To be bestowed and wist not where:
It was my heart, I pray you heartily
Help me to seek.

Other elements that give this poem unity are the repetition of "Help me to seek" and the sense of suspense until the explicit revelation: "It was my heart." But the syntactical patterns, using the pronoun "it," form the main structure of the poem.

In the poem "A Jellyfish," by Marianne Moore, the pronoun "it" also appears frequently. But the poem's structure depends on another little word, the connective "and," and the way in which it functions in the statements of the poem:

Visible, invisible,
a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
you abandon your intent.
The structuring process of this poem is a pulsating motion similar to the "fluctuating" appearance and disappearance of the jellyfish. How do the "ands" contribute to this pulsating effect? They do it under the influence of a basically iambic rhythm. In each case, "and" receives considerable stress. The sequence "and it opens/and it closes" has a pulsating efffect, as has the next sequence "you had meant/to catch it and it quivers." The "and" functions here not only as a "joiner" (conjunction) but also as a "divider" between two states: opening and closing, approach and withdrawal, forming an intention and abandoning it. The signal for this pulsating strucutre of the poem is given in the first line: "Visible, invisible," which seems to have a throbbing effect somewhat like a recurrent after-image. The comma, and the slight pause it indicates, performs the same function as the "ands" later on.


Argument, an old critical term for the line of reasoning or idea-structure of the poem, is represented in the first example below, by Sir Philip Sidney, by repetition or restatement of an idea viewed from various angles.

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one for another given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides;
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

The poem's unity is helped by the grammatical symmetry of its statements and the repetition of the thesis line. But the dominant structural feature is the argument: exchange of hearts brings blissful union of lovers. However, this logical proposition is also sending forth a supralogical series of erotic images, something not uncommon in love poems and love songs. While on one level the poem's argument runs on in terms of a "better bargain," on another and parallel level we hear the argument of the emotions. The logical structure of a poem is usually animated by a current of feeling that runs through it, unlike the logical structure of a merely intellectual form of writing.

As a final example, consider the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins's argument in "The Habit of Perfection," which praises asceticism:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat pon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tusty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that comes in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured at nor spun.

("golden street"-aisle leading to the alter "unhouse and house"-take the consecrated Host from the tabernacle and return it)

Hopkins' theme is that denying the senses can yield deeper, spiritual satisfactions. In each stanza, he addresses one of the senses, telling it what it must do without and what it will gain: music, speech, visual delights, taste, smells, touch. The seventh and final stanza sums up the renunciations in the metaphor of the ascetic's marriage to the bride of Poverty, suggesting, as well, yet another renunciation and its compensation. While readers enjoy the tightly knit structure of such a poem, however, they should also appreciate the fluidity of structure, its ability to surprise even as it satisfies expectation. In Robert Frost's excellent image, "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting."

Readers should also notice that plot, syntax, and argument, as well as devices like repetition, antithesis, reminiscences of familiar parallel works, and many other features work together to give a poem its structure. However spontaneous, a poem should never be mistaken for a a shapeless effusion or random outburst. All lasting poetry has structure of some sort that is related to its meaning, not just its sound.

Exercise for thought: which of the following is really Hilda Conkling's poem "Water"?

The world turns softly                                             Water pours silver
Not to spill its lakes and rivers.                                And can hold the sky.
The water is held in its arms,                                    The world turns softly
And the sky is held in the water.                               In order to avoid spilling
What is water,                                                         Its lakes and rivers. .
That pours silver                                                      It holds the water in its arms;
And can hold the sky?                                             The water holds the sky.
Assume that the poet wanted to suggest awe as well as tenderness and to make every word count.


Tone ordinarily refers to all the ways in which a voice may enrich or modify the meanings of spoken words.  We are all familiar with the great variety of tones possible in speech.  We may be put off by a note of condescension, or whining, or aggressiveness.  We can be comforted by tones that are sympathetic or soothing.  We find ourselves persuaded not only by cogent reasons, but by the sounds of patient reasoning.  We often sense that a person is saying something quite different from what his words convey: his words may be calm, but his voice agitated; or his words may  be pleasant, while his entire manner speaks of impatience or dislike.  Words of praise are easily turned into words of scorn by a touch of irony in the voice.

The voices of poetry, however, must contrive to produce in print all those effects that a speaker, face-to-face with his audience, creates by tone, gesture, and stance.  TONE in poetry comprises the attitudes of the poet toward his subject and toward his audience, as they can be inferred from the poem.  These attitudes need not always be separately distinguishable in a poem, but the sensitive reader is ready to respond to them as they present themselves.  What clues will the reader have to these attitudes?  Tone shows itself most often in diction, but also appears in images, cadences, rhythms, or any other events in the poem.

To judge fairly about tone, we must consider a poem as a whole.  The effects of the parts must be understood in relation to each other.  Nevertheless, individual lines may set up strong vibrations of tone.  Our comments on the following brief excerpts from poems are not meant to apply to the entire poems from which they come.  They are intended merely as preliminary illustrations of how tone works:

    I met a traveler from an antique land. (Shelley, "Ozymandias").

This line immediately generates a story-telling atmosphere, just as it is with the phrase, "Once upon a time."  An audience is clearly implied.

    His Grace! impossible! what, dead!
    Of old age, too, and in his bed! (Swift, "A Satirical Elegy")

The first three exclamations in this example might be said in sympathy, too; but the next phrases signal malice and give the earlier exclamations a tone of spiteful gusto.

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. (Yeats, "The Second Coming"

The tone is powerfully ominous, and the poet takes the stance of a prophet of doom.

    I envy the tendrils, their eyeless seeking (Roethke, "The Abyss").

The tone is delicate, intimate, as a of a person telling his inmost feelings.

    Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind. (Crane, "War Is Kind").

The poet is not addressing an actual maiden.  If he were, he would not use this manner of speech.  He uses the form of direct address to make the line sound theatrical and underscore its heavy irony.

    You'll love me yet--and I can tarry. (Browning, "Pippa Passes")

Direct address is convincing here in its sprightly cadence.  The tone is cheerful and energetic.

    Quintana lay in the shallow grave of coral.  The guns boomed stupidly, fifty yards away. (Shapiro, "The Bourgeois Poet")

In the first sentece the poet is absent.  We think only of the scene.  In the second, the word "stupidly" makes us aware of the voice of the author and implies the attitude of anger at the situation.  But the anger sounds genuine, not theatrical or forced.


In a sense, every poet is a dramatist.  He chooses a voice or voices for his particular poem and imagines either very definitely or vaguely some kind of audience for the voices.  In a dramatic monologue, we hear the voice of an imaginary person.  The tone of the poem will, in the first place, be the tone of this imagined speaker. But behind this speaker, we sense his creator, the poet, and the poet's intentions in creating this character.

In a poem of direct address, the poet speaks to another--whether it be lover, friend, enemy, hero, or some personified object or abstraction. The speaker's audience is the person addressed in the poem. But the poet is aware also of the eavesdroppers-the listeners and readers-whose feelings he hopes to grip and sway. It has been said that while sermons and speeches (and the equivalent written works) are "heard," poems are overheard.

Most often, the poet will speak in his own voice, apparently to himself--or to no one in particular. Tone, in this type of poem, will be mainly a reflection of the poet's inner state. But there is really no predicting how the poet will choose to project his voice. In Louise Bogan's "Several Voices Out of a Cloud," it is really the author's voice that is coming out of the cloud. In Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses," ostensibly a dramatic monologue in which Ulysses addresses his crew before setting out on a last voyage, a facet of Tennyson's own outlook is being expressed through the words of Ulysses. In Edwin Muir's "The Way" the two voices echo a dialogue that the poet may have heard within himself--or imagined as an inner struggle in all men:

Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It's lost and gone.
The voice of bewilderment, illusion, nostalgia, frailty, fear of the future is answered by the relentless voice of reality. The tone of the poem combines an attitude of stoical wisdom with a feeling of compassion for human weakness. The stark structure of the poem, the spare language, the hammer-stress of the refrain with the dry harsh rhymes contribute importantly to the tone. Despite the absence of a plot and distinct characters, this meditative poem shares one quality with drama: we are not aware of the author's speaking at all; the two voices in the poem completely absorb our attention.

W. H. Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen" has the subtitle "To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State," which implies that the poem is spoken by an official spokesman. This is confirmed by such references as "Our report . . . shows," "Our researchers . . . are content" and finally, "Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." Clearly the poet is hiding behind the mask of a functionary of this best of all possible states. Auden is mocking the statesman and the regimented society for which he speaks. The tone which the poet thus sustains is one of biting irony.

A powerful and complex tone can issue from a few words in a brief poem, as we see in the following lines of Emily Dickinson:

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown--
Who ponders this tremendous scene--
This whole Experiment of Green--
As if it were his own!
"Madness in the Spring" sounds a note of ecstasy, of losing oneself in an overwhelming experience of a "tremendous scene." "Green" is an expected word in a poem about spring, and at first glance, even the word "Experiment" may be taken simply as a reference to the newness and tentativeness of the first green of the season. We are aware, however, of something uneasily vibrant in that word "Experiment"--an odd one for a familiar fact of nature (the green of spring), and an odd intrusion of science into a realm traditionally sacred to the feelings.

We know from the author's rough draft of the poem that she worked over the fifth line, considering a number of alternatives. First she wrote "This sudden legacy of Green." A later version was "This fair Apocalypse of Green." She struck out the nouns "legacy" and "Apocalypse" and weighed other possibilities: "Experience," "Astonishment," and "Periphery." Finally, she chose "Experiment." The rejected word "legacy" speaks of something certain, something tangible one has inherited and has in one's possession. "Apocalypse" likewise has a sense of certainty residing in a revelation of God's ultimate purpose. There is no certainty in an experiment: who can tell how it will come out? So the poet's final choice sounds a strong note of doubt. Is this great self-renewing, burgeoning world meant for us? Is our joy in it something intended by the creator, or is all of creation an experiment, with, implicitly, an unknown outcome? Are we the "kings" of this world? For anyone to think of this world of beauty "As if it were his own"--this is a madness. Now, a little bit of such madness is "wholesome" (Why not let the poor fool enjoy himself briefly? It will do him good.) But God be with him if he really lets himself go in an abandon of springtime gladness and imagines himself to be the center of creation. The King will then be exposed as the Clown.

The tone of this poem is both exhilarated and ironical. A fuller description of the tone might state that it expresses an impulse to joy that is curbed and made wary by a skeptical mind. In any case, it should be clear that stating the tone of a poem requires us to come to close grips with it, and as we fully appreciate the poem, describing its tone will require more than a single-word label. At the very least, a commentary on tone should not be content with an identification of the thesis  or subject (a love poem, a happy poem about spring) but should include an analysis of the author's attitude toward his subject--what he wants us to understand, intellectually and especially emotionally, about it.

For an interesting contrast in tone, on a closely related theme, these lines from Whitman's Song of Myself, 20, will serve:

I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what their writing means.
Whitman does not hesitate to claim that he is at the center of the universe, with all objects and messages "converging" on him. His tone could be called one of rugged confidence; Dickinson's, by contrast, is one of philosophical mjodesty. His words carry the gusto of a public audience. Dickinson is more complex: under her modesty there is greater tension (between hope and disappointment) than we find in Whitman's passage.

In listening for the tone of a poem, the reader is making the most direct contact with the person who made the poem. However much we may come to understand the ideas and appreciate the art of a poem, we readers will still be missing a most vital personal dimension of the poem if we cannot hear the tone of the poem, like a voice in our minds.