Tone--from Many Worlds of Poetry, by Drachler and Terris

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.