The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Poetry Analysis

Here are some notes I once made on analysing poetry :open_mouth: -

Poetry Analysis: Questions

Here is a detailed list of questions. Of course, they are by no means exhaustive and only some will be relevant to each particular poem you study. Indeed, they will not all be intelligible to you at first. However, the more poetry you read, the more they will come into focus. I hope they will assist you in devising your own questions to bring to ‘the act of interpretation.’

General Comments on Form/Content

What is the shape of the poem?

i) Does it sub-divide clearly into stanzas? How many?
If it does not, is there any other organizing factor (for example, a repeated pattern in the grouping of lines)?

ii) Is there a regular rhyme scheme?
If not, does rhyming occur at all?

iii) Do the lines make a regular pattern on the page?

What is the poem about/what is it doing?

i) Does it……
Tell a story in chronological sequence?
Suggest a story, leaving us to unravel the narrative implications?
Attempt to capture a moment in time – to make the transient permanent?
Explore an emotion?
Evoke a mood?
Convey a sense of a mind turning on itself?
Set out an argument?
State a ‘truth’ about the human condition?

ii) Does it do any combination of the above, or something completely different?

What is the tone?

i) Is this serious, ironic, humorous? How do you know which?

ii) Does the title have a straightforward or ironic relationship to the content?
Is this relationship sprung as a surprise?

Is there a clear relationship/contrast between form and content?

For example…

i) It may express strong emotion in disciplined, tightly structured form.

ii) The form may be one of rational argument: the content non-rational emotion.

iii) The form may be traditional but the content may jar with this, intentionally subverting our expectations.

Does anything else immediately strike/startle you about the poem?

Detailed Analysis

i) Does the poem unfold one stage at a time like a journey from ‘A’ to ‘B’?
If so, a stanza by stanza analysis may be appropriate.

iii) Or is it more useful to look upon it in terms of contrasting images and themes in different groups of stanzas?
If so, a ‘compare and contrast’ analysis may be appropriate. (N.B. There is no need to comment on everything – only what you consider to be the most important details).

Patterning of Meaning

i) Does each stanza indicate a stage in the development of meaning?
Is this development clear, obscure or elliptical?

ii) Is there any contrast between the content and meaning of different groups of stanzas?

iii) Do sentences run over from one stanza to another?
If so, does this forge a close link between the ideas expressed in these?

iv) Is there some form of punchline?
If so, does this summarize what has gone before, or add a new and surprising slant?

Patterning of Sound

Do any of the following reflect or highlight changes in mood and/or meaning?

i) How would you describe the rhythm: ‘vigorous’, ‘lilting’, ‘unobtrusive’?

ii) Does the rhythm change dramatically or break up?

iii) Does punctuation affect rhythm (i.e. caesura, end stopped lines, enjambement)?

iv) Are any phrases repeated? If so, do these become modified when repeated?
v) Is the rhythm ever enhanced by patterns of repeated consonant sounds (alliteration) or vowel sounds (assonance)?

vi) Does the rhyme scheme change?

Speaker and Audience

i) Who is speaking – the persona of the poet, or a dramatic character?
Is there any dialogue?

ii) Who is being addressed – the reader, a specific individual?
Or is it something non-human or an abstract quality that is being addressed as if it were a person?

iii) Do any of the above change?

iv) Is the audience ever addressed as ‘We’?
If so, this assumes you agree with what the poet is saying. Do you?

Time and Tense

i) Do the stanzas indicate change through time?

ii) Is there any sense of a shift from narration of past experience to reflection on this in the present?
Is this indicated by changes in tense?

iii) Alternatively, are there any ‘flashbacks’; shifts from present to past and back again?

Word and Images

i) Is the language elevated/poetic or ‘down to earth’?
Is it clear or obscure?

ii) If archaic language is used, is this simply because the poem is old, or is the poet consciously trying to create a sense of the past?

iii) Is there a juxtaposition of different types of language?
If so, to what effect?

iv) How does the language differ from everyday usage?
Are there any inversions or contractions of standard sentence structure?
Are there any invented words, puns or double meanings?

v) Is there any imagery?

vi) What is the relationship between image and meaning?
vii) Is there any sense that the images give objective physical form to the subjective mood/emotion/mental state of the poem’s persona?

viii) Is there any relationship between the different images?

ix) Does the juxtaposition of images suggest a complexity of experience which defies logic?
(Perhaps things which according to common sense are diametrically opposed are discovered to be somehow complementary).

x) Do language and image suggest more than one level of meaning?

xi) Do language and image refer us to the Bible, other Literature, Classical Mythology etc…?
It does not matter if you cannot ‘pin down’ the reference. It is enough to know that the reference has been made.


i) In a good poem every word will be essential for its contribution to the whole. Is this true of the poem you have been studying?

ii) Has engaging with this poem made you look at some element of human experience in a new way?

Poetic Devices

1 Rhythm

Poetry has its roots in song and ritual,

There are four standard metres in English poetics, each with its own pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. ( Note that: a stressed syllable is marked ‘/’; an unstressed syllable is marked ‘u’; and each unit of a rhythmic pattern is known as a ‘foot’).

i) The Iambic Metre A iambic foot is made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. For example:
u / u / u / u / u /
‘‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’’ ( 10 syllables, 5 iambic feet = aiambic pentametre).

ii) The Trochaic Metre A trochaic foot is made up of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. For example:
/ u / u / u / u
‘‘On the day of the explosion’’

iii) The Dactylic Metre A dactylic foot is made up of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. For example:
/ u u / u u / u u / u u
‘‘Pelicans frequently suffer from bellyache’’

iv) The Anapestic Metre An anapaestic foot is made up of two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. For example:
u u / u u / u u / u u /
‘‘Setting spurs to my horse then I rode off with speed’’

Whatever the technical terms of metre, I think it is easy to see that examples I) and ii) are more measured while iii) and iv) are more vigorous. It is more important to describe the rhythm’s effect on you than to define the metre. Indeed the metre only acts as a framework on which the words of the poem are hung. The words have their own rhythm. Many modern poems do not have a clearly defined metre, but the odd line may have one which makes it stand out.

Two other devices effecting rhythm are;

i) Alliteration - patterns of closely connected consonant sounds
e.g. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper.”

ii) Assonance – patterns of closely connected vowel sounds often found in conjunction with alliteration.
e.g. “In its wake no waters breed or brake”.
Assonance at the end of lines is sometimes used by poets instead of rhyme.

The effect of these devices depends on the context and the kind of sound that is repeated. Interpret from your intuitive response rather than rule of thumb.

1 Imagery

Another root of poetry is the primordial human urge to give shape to our intangible inner world of thought and feeling through correlating this with the outer physical world by means of analogy. This is done through the use of imagery.

An image is a representation of an object or event which can be perceived by the senses. However the effect of image making on the reader is complex, taking in the sensual, emotional and intellectual all at once.

Types of imagery are

i) Description = Image without comparison
e.g. ‘The Oak swayed in the wind’.

ii) Simile = Comparison of two objects essentially unalike but resembling each other in one aspect
e.g. ‘The Oak swayed in the wind like a ‘Galleon’
(Most similes are introduced by ‘as’ or ‘like’).

iii) Metaphor = Implied comparison which imaginatively identifies one object with another
e.g. ‘The Oak was a Galleon in the wind’.

iv) Symbol = An image which evokes, through accumulated associations, one or many other levels of meaning. The associations may be evoked through the image’s repetition in cultural tradition, or by individual writers repeating an image (which they have created themselves). An example of the former is the Tree of Knowledge; this symbolizes Wisdom, Shame, Death, Life etc… An example of the latter is Blake’s use of the ‘Tyger’ to represent revolutionary energy (among other things).

2 Paradox

Symbols and indeed poems often seem to defy logic. Perhaps this is because our deepest experiences often defy rational categories. Some useful terms here are –

Paradox - The perception that two things that seemed contradictory are in fact the two sides of the same coin –
e.g. ‘Death and Life are One’.

Ambivalence - The co-existence of seemingly contradictory feelings
e.g. loving and hating someone at the same time.

Oxymoron - The conjunction of contradictory adjectives to express paradox –
e.g. “terribly good”, “grimly gay”.

Ambiguous - Of uncertain or unclear meaning. Not to be confused with ‘ambivalent’

3 Anthropomorphic Imagination

To give form to subjective feelings, the poet projects them onto the physical/external world, and therefore often makes sense of these by talking about the external world as if it were human. Useful words here are –

i) Anthropomorphic - A blanket term to describe any attempt to speak of the non-
human in human terms.

ii) Personification - Addressing something non-human –
an abstract concept or quality, a place etc… - as if it was human.
e.g. holding a conversation with ‘Virtue’ or ‘Love’.

iii) Pathetic Fallacy - Writing specifically about nature as if it had human qualities
e.g. “When the green woods laugh with their voice of joy”.

Wow, thanks for posting this, Dick. I’m copying it as a word document so I can always find it. :smiley:

I’m really glad you find it useful Cindy :smiley:

I do like that Analysis know it will help to to write poetry

Thanks Mirzasam -

Some people have an intuitive feel for how to use language musically, and they don’t need to reflect too much on poetic devices to write poetry. But for others a bit of understanding of how poetry works can make them more confident when composing their own poems.

All the best


i should properly study this.
my band uses a very “free-form” style of lyric writing, which takes a very iterative approach to cramming lyrics into various passages (we use odd time signatures very often), so we don’t always pay attention to the forms that are used most often. It may be however that we could benefit in conveying ideas and even being artistic taking this sort of thing on board. i’m sure the various metres could be cobbled together to make odd metred passages that work with the music. it is a totally different approach, but it’s always beneficial to take note of other approaches and use them as we see fit.
though metal does like to eschew forms and do its own thing quite often, too…both approaches have their use :slight_smile:

I shall look forward to seeing your experiments my friend :smiley:

Spoken English - both UK and US - most often approximates to the five feet iambic line ''I went to see a man the other day. He told me that I needed to lose weight. And when I asked him for a piece of cake he told me, ‘no you cannot have a slice’ ‘’ That’s four iambic pentameter lines strung together.

But there is room for variation to stop the monotony

‘And I said that I should perhaps try out a diet’ (two dactylic feet plus three iambic feet)

‘What do you mean?’ he said laughing aloud in glee’ (four anapaestic feet)

‘I’m not one to watch my waistline!’ (four trochees plus one extra stress)

And that’s one way to get a sense of how words have a pattern of musical stresses - or at least can have such a pattern.

Once i learn those i’ll never speak normally again :laughing:

Yeah it has that effect at first. BTW not one of the examples in the link is actually an iambic pentameter

I needs must think that this is slightly wrong
So now I’ll go and sing a jolly song

in the mouse-over text he says making it a “strict form of the metre” would be quite hard…but you’re right. the first is close if you ignore the “well” but the 2nd is stretching it rather far i feel.

but from the “explan xkcd” site (which it needs, as it gets quite mathematical and scientific at times) they explain it thusly:

"They read (adding the emphasis): “Well, I can meet the plane at ten of six” and “I’ll meet him at the stairs before the gate”, with a sort of bouncing rhythm. Shakespeare was one of the most famed users of iambic pentameter in his plays.

This is the “strict form” of iambic pentameter. In practice, poets often strayed from the strict count of iambs as the image text suggests. Wikipedia offers two Shakespearian examples being “Now is the winter of our discontent” in which the first iamb is reversed (“Now” is stressed rather than “is”), and “To be or not to be, that is the question” which adds an extra unstressed syllable at the end. As the comic suggests, without such exceptions, it can be very difficult to stick to strict iambic pentameter for every sentence. "

edited to include the emphasis

Wow :smiley: - yes that’s true you can use inversions, additional stresses and substituted feet from other metres. It’s flexible - so the examples approximated to iambic pentameter.

As of 'Now if the winter of our discontent form Richard III - I once saw a sign in a men’s clothes shops for the January sales which read


Here’s a handy little outline for understanding the form of the Psalms and other Jewish poetry: from


                Characteristics Of Hebrew Poetry


  1. Before we get into the background of the Psalms themselves, it may
    prove helpful to notice some things about Hebrew poetry

  2. Not only does this help to better understand the nature of the
    Psalms, but can also assist in proper interpretation of this portion
    of Scripture

[One of the things that makes Hebrew poetry different is…]


1. Involves arranging thoughts in relation to each other
2. This is done without a concern as to whether certain words
rhyme with each other (as found in most modern poetry)

1. Synonymous parallelism
a. The thought of the first line is repeated in the second,
expressed in different words for emphasis
b. A good example is found in Ps 24:2
1) “For He has founded it upon the seas” (first line)
2) “And established it upon the waters” (second line)
2. Antithetic parallelism
a. The truth presented in one line is strengthened by a
contrasting statement in the other
b. An example is Ps 1:6
1) “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous” (truth)
2) “But the way of the ungodly shall perish” (contrast)
3. Synthetic parallelism
a. The first and second lines bear some definite relation to
each other (such as cause and effect, or proposition and
b. A good example is Ps 119:11
1) “Your word I have hidden in my heart,” (cause)
2) “That I might not sin against You.” (effect)
4. Progressive parallelism - there are several varieties, the
most common being:
a. Stairlike
1) Composed of several lines, each providing a complete
element of the aggregate or composite thought
2) Notice Ps 1:1, “Blessed is the man…”
a) “Who WALKS not in the counsel of the ungodly”
b) “Nor STANDS in the path of the sinners”
c) “Nor SITS in the seat of the scornful”
b. Climatic
1) The principal idea in the first line is repeated and
expanded to complete the thought
2) An example is found in Ps 29:1
a) “Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones” (give what?)
b) “Give unto the LORD glory and strength”
5. Introverted parallelism
a. The first line is closely related in thought to the fourth,
and the second to the third
b. For example, consider Ps 91:14
1) “Because he has set his love upon Me,” (cf. line 4)
2) “therefore I will deliver him;” (cf. line 3)
3) “I will set him on high,” (cf. line 2)
4) “because he has known My name.” (cf. line 1)


1. That has standard measures of identifiable rhythms
2. As illustrated in the rhythm of “Mary Had A Little Lamb”

1. It is not likely that the Hebrew poets had standard measures,
worked out and carefully defined
2. Again, the emphasis was on “THOUGHT RHYME”


1. For example, calling the Lord a “shepherd” - Ps 23:1
2. He is LIKE a shepherd, but not one literally

1. For example, “the valley of the shadow of death” - Ps 23:4
2. Commonly applied at modern funerals to dying…
a. It refers to a treacherous place where the guiding hand of a
“shepherd” would be very helpful to “sheep” to AVOID death
b. It is therefore applicable to times other than just when we
are dying


  1. Appreciating these characteristics of Hebrew poetry can help the
    Psalms become more meaningful to us

  2. Understanding these characteristics can also help avoid misinter-
    preting the Psalms to teach doctrines the psalmist had no intention
    of teaching!
    << Previous | Index | Next >>ere’s a short little guide to Jewish poetry, as in the Psalms. From

This is great, Dave! We should do a thread on Psalms like we’ve doing on art. I think that would be spectacular.

That’s worth thinking about!

The form of poetry I write is called free verse. I don’t follow a set pattern laid down for me. I write from my heart and let the form and pattern take it’s own shape. I’m not in to analyzing poetry. But some are. To each his own!

Dave et al, I’m going to start a thread for poetry analysis of the Psalms. I think I’ll just copy-paste your post on how-to stuff over there, then you or anyone else who has ideas (such as [tag]Sobornost[/tag]) can add pointers as we find them. I’ll start with Ps 1, and I’ll put a link here when I get one.

Okay, here it is: “Psychoanalyzing” the Psalms.