Analyzing a poem may seem like a tough task at first. But if you know how to analyze a poem properly, you’ll start loving new poems. Here, we will be introducing a step by step guide to analyze a poem. Also, we have presented you an example to show how to analyze a poem.
How to Analyze a Poem
Step 1: Read the Poem and Take Notes
The first step in analyzing a poem is reading. Read the poem at least twice. As you read, jot down your first impressions, reactions, memories, personal experiences tied to it.
Step 2: Identify the Title Hints of the Poem
You should also look at the title of the poem. It can give you a clue about the poem. You can think along these questions: What are the connotations associated with the title? What do you imagine the poem to be about when you first read the title? Does the title reflect the content of the poem? Remember if the literal meaning of the poem is not at all related to the title, we can guess that the title hints at the hidden meaning of the poem.
Step 3: Find the Literal Meaning
Now try to find the literal meaning of the poem. If there are words you don’t understand, use a dictionary. If there are unfamiliar names or concepts mentioned, search them in an encyclopedia. As you try to find the literal meaning of the poem, you can also pay attention to the diction of the poet. Are there any repetitive words? What are the most striking words? What words do you find interesting? Are there any unusual words – words that don’t fit into this context?
Step 4: Identify the Narrator, Characters and the Setting of the Poem
In analyzing a poem, it is vital to identify the narrator, the characters, and the setting. Remember that the narrator of the poem is not always the poet. For example, in Alan Brownjohn’s ‘Parrot’, the narrator is a parrot; in Mathew Arnold’s The Forsaken Merman, the narrator is a merman.
Step 5: Look at the Structure of the Poem
Look at the form of the poem; what form does the poem take? Is it an ode, elegy, sonnet, narrative poem, or is it free verse? How are the stanzas arranged? How are the ideas arranged in the poem? What does each stanza discuss? Is there a link between the stanzas?
Step 6: Make a Summary
Now try to make a summary of the poem. If you like, you can write down a brief paraphrase of the poem. This summary will reflect the surface meaning of the poem.
Step 7: Identify the Literary Devices Used in the Poem
Try to identify the literary devices used by the writer. What are the images and symbols used by the poet? How has the poet used imagery and symbols? Does he use other literary devices such as paradox, hyperbole, antithesis, etc.?
Step 7: Identify the Theme of the Poem
When you analyze all the above said features in a poem, you can ask yourself the question what is the main intention of the poem? What does he want to convey through the poem? This is the theme of the poem. You can also ask how he has conveyed the theme of the poem? What techniques has he used to bring out the theme?
You will be able to understand how to analyze a poem by looking at the following sample analysis.
Example Showing How to Analyze a Poem
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
First, let’s look at the title of the poem ‘London’. Blake simply uses the name of a town. So what’s the importance of this title? Nowhere in the content of the poem we see the location of this place, it is only the title that says the poem is about London.
What are the thoughts and ideas that you get when you hear the title London? What do you expect the poem to be about? Keeping these thoughts in mind, let’s look at the poem.
The following section looks at the summary of the poem stanza by stanza.
The narrator is walking through the streets of London. Everywhere he turns, he sees the downtrodden faces of the poor. They look tired, weak, unhappy, and defeated.
The narrator hears the people’s voice everywhere. The voices are full of fear and repression. The people and their minds are restrained or “manacled”.
The narrator reflects on and emphasizes the chimney sweepers and soldiers. The mournful cry of the chimney-sweeper acts as a chastisement to the Church. The blood of soldiers stains the outer walls of the noble’s palaces.
In the last stanza, the narrator talks about the nighttime. He talks of the prostitution and the consequences of prostitution on both prostitutes and customers.
Now you can ask questions like this:
What are the literary devices used in this poem ?
(Repetition, imagery, paradox, alliteration)
What is the structure of the poem?
(Four quatrains with alternate lines rhyming.)
What are the striking words in the poem?
(manacles, weak, woe, blood, sigh, cry, curse, charter’d)
What is the writer trying to convey through the poem?
(the oppression, confinement exploitation, suffering,)
You can combine all these facts and points to do an analysis of the poem. In the analysis, you can look at how has the language, structure and literary devices contributed to the poem
The poem begins on the streets of London. From the beginning itself, the poem conveys a gloomy, oppressive atmosphere. Note the repetition of certain words like marks, charter’d. Charter’d here can refer to ‘controlled’, ‘commericalized’, ‘mapped out’, etc. Charter’d Thames and charater’d streets refer to oppression and subjugation of people. And marks emphasize the fact that everyone is marked by woe and weakness.
The poet uses repetition again to drive home the fact that people are physically and mentally confined and oppressed. Blake also uses the interesting metaphorical expression ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ to refer to the extent of this oppression. People have no freedom to think or imagine. He also subtly brings in the word ‘ban’ to emphasize the suppression of people.
In this stanza, the narrator criticizes the religion and the nobles for exploiting the poor. Chimney sweepers and soldiers can be a representation of the poor, exploited class whereas church and palace walls represent the nobility and religion. Furthermore, the hypocrisy of the church and the indifference of the nobility are also highlighted in this section.
In the last stanza, the speaker reflects on how the young prostitutes’ curse–referring to both profanity and her child out of wedlock–their children. Also, the oxymoron of marriage hearse implies the destruction of marriage. Here, men are using prostitutes and then possibly spreading diseases to their wives and newborn children of wives and prostitutes. It becomes a never ending cycle of vice.