Elements of Poetry: Meter, Rhyme, Symbol, Metaphor, and Theme
Louis Édouard Fournier: “The Funeral of Shelley” (1889)
To be able to identify and analyze the form and rhyme scheme of these poems
To be able to identify and analyze the use and purpose of literary devices in the poems
To be able to perform a close reading of the poems
What is a Close Reading?
For a detailed, “How to” guide for performing a close reading of a poem, I’d like you to consult the “Close Readings and Literary Devices” hand out attached to this week’s files.
To perform a close reading of a poem means to systematically read the text line by line and to pay close attention to the use of literary elements in the text. Before you try to determine a message or meaning of the poem, instead look at the smaller elements of the text that jump out at you.
After your first reading of the poem:
– Think about what stuck out about the poem. Jot down certain words or images that stood out to you.
– What is the “mood” of the poem? What effect did it initially have on you? Describe it in your own words.
– What didn’t make sense to you or seemed mysterious and unresolved about the poem? Sometimes, these mysteries can be solved through repeated reading and examination of literary devices. Other times, these mysteries are purposefully left open-ended. Investigating the mysterious elements of the poem often leads to a good essay topic.
Read the poem multiple times. Read it out loud. I sometimes read it in different voices and imagine how the type of person with that voice may view the poem. Let the poem sink in over time. Read the poems well in advance of the due date for your assignments, let your unconscious mind work over their mysteries as you go about your day, and then return to the poems later as the deadline for your assignment approaches. Chances are, you will be able to notice new features of the poem once you revisit them after a period of time. Great poems reveal something new every time you read them. That’s why poems from hundreds of years ago are included in this anthology. Subsequent generations keep finding new ideas and messages hidden in their images and language.
Once you have revisited the poem, consult my handout. In this handout, you will systematically scour the poem for the following:
– Content (Who is the speaker? How does he speak? What is the tone?)
– Language (What kind of words are chosen? What do these words signify?)
– Imagery (What kinds of sensory matters are evoked? Symbols? Metaphors?
– Form (What is the structure of the poem? Rhyme scheme? Stressed symbols?)
– Syntax (How do the lines flow? How does the poem use verbs, adjectives?)
After you have considered these elements of the poem, chances are you will notice how they are interrelated. A poet will use all of these elements to enhance one another. The content, language, imagery, form, and syntax will often match one another in a certain to drive a certain message, present an argument, or simply depict a slice of life as they view the world.
Your task as the analyst is to identify how the poet uses these literary elements to support this message, argument, slice of life, or whatever you think the point of the poem to be. Do not get hung up on “solving” the poem. Sometimes a landscape is simply and landscape. Yet in analyzing how the poet uses these literary devices, we can gain a sense of how they feel and what they think about their landscape. Then, you can evaluate whether or not you share this sentiment. Poems are not usually riddles with a definite answer. You do not have to always wrap up the “bigger picture” of the poem. Instead, feel free to work on any element of the poem that strikes you, inspires you, worries you, or simply grabs your attention.
Poetic and Literary Devices
For the full list of poetic and literary devices, please consult this week’s handout. The list is fairly extensive and I will go back to it frequently over the course of the semester. For this week, I want to focus on the following:
A fixed form consisting of fourteen lines of 5-foot iambic verse at times following a strict rhyme scheme. The conventions associated with the sonnet have changed during its history.
A measure of rhythmic quantity in poetry. The organized succession of groups of syllables at basically regular intervals in a line of poetry, according to definite metrical patterns. The unit of meter is the foot.
The pattern established by the arrangement of rhymes in a stanza or poem, generally described by using letters of the alphabet to denote the recurrence of rhyming lines.
This week, we will be looking at the classic Shakespearian sonnet, written most famously by Shakespeare (shocking information, I’m sure). Shakespeare’s sonnets contain the following rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
These sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, meaning there are five feet, ten syllables in every line and that every other syllable is stressed. For example, in Sonnet 18:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
It’s this consistent rhyme scheme and rhythm of stressed syllables that gives the Shakespearean sonnet its lyrical quality.
A symbol is a graphical, written, vocal or physical object, which represents another, usually more complex, physical or abstract object, or an object property.
Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is essentially a poem about the symbolism of this now broken statue of the Egyptian pharaoh. As you read about the poem, think about what Shelley may have seen symbolized in this once great and powerful ruler now reduced to a broken relic and a historical footnote of the ancient past.
A rhetorical trope defined as a direct comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects. This device is known for usage in literature, especially in poetry, where with few words, emotions and associations from one context are associated with objects and entities in a different context.
Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” is an example of an extended metaphor. Here, the metaphor is the Summer’s Day, and the comparison is made to a woman. By describing the nature of summer and comparing it to the woman, we gain new insight on her physical attractiveness, her personality, and Shakespeare’s own feelings for her.
The central idea, topic, or didactic quality of a work.
The central theme in Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is time and urgency. In essence, why wait another moment to express our love when we only have so much time left on this planet? The theme of the short nature of life is used to bring a new perspective to the nature of love.
(Adapted from the Undergraduate Writing Center, The University of Texas at Austin)
Tips for Reading Shakespeare
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare. (Shakespeare Online)
Pay attention to how specific words appear within the structure of his sonnets. Which words does he choose to rhyme? Are they related to one another or contrasting? Which words appear as stressed syllables? Do they have any particular connotations? Rhymed words and stressed syllables will always stick out more to the reader and especially to the listener of the poem (which for Shakespeare was most of his audience). Thus, Shakespeare may have chosen certain words on purpose to drive the central purpose of the poem
Highlight the final rhymed couplet in each sonnet. Often, this rhymed couplet provides a summary of Shakespeare’s point or provides a new perspective or consideration for the point he made in the previous 12 lines. How does Shakespeare use a shift in his tone or reframe the imagery and metaphors he used in this rhymed couplet to stress a new consideration of the topic of his sonnet?
Both Sonnet 18 and 130 describe women. Pay attention to the words he uses to describe them, including adjectives, imagery, metaphors, and things that he compares these women to. What kind of a picture does he paint of these women and how does it indicate his feelings for them?
All three poems build their messages with themes of aging, death, and decay. Which objects or images does Shakespeare attach to these allusions? What might he be saying about the subjects of his poems if he is constantly bringing up aging, death, and decay?
Tips for Reading Andrew Marvell “To His Coy Mistress”
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was a British poet and politician, often characterized as a “metaphysical poet”. Metaphysical poets were known for using conceits (an extended metaphor that evolves of the course of the poem) to explore ideas about spirituality, love, and nature among other themes.
As you read the poem, look for extended metaphors that respond to his mistress’s coy personality. What does it mean to be coy and how does Marvell respond to it?
This poem is known as a “carpe diem” poem, meaning “seize the day” or as an equally famous lyricist of the 21st century has put it “YOLO”. Think about what it means to seize the day and what this has to do with the mistress’ coyness.
As with Shakespeare before, pay close attention to the words that Marvell chooses to rhyme along with the stressed and unstressed syllables of the poem. Think about how Marvell’s form compares to and contrasts with Shakespeare’s and how these differences contribute to how they present their similar themes of love for a woman and the question of time, age, and decay.
Tips for Reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was known as one of the great British romantic poets. Romanticism was a movement in art and literature that rebelled against the Enlightenment’s ideals of reason and logic and instead stressed intense human emotion and personal feeling. Shelley became an iconic figure of Romanticism after his tragic death at age 29. The Poetry Foundation’s research on Shelley argues that his life and works are synonymous with the Romantic Movement:
“The life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley exemplify Romanticism in both its extremes of joyous ecstasy and brooding despair. The major themes are there in Shelley’s dramatic if short life and in his works, enigmatic, inspiring, and lasting: the restlessness and brooding, the rebellion against authority, the interchange with nature, the power of the visionary imagination and of poetry, the pursuit of ideal love, and the untamed spirit ever in search of freedom–all of these Shelley exemplified in the way he lived his life and live on in the substantial body of work that he left the world after his legendary death by drowning at age twenty-nine.” (Poetry Foundation)
As you read Ozymandias, think about the ideals and features of Romanticism. Which romantic themes, imagery, and ideals can you locate in his poetry?
As illustrated earlier in the section about symbolism, we can consider the broken symbol of the long dead pharaoh as symbolism. Symbolism as a literary element uses an object or image to stand in for more abstract concepts, ideas, values, emotions, and any other phenomena that are real, but not tangible. What might Shelley be using Ozymandias to symbolize?
Ozymandias has had a huge influence on modern culture. Here’s a clip from a promotion for the TV show Breaking Bad in which the lead character, Walter White, recites the poem over scenery from the show’s location in New Mexico. If you are a fan of the show, think about the central themes of the poem and consider what parallels the story of Ozymandias has with Walter White and Breaking Bad.