4.3 How to Analyze Emotion in Poetry
Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. Even for a poet as intellectual as Robert Frost, poetry, at its base, is emotion. He also said, ‘Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.’ In other words, emotion is the basis of poetry and the deep hidden insights that your teachers desire from you – those are the end products. In this lesson, rather than jumping to the profound meanings in poetry, I’m going to show you how to get in touch with the emotions and thus get to the origins of poems.
Choosing the Right Words
Poets might begin with emotion, but how does that inspirational feeling show up in their poems? The main sources of emotion are word choice, sound choice, imagery, and the way all those combine to create mood. A poet’s first line of attack is diction, or word choice. Words carry two types of meaning, denotation, which is the literal definition of words, and connotation, which is the understood layer of cultural or emotional meaning.
The words ‘childish’ and ‘childlike’ carry the same denotation. They both mean that the person is acting like a child. But they carry very different connotations. ‘Childlike’ is a positive word. It implies that by acting like a child, the person has embraced the innocence and purity of childhood. A ‘childish’ person is immature and often annoying – a negative connotation. Poets carefully consider the connotations of their words in order to create an emotional response in the reader.
Consider these examples – two famous poems that describe fog as a cat, but with different effects. Carl Sandburg’s poem ‘Fog’ begins:
‘The fog comes
On little cat feet.’
That word ‘little’ – even though it’s not really necessary for describing the well-known size of cat feet, it’s such a sweet word. Imagine how different the line would sound if Sandburg had used a similar word, like ‘puny.’ Even the verb has a positive connotation. The fog ‘comes’ – like coming home or a pet coming to you. It’s not ‘slinking’ or ‘slouching,’ as cats sometimes do. The pleasant connotations of Sandburg’s words generate a happy mood in the reader.
T.S. Eliot, in his poem ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’, also describes fog as a cat, but his fog isn’t positive.
‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap…’
Here the fog is quite cat-like, but rather than a happy emotion, the reader gets the feeling that this fog is everywhere, underfoot, the way a cat can be. It’s rubbing up against everything! This isn’t the light, tiptoeing fog of Sandburg’s poem, but it’s not disgusting or troublesome either. It’s just everywhere, and the emotion is one that’s slightly uncomfortable. That’s a mood that fits the rest of Eliot’s poem about a socially-awkward guy who can’t get anything done.
Choosing the Right Sounds
The acoustics of a poem are all the sounds of the words. Sad songs are sad because the musicians create depressing sounds and use a dreary rhythm. Happy songs are light and filled with pleasant sounds. Poems work exactly like that. When Poe wants to create a sense of dread in ‘The Raven’, he rhymes ‘Nevermore’ and ‘lore’ and ‘floor’ and ‘door,’ and he stacks his poem with that ‘oooo’ sound so that the reader can’t help but feel it.
Here’s another example. John Keats, in his poem ‘To Autumn’, uses the humming ‘m’ sounds and hissing ‘s’ sounds to create a happy mood at the beginning of a poem about autumn, the season that’s often poetically associated with sadness. Read the sweet sounds in these lines:
‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;’
Choosing the Right Images
The third big technique is imagery. Imagery can be more than pictures; it can also appeal to the other senses. In fact, any poetic line meant to appeal to a sense is imagery of one type or another. If you’ve ever watched television, you know that images and emotions go together. Think of that sad puppy behind bars in the infomercial on animal cruelty. When the puppy lifts one shaky paw? That’s an image that’s going to choke you up and stick in your memory.
We so strongly associate images with emotions that poets have to choose their pictures carefully to convey just the right shade of emotion. Think back to the Prufrock example. Eliot wants the fog to give a slightly uneasy feeling, but he doesn’t want you to focus too hard on it, so he compared it to a cat that’s always underfoot. Annoying? Yes, but the emotions don’t get stronger than that.
Let’s examine a poem that puts all three techniques together to create one unified emotional effect. William Wordsworth wrote ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ to communicate the inspiring power of nature. He wrote the poem in a time when his country, England, was undergoing a profound industrial change. Their traditional world had become one of bricks and steam and factories, and Wordsworth wanted his fellow countrymen to remember the beauty of the natural world. He began his poem,
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’
Acoustically, the poem begins in a sad vein. Wordsworth rhymes ‘cloud’ with ‘crowd’ and includes plenty of low, almost moaning sounds. The speaker is lonely, but once the daffodils come in, notice the acoustic change to those light ‘eee’ sounds. Almost like little squeals of delight!
In terms of images, the poet gives us a classic nature image: a field of daffodils fluttering in the breeze beside a lake. Even the opening image, of the speaker of the poem, gets a comparison to a cloud. Maybe he’s a dark rain cloud, but he won’t be dark for long after seeing those beautiful flowers! Finally, the word choice makes sure you have only positive connotations with the flowers. They’re ‘dancing’ in the ‘breeze.’ It’s not a gust of wind, just a pleasant breeze. They’re not yellow, as in pollen; they’re ‘golden,’ as in something rich and valuable. The happy mood of this tranquil nature image is meant to remind the reader that nature can be worth as much as gold.
Poems are a form of writing that’s often rich with emotion, and they’re meant to provoke an emotional response from the reader. Diction, or word choice, is extremely important in poetry. Poets are careful about the connotation and denotation of the words they pick because they know that words carry emotional weight. Denotation refers to the literal definition of words, while connotation means the understood layer of cultural or emotional meaning that words carry.
Poets also choose words for their acoustic, or sound, qualities. Harsh or pleasant-sounding words generate harsh or pleasant emotions. Poets put their words together to form images, and the combined effect of images, sounds, and word choice help lead the reader to the desired emotion of the poem.
When you are finished, you should be able to:
- Explain a poet’s use of diction and connotation to convey meaning
- Recall how a poet can create acoustics in a poem
- Describe the importance of imagery in poetry