4.8 Inferring Mood in Poetry

Feb 4, 2020 | Courses, Literature, Poetry

Poets have a variety of tools to use to create mood. In this lesson, you’ll learn about three of these tools and how you can use that knowledge to infer mood. You’ll also learn how this skill applies specifically to the AP Literature exam.

Setting the Mood

Somber. Nostalgic. Joyous. Depressing. Curious. If you’ve felt it, there’s a poem that matches that mood. When you’re feeling sappy and sentimental and you reach for the greeting card that expresses your mood, there’s probably a little poem on the inside, next to the softly-lit photos of flowers and kittens. The poem, probably 8 rhyming lines, perfectly captures your mushy feelings, but how does it do it? The writers of those cards know that there are some tools in the poetry tool kit that create mood. The main three are images, sounds, and diction.


Imagery in poetry is the parts that excite the senses. Poetic imagery comes in several varieties. The most common is visual imagery, but poets can create images that appeal to touch, taste, smell, or hearing. There’s a reason why flowers and kittens appear on your greeting card. Those images elicit an emotional response. Well, images in a poem do the same thing. Writers choose their images based in part on the mood they create.

In Poe’s poem, The Raven, he presents the reader with some carefully constructed images. Poe builds his mood of melancholy from the early in the poem when he describes a fire in a fireplace in the midst of winter. Rather than focus on the cheerful flames or the cozy warmth, he instead references the embers thrown from the fire that glow and are then extinguished. Poe writes, ‘And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor’. Even the dead embers are described in ghoulish terms by Poe’s use of the word ‘ghost.’


And that brings me to my second tool, diction. Diction in the context of poetry simply means the words chosen for a poem. Words carry emotional weight. Poets first decide on the emotion they’re hoping to create in the reader and then they choose words to build their images, metaphors, and all those cool poetic devices you’ve learned about in class. Well-chosen words will carry additional emotional content that augments the intended mood of the poem.

For example, rather than using a word like ‘fading’ or ‘burning’ to describe the embers, Poe chooses the word ‘dying’, a word that carries sadder emotional content than the others. Instead of ‘ashes’, Poe employs the word ‘ghost’ to refer to the remnants of the embers. His creepy, supernatural diction supports his poem’s mood, which is both melancholy and creepy.


The third approach Poe uses is sound. Acoustics refers to all the sound elements of a poem. Poetry is meant to be heard more than it’s meant to be read, and poets have a keen ear for sounds. If you were trying to create a sad, creepy mood using only sounds, what sounds might you make? You’d probably use some low moaning sounds. In ‘The Raven’, Poe repeatedly rhymes words with the same low moaning sound, words like ‘door’ and ‘floor’ and ‘before’ and of course, ‘nevermore’.

When you’re reading a poem, you can infer the mood by paying attention to these three tools. Find the images in the poem, then ask yourself, ‘How do these images make me feel?’ Do the same with word choice. Are there any words that stand out? Consciously consider why those words might have been chosen; what emotional impact could they have?

Finally, listen to the poem. Do the sounds, the rhymes, the rhythm of the poem lift you up? Do they bring you down? Consciously find parts in the poem that elicit emotion and listen to the sound of the lines and how that moves you.

Tips for the AP Literature Test

On the AP Literature test, you’ll have to analyze a poem and write an essay explaining your ideas. Certainly mood could be an important part of that analysis. Here are two tips to remember when analyzing mood.

First, while poets can create mood with images, diction, and sound, that doesn’t mean that you’ll find all three techniques used in every poem. It’s very likely that a poet might only use one or two of those tools.

Second, poetry that’s included in your exam will be complex. ‘Complex’ is one of those words that they use all the time on the AP test. I’m going to clue you in on a secret. If the test mentions the ‘complex mood’, what they’re really saying is there’s more than one mood. To show that you understand the complexity, and that’s important to do well on the test, you should be sure to write about how the mood shifts at least once. Find the spot in the poem where your feelings shift, then break down what it is about the poem that generates that shift in mood. Not all poems have a shift in mood, so will poems on the AP exam have one? You bet. They love to choose complex poems for the exam.

Lesson Summary

Poets have three main tools to use to create mood. They have images, the elements of the poem that excite the senses. Diction refers to the words chosen and acoustics are the sounds of a poem. Imagery, diction, and sounds may not work to create mood in every poem, but there’s a good chance that least one of them does.

For poems on the AP Literature exam, it’s also important to look for a moment when the mood shifts. These poems are touted as being complex, which simply means that the mood can’t be described in one easy statement. The mood shifts, perhaps subtly.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the tools poets use to infer mood in their poetry: imsges, diction, and acoustics
  • Implement tips on how to show the complexity of a poem on the AP Literature exam
4.9 Interpreting a Poem's Main Idea & Theme
4.7 Understanding Figurative Language in Poetry