How did you feel after listening to it? Maybe it angered you, saddened you or brought you grief. Whichever emotion it may have evoked, it must have impacted you in some way. Maybe it inspired you to make a change for a better world or it made you think about man’s selfish motives. Can you figure out MJ’s main idea and his approach? What moved you the most? Was it the lyrics, the rhythm, or the speaker’s tone? In short, what makes this song so awe-inspiring for you?
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Let’s try to deconstruct this song by first understanding what MJ wants to convey. He talks about the planet’s destruction brought about by animal cruelty, deforestation, pollution, and war, which is the song’s theme. This idea is presented poignantly with the despaired tone of the song. Think about how MJ earnestly asks “Did you ever stop to notice/The crying Earth the weeping shores?” The tone shifts as the song progresses. In fact, it gets dreamy as he sings, “I used to dream/ I used to glance beyond the stars.” A melancholic tone sets in when he says, “Now I don’t know where we are/Although I know we’ve drifted far.”
Look at the choice of words and the use of poetic devices. He uses personification in “crying Earth” and “weeping shores”. Notice how he contrasts “killing fields” with “flowering fields.” Adjectives such as “the crying Earth, the weeping shores,” and heart wrenching phrases like “burnt despite our pleas” and “torn apart by creed” are also contrasted to create emotion. Closely observe the words that develop the tone; “crying,” “weeping,” “killing,” “torn apart” all of which express the sheer despondency of the situation. What makes the song catchy, is the use of rhyming words such as “rain” and “gain,” “time” and “mine,” “done” and “son.” No doubt the lilting music makes the song more poignant, but if you listen carefully the melody is quite simple. The “Aaaaaaaaah” and “oooooooooooo” makes for a rhythm memorable. And the constant repetition of “what about us” amplifies MJ’s emotions.
You just saw how the Earth Song brought out the theme of despondency at the planet’s state in a poignant way through tone, word choice, rhyme, and other sound effects. Of course, the singer and music also contributed to building up the theme!
Unlike songs, in poems we rely mainly on the “lyrics” or language to bring out the theme. When poetry was only oral, it was more connected to song. Poetry still retains its sound qualities even as it has moved to written forms that are typically never sung. So to bring out the theme of a poem and appeal to readers, the poet makes effective use of tone, speaker, word choice, poetic sound devices, rhythm, and form.
As you progress through this lesson, you’ll see how each of these elements work to build up the theme of a poem.
Elements Contributing to Theme
Read Shelley’s Ozymandias. What do you think is the theme(s) of this poem? One reading may not be adequate to bring out the poem’s meaning. Read the poem several times to discover its theme.
Here are some of the themes you may have interpreted.
Impermanance or the passage of time: The broken statue’s description and words such as “nothing beside remains” suggest impermanence since it shows that all things decay eventually.
Great art endures: This is evident when the speaker says “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.”
Pride before a fall: The inscription of the arrogant king’s words, “King of Kings” on the pedestal as well as the wrecked statue’s description suggest pride goes to a fall.
Worldly power does not last: The shattered remains of the statue convey the futility in seeking stately glories as worldly power does not last.
Tone and Speaker
Poetic themes, like the ones you just saw are weaved into poems with many poetic elements, like the tone for instance. A poem’s tone encapsulates the poet’s attitude toward a poem’s subject. Frost rightly defined them as “voices behind a door that cuts off the words.” So even if we don’t catch the exact words, the tones of voices indicate what’s going on. Tones can shift through a poem, creating many moods, just like in Ozymandias. Reread Ozymandias and identify the tones it carries.
You’ll notice that the poem starts off with a tone of mystery, when the “traveller from an antique land” is introduced. But it changes to irony with the image of the “Half sunk, a shatter’d visage,” “lifeless things,” and “Nothing beside remains.” The tone gets arrogant when the speaker speaks the kings words, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” and the inscription on the pedestal, “king of kings.” Finally, the tone creates feelings of desolation with “round the decay,” “boundless and bare,” and “lone and level sands.”
Always look at tones while considering the poem’s theme. For instance, Ozymandias’ ironic, mocking tone effectively reveals the theme of how all things, even powerful rulers, fade away with time. The arrogant king thought he’d last forever but the irony is that even his statue doesn’t stand the test of time.
Since the tone reflects the speaker’s attitude or mood in a poem, the speaker also contributes in building a poem’s theme. The speaker is the person who does the talking in the poem. In Ozymandias, there’s more than one speaker. It begins with an “I”, referring to a narrator, but we soon find out that the poem’s main speaker is a traveler from an “antique land.” The description of the traveler adds a sense of drama. However, the lines, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” though spoken by the traveler actually belong to Ozymandias, making him in a way another speaker in this poem.
The speaker’s presence reveals the theme of impermanence of all things, even positions of power over time. Firstly, being a mysterious “traveller” himself, his story may not be authentic. This also comes across from the fact that he conveys a story of an earlier time of which “Nothing beside remains”; not something he’s personally witnessed. In fact the speaker may not be reliable and might be distorting the story, since the narrator or the initial speaker, is unaware of the king and his statue. In this way, the theme of how the king is rendered as a quaint and probably an imaginary character, acquainted to only a few who care to know about him is revealed.
Now let’s try understanding how the speaker helps build up the theme in Poetry. Read Stevie Smith’s poem Not Waving But Drowning; read it once and think about who is speaking the lines.
You’ll notice that this poem also has many speakers; a narrator, a dying or dead man, and other unspecified voices who could be family, friends, or bystanders of the dying/dead man. The narrator introduces the scene in a reporter-like fashion; but the dying man takes over and moans that he is “not waving but drowning.” However, the multiple speakers in the second stanza dismiss the man’s death by saying that he “always loved larking” and probably “his heart gave way.” But the dying/dead man refutes their statement saying that for him “it was too cold always”. This could figuratively express that he was always lonely, misunderstood, in agony, or depressed.
In a literal sense, “not waving but drowning,” means that the dead man indeed was drowning which onlookers misinterpret as waving. Metaphorically however, the quote could mean that speaker kept up appearances but masked his true feelings and was actually “drowning.” Multiple speakers here brings out this theme since it expresses that while the dead man may have appeared “larking” to the world, he was at odds with his actual feelings. The multiple speakers contrast how people’s perceptions of a person may be in variance to the person’s self-perception.
Read Rites of Passage by Sharon Olds and then select the option that best describes how the tone and speaker contribute to the theme of the poem.
The melancholic tone reflects a mother’s sadness at the behavior of the children at the party. (Look closerâ€¦ the poem’s tone doesn’t suggest the speaker’s unhappiness at the children’s behavior at the party. This is evident in how she ends, “they relax and get down to playing war, celebrating my son’s life.” These lines though appalling don’t exhibit sadness.)
The ironic tone brings out a mother’s cynicism at the loss of innocence. (Correct! All through the poem, the mother is a silent observer, who mockingly interprets the children’s actions as loss of innocence. She seems resigned rather than sad, terming them as inevitable “rites of passage.”)
The lighthearted tone brings out a mother’s amusement at the children’s competitiveness. (Look closerâ€¦ The mother is a little too sarcastic to seem pleased with the children’s behavior. For instance, she’s sarcastic when she terms them as “a room of small bankers”)
The appalled tone sheds light on a mother’s chagrin at the heartlessness of children. (Look closerâ€¦ The mother is merely a silent observer and doesn’t seem shocked or even surprised. The tone of the poem itself is calm and not loud. For instance the speaker is surprisingly calm in the last lines when she says “like Generals, they relax and get down to playing war, celebrating my son’s life.”)
Read Edgar Allan Poe’s A Dream within a Dream and select the best option that describes how tone contributes to the theme of the poem.
The morbid tone highlights the poem’s theme of disappointment because of unrequited love. (Look closerâ€¦the poem focuses on disillusionment, for instance “And I hold within my hand/Grains of the golden sand- how few!”)
The hopeful tone of the poem brings to light the theme of hope even when everything seems lost. (Look closerâ€¦ the poem does not have a hopeful tone. The speaker seems to be wallowing in sadness and doesn’t feel very optimistic. For instance, “O God! can I not save/One from the pitiless wave?”)
The despaired tone carries the poem’s theme of frustration in unfulfilled dreams. (Correct! The speaker is frustrated and disillusioned. He seems to have lost hope and questions rather than declares, “Is all that we see or seem But a dream within a dream?”)
The inquisitive tone of the poem expresses the poem’s theme of how man seeks hope even in the hardest situations. (Look closerâ€¦ The speaker bootlessly questions his fate rather than being inquisitive and genuinely seeking an answer. Notice his resignation in, “O God! can I not grasp/Them with a tighter clasp?/ O God! can I not save/ One from the pitiless wave?”)
You’ve already seen how tone and speaker help build up on the theme of the poem. But what about the choice and order of words? To Samuel Taylor Coleridge poetry, is “the best words in the best order” and rightly so. Word choice and word order determine the way a poet communicates a feeling or thought. Not only do they convey the poet’s ideas, but maintain rhythm and tone, carry symbolic significance, and develop the poem’s theme. In short, word choice and order ensure that you respond to a poem, exactly the way the poet expects you to. Let’s go back to Ozymandias and see how the careful selection of words brings out the theme of impermanence in all things except art.
In the beginning, Shelley uses words that describe long lasting things, like “antique,” “stone,” and “desert”. These images change, soon after Shelley uses “sands”, which indicates the passage of time. Next we have, words that highlight the impermanence of earthly things, like “trunkless,” “shattered,” “decay,” and “wreck”. Shelley appreciates the artist and says, “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.” This makes it seem as if Shelley wants to clarify that he only feels art is enduring and not the king, terming his statue as “lifeless.”
Word choice also draws readers towards Ozymandias’ personality. He is described with words like “wrinkled,” “sneer”, and “cold” which evokes an arrogant, unpleasant, and heartless image of a king. Even the inscription, “King of Kings”; reveals the kings pompousness.
Let’s take a look at how word choice builds the theme in another poem. Reread Edgar Allan Poe’s A Dream within a Dream and pay attention to the choice of words.
Let’s look at another poem and see how the word choice constructs the theme.
As you glace through the poem, you’ll notice that the language is simple but emotive, and conveys the speaker’s despair and loss on being separated from a loved one or at the time gone by in his life. This is evident right from the beginning, with verses like “kiss upon the brow” and “parting from you now” which can be interpreted in myriad ways; literally and figuratively. Hope for the speaker has “flown away,” which expresses his absolute despair. In the second stanza, he uses “roar” and “surf-tormented shore,” to convey how disturbed he is and how chaotic his life has become, after his loss. The speaker then describes a rich image of “Grains of golden sand” and “how they creep/Through my fingers to the deep.” Literally, you would imagine the speaker holding grains of sand that pass through his fingers. Figuratively however, “Grains of the golden sand” could represent time, dreams, or even memories. These slip out of the speaker’s control and he laments, “can I not grasp/Them with a tighter clasp?” This reveals his utter hopelessness.
The repetition of heart-wrenching cries of “O God” expresses a despairing spirit about the impermanence of love or life. However, it seems as if the speaker wants to believe and have hope again that his existence or love is not just a dream and has purpose. So, unlike the first stanza where the lines “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream” is a statement, at the end of the poem they are posed as a question revealing a trickle of hope.
Read William Blake’s A Poison Tree. Think about how the words “watered,” “sunned,” ” tears” and “wiles” contribute to the theme of the poem.
reveals how the speaker allows his hatred towards his foe to grow unchecked (Correct! The speaker masks his negative feelings toward his foe and these feelings get more intense. These words develop the metaphor of the seeds of hate which are nurtured within the speaker. The metaphor is taken forward since the seeds are “watered” with “tears,” and also “sunned” by “wiles.”)
implies how the speaker allows his wrath to grow unintentionally (Look closerâ€¦ the speaker is well aware of his growing wrath and he masks it by saying, “And I sunned it with smiles And with soft deceitful wiles.”
brings out the speaker’s hypocritical character, being nice to the foe and angry at the same time. (Look closerâ€¦ The speaker is a hypocrite and it can be seen when he says “And with soft deceitful wiles.” However, all those words do not contribute to the theme of hypocrisy in the poem.)
While the poem’s tone, speaker, and choice of words serve as the basic outline for the poem, poetic sound devices achieve a particular sound effect, which also contributes to the theme. You might have heard of devices such as alliteration, rhyme, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia; all these give poetic verses that special sound quality. You’ll explore these devices in this interactivity.
On clicking Rhyme:
The poem follows a strange rhyme scheme of ababacdcedefef which doesn’t fit into any standard sonnet rhyming pattern.
Take a look at how the rhyming words in the poem carry the theme:
“land”/”sand”: By reading just these two words, you’ll understand that the land that’s being described is a desert. These help reiterate how “nothing else remains” of Ozymandias’ kingdom, except for sand.
“read”/”fed”: Shelley venerates the sculptor who perfectly recreated or “read” the kings expression; and in a way “fed” could mean that he enlarged the king’s ego. This brings out two themes; one of impermanent art and the other of pride going to a fall.
“things”/”kings”: These words contribute to the theme of impermanence of earthly “things” including once powerful “kings.”
“despair”/”bare”: These rhymes bring out the theme of desolation since there’s only “despair” now that everything is “bare.”
You’ll also notice the presence of half-rhymes or imperfect rhymes in “stone”/”frown” and “appear”/”bare”
On clicking Assonance:
Assonance is repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences. Take a look at assonance in Ozymandias:
· Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
· And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
· Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
· Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
· Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
· Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
Take a look at the last example of alliteration: “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” This emphasizes the vastness and desolation of the desert surrounding the statue of Ozymandias.
On clicking Alliteration:
Alliteration is repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of two or more words in close succession. Like assonance, you’ll also notice an extensive use of alliteration in the poem:
· Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
· Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
· And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
· Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things
· Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
· The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Take a look at the last example. Use of “lone” and “level” and “sands” and “stretch” contribute to the image of the desert and add to the theme of desolation as all that remains is the vast stretches of sand.
Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio Tab
Read the poem Hony Tonk in Celeveland, Ohio (or put the poem here)
Carl Sandburg beautifully describes the sights and sounds of a honky tonk. A honky tonk is a tawdry drinking establishment with musical entertainment, usually found in the South and Southwest. As you read the poem, you’ll feel like you’re in a honky tonk yourself. And you get acquainted with the sounds, sights, and the people usually found in such places.
On clicking Onomatopoeia
This poem is filled with Onomatopoeia which is the naming of a thing or action by an oral imitation of the sound associated with it such as the “banjo tickles and titters.” Take a look at onomatopoeia in Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio:
“trombone pony neighs”
“tuba jackass snorts”
“banjo tickles and titters”
Each of these creates a vivid sound image in the reader’s mind and go on to build up this lyric. A lyric poem is one which uses a lot of figurative language and focuses on capturing emotions with imagery, but doesn’t tell a story. So the poem’s controlling idea or theme encapsulates the sights and sounds of a honky tonk. It may seem to be chaotic and noisy, but it serves as place of comfort and perhaps a way of life for its diverse frequenters.
On clicking Alliteration and Assonance
Alliteration which is the repetition of same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables; is evident in the poem. Take a look at the use of Alliteration in Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio:
“jazz” and “razzes”
“trombone” and “tuba”
“feet of floozies etc.”
Take a look at the use of assonance in the poem:
“jazz” and “razzes,”
“weep” and “beer”
When we two parted
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
If you like, you can read the entire text of Lord Byron’s When We Two Parted.
How do poetic sound devices in this stanza of Byron’s poem, When we two parted contribute to the theme?
Onomatopoeia and rhyme bring out the theme of pain and loss at the lovers’ parting. (Look closerâ€¦ the poetic devices don’t only highlight the pain and loss of the lover’s loss.)
Alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia are used to describe the farewell scene of the lovers. (Look closerâ€¦ the poem talks about more than just a farewell scene.)
Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme create a sad atmosphere at the lovers’ separation. (Correct! Poetic devices in the poem create a sad atmosphere which intensifies the lover’s feelings on separation)
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
If you like, you can read the entire text of Robert Browinngs’ Meeting in the Night.
Now that you’ve read the poem, answer this question: How do the poem’s sound devices contribute to its theme?
â€¢ Alliteration and rhyme bring out the theme of how a man faces the travails of a long and arduous journey across the night sea. (Look closerâ€¦ There’s more than just the man’s journey in the poem. For instance, “waves that leap” from “their sleep suggests stronger emotions.)
â€¢ Alliteration and repetition bring out the theme of a man’s fears and doubts as he journeys across the night to meet his beloved. (Look closerâ€¦ The poem remotely talks about fears and doubts on the man’s part. For instance repetition of “and” and “quench its speed i’the slushy sand” suggest determination rather than fear on the man’s part)
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â€¢ Rhyme, repetition, and alliteration bring out the theme of the man’s passionate tenacity as he journeys to meet his beloved. (Correct! Passion can be seen in the rhymes, “leap”/”sleep” which attribute to the distraught sea. Yet the man reaches “the cove with pushing prow” and quenches “its speed i’the slushy sand” which suggests tenacity. Further, the repetition of “and” makes the task seem arduous. Yet the man goes on, with great passion to meet his beloved.)
Rhythm and Form
You just saw how poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, and repetition enhance a poem’s theme. Now let’s take a look at what rhythm has to do with poetry. Rhythm is that musical quality, produced by the repetition of stressed and unstressed syllables in words. A combination of these stressed and unstressed syllables or “feet,” are called a poem’s “meter”. All of these together, make up a poem’s “form” such as a ballad, elegy, sonnet etc. While many standard patterns of meter and form exist, poets may not necessarily conform to these standards; just as in Ozymandias.
Take a look at the poems rhyme scheme: ababacdcedefef. This pattern doesn’t conform to any traditional pattern and even as you read it, you might get the feeling that something’s not in order. Probably the rhyme scheme itself could represent the discord between the way Ozymandias thought the future was going to be and the actual, grim reality.
The poem is in iambic pentameter which are lines that of five feet each. Each of the feet comprise of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Take a look at these lines with which conform to iambic pentameter:
“Who said: / Two vast / and trunk / less legs / of stone”
” Half sunk, / a shat / tered vi / sage lies, / whose frown,”
“And wrink / led lip, / and sneer / of cold / command,”
However, a few lines do not conform to the iambic pentameter (note the syllables in italics):
“I met / a travel / ler from / an an / tique land
Stand in / the des/ ertâ€¦ Near / them, on / the sand,”
“Tell that / its sculp / tor well / those pas / sions read,”
“Nothing / beside / remains. / Round the / decay”
What is the poetic form of Ozymandias? You might want to take a look at the various poetic forms to refresh your memory.
â€¢ sonnet (Correct! A sonnet is a poetic form consisting of fourteen lines, usually iambic pentameter.)
â€¢ elegy (Look closerâ€¦ An elegy is a poem that commemorates or laments for a departed person. Ozymandias does not commemorate or lament the king’s death, but despises his pride instead.)
â€¢ ballad (Look closerâ€¦A ballad is a narrative poem or song, often of folk origin and consists of simple stanzas with a refrain. Ozymandias doesn’t have simple stanzas or a refrain.)
â€¢ free verse (Look closerâ€¦. Free verse refers to verses that are usually unrhymed with no fixed metrical pattern. As you’ve seen, Ozymandias does follow a metrical pattern.)
So as you just saw, Ozymandias follows a sonnet form. Sonnets are fourteen-line poems which can be traced back to the great Italian poet Petrarch. In a Petrarchan sonnet, the first eight lines, the octave specify a concern and the following six lines, the sestet which seeks to resolve the posed concern. The sonnet’s ninth line, the volta, marks a shift in the poem’s direction. The other famous sonnet form is the Shakespearean sonnet which comprises of three quatrains of four lines each; and ends with a rhyming couplet.
Ozymandias follows neither form entirelyâ€¦ but both! While it starts off with the Shakespearean form with rhyme scheme abab. However, the rhyme scheme changes to acdc rather than the expected cdcd. And finally, it ends without a rhyming couplet but with an efef scheme, like the Petrarchan sonnet. So finally we get a strange ababacdcedefef rhyme scheme. Yet, it retains the qualities of a Shakespearean sonnet because it uses iambic pentameter in a few verses. So, though the poem is a sonnet, it does not fit the exact definition of Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet. This hybrid form contributes to the theme that Ozymandias’ expectation or vision of grandeur does not match the reality. It also brings out the theme that some things like art/sculpture and nature (sand) stand the test of time whereas other things like arrogant and tyrannical rulers perish.
You’ve just seen how the rhyme carries the theme in an elegy. Now let’s see how this is done in a ballad. Read Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Meri and pay attention to its rhyme scheme.
It won’t take too long to indentify the simple abcd rhyme scheme in each of its twelve four-line stanzas. The poem is in iambic tetrameter, where the first and third lines contain four stressed syllables while the second and fourth lines contain three stressed syllables. The second and fourth lines are set in perfect end rhyme with one another, giving it the musical sound typically found in ballads. This form compliments the poem’s theme which is a narrative that tells a story of a knight who falls in love with a beautiful fair lady, who then casts him aside, and the knight is left sad and moping.
Reread Sharon Old’s Rite of Passage, and pay attention to its form and rhythm. You’ll notice that it doesn’t carry any specific form at all! This is known as a free verse form. A free verse doesn’t follow the traditional orderliness of rhyme and rhythm. This chaotic form, contributes to the poem’s theme since the poem itself carries a disillusioned, ironic tone and disturbing theme. This style effectively explores the two colliding, yet complementing themes, of innocence and adulthood as the boys act as if they were men. One would expect a typical birthday party with lighthearted, hyper excitement. However, the mother views this party differently and sees hidden adults in the children. Through the use of free verse the mother’s thoughts and feelings at the loss of innocence are effectively expressed.
So whether it’s MJ’s Earth Song or Shelley’s Ozymandias, every poem carries a theme. Themes are a poem’s controlling ideas which are carried by various poetic elements.
While the tone sets the poem’s mood, the speaker conveys the poem’s message. While word choice and order help the poet express his ideas effectively; poetic sound devices help achieve a particular sound effect. These combined with rhythm and form which is what comes out of repetition of stressed and unstressed syllables in words, lend a musical quality to the poem.
Just imagine what a poem would be without these! A poem needs these indispensable elements that elevate, enlarge, and enhance (notice the use of alliteration?) to get a poem’s theme across in the most unique, memorable, and effective way.
So the next time you read a poem or listen to a song, look closely at the elements it carries to understand the theme better and have a deeper appreciation of the poem.
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