Steps before explicating:

First reading: Read the poem intuitively and emotionally, allowing it to "happen" to you as much as possible.

Before re-reading the poem, notice but do not analyze, the form and length of the poem. Consider the title and determine whether it could function as an allusion, symbol, or poetic image.

Notice the date of composition/publication, or the general era of the poet. Identify the poet.


In rereading the poem:

Read the poem once through, noting the places where the rhymes and rhythms are easy or hard. Jot down any reaction you have to the poem. Decide what the meaning of the poem is TO YOU.

Continue re-reading the poem until you can read it smoothly. Not until you have formed some sense of an overall experience for the poem are you ready to analyze it.

Study the poem line-by-line and establish a dramatic situation as follows:

  • What, if any, is the narrative action (e.g., a man stops by the woods)?
  • How many personae appear in the poem? Do they all take part in the action? To what extent?
  • What is the relationship between the characters? Do they interact?
  • What is the setting for the poem? Time of day or year? Does the time period change during the poem?
  • Is the action happening in the present? Or is the narrator remembering a past incident?
  • What does the setting look like? Do the personae act in any particular manner because of the setting?

Establish the point of view as follows:

  • Who is speaking? Is he thinking, talking to himself, or addressing someone else? Is the poet speaking directly to the reader, or through a narrator?
  • Is the narrator able to understand or see everything happening to him, or does the reader know things the narrator does not?
  • What is the correlation between point of view and dramatic situation? Does point of view change when the dramatic situation changes?
  • Do point of view and dramatic situation seem complete and consistent? If not, mark these places, because they may provide good clues about the meaning.

Locate the images and metaphors as follows:

  • What are the concrete images--those that are formed from objects which can be touched, smelled, seen, felt, or tasted. What do these images look like? Is the image projected by the poet consistent with the physical object?
  • If the image is abstract, or so different from natural images that it can't be associated with a real object, then what are the properties of the image?
  • What part do dramatic situation and point of view play in presentation of the images?
  • Is any image repeated in the poem? How has it been changed? Is there a controlling image (e.g., dark/light)?
  • Are any images compared to each other? Do the compared images form a metaphor, or do they simply reinforce one another?
  • Is there any difference between the way the reader perceives the image and the way the narrator sees it?
  • What seems to be the poet's attitude toward the image? Does he laugh at it or take it seriously?

Determine the sound patterns of the poem.

  • Does the poem's sound conform to any traditional sound patterns, such as those of nursery rhymes or folk songs?
  • Is the rhyme pleasing, harsh, emotional? Can you articulate what mood the sounds are put in (fear, jocundity)? Is the sound casual or formal?
  • What devices has the poet used for creating sound (e.g., types of words, rhyme, or rhythm)?

Control of words:

Look up any unfamiliar words or words of which you are unsure of the meaning.

Determine any allusions, symbols, allegory, or paradox.

Rhyme and Structure:

Determine how form of stanza, rhyme, and overall structure are working.

  • Is the stanza a traditional form? Is the poet adhering to or deviating from the structure?
  • How does the rhyme scheme work to hold the stanza, poem together?
  • What type of rhyme appears? Rhyme scheme?
  • Is the poem composed of stanzas? How are they tied together?

Characterize the persona; determine if his statements can be taken at face value or whether there is a discrepancy between the speaker, poet, or reader?

Look for paradox, hyperbole, irony, and try to determine the poet's tone (attitude) toward his persona, reader, and subject matter.

Place the poem in historical context.

Correlate the controlling devices, seeing the poem as a composite of emotion, intellect, craftsmanship, and tradition.

  • What ideas is the poet trying to convey? Is it a new idea?
  • Does the poet seem sure of his positions? Is he probing or preaching? Is he optimistic or pessimistic?
  • Is the poet trying to achieve social, moral, or religious criticism or change? If so, how does the poem relate to the present age and the age in which it was composed?
  • Does the poem appeal primarily to the emotions, intellect, or both?
  • Is the poem relying especially on any particular device for affect (e.g., sound, imagery, allusion)?

List all the themes (central ideas) and motifs (smaller, recurring, ideas incidents, controlling images, or symbols) relate them back to the poem and draw parallels between them.

Read other poems by the same author, particularly those in the same volume. Read as much criticism as you can. Be sure to acknowledge any ideas other than your own that you have used.


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