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Understanding Tone in Poetry

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/20/2012

Not understanding a poem's tone lends itself to grave misinterpretations of a poem's meaning. Here we will look at ways of helping a student understand and translate the meaning in poems along with a whole host of lesson ideas.

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    In the Cash Flow Quadrant, Robert Kiyosaki says that "in order to be a leader of people, you must become a master of words." Although Kiyosaki speaks in the context of business, it also applies to literature. If a writer or poet wishes to move people, to lead people along, he or she must be a master of words.

    All great poets have one thing in common: they are masters of words. They are able to lead readers from the poem's surface to layered, often hidden meanings. Studying how masters of words use words will bring young scholars one step closer to becoming masters of words themselves, and one step closer to becoming leaders of people.

    Let's take a look at how poets use word choice and literary devices to convey tone in poetry.

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    Choosing Their Words Carefully

    Great poets choose each word carefully. In "The Bells," it's no accident that Poe uses tinkle for sleigh bells, mellow for wedding bells, brazen for alarm bells, and tolling for iron bells.

    Discuss the following definitions to help students understanding of poetry:

    • Tone is the attitude the poet takes toward his or her work or a character in the poem. Tone should not be confused with mood, the feeling that a poem creates. Tone can often be summed up in one word--serious, ironic, humorous, etc.
    • Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word.
    • Connotation is the emotional meaning attached to a word. For example, the dictionary definition of teacher and professor are the same, but each word conjures a different type of person.
    • Hyperbole is an exaggeration often used for humor. T.S. Eliot describes a mischievous cat in "Macavity the Mystery Cat" using hyperbole. For example, Macavity is "the bafflement of Scotland Yard"; "he cheats at cards"; he's "a monster of depravity," and "the Napoleon of Crime." Eliot's hyperbolic description conveys a teasing tone. Hyperbole in poetry, however, is not always used to create a humorous tone. Robert Burns uses hyperbole in "Red, Red Rose" to describe love.
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    Lesson Ideas for Tone and Hyperbole in Poetry

    1. Choose a famous poem. Write a stanza on the board, replacing key words with synonyms. Compare the two versions.
    2. Convert a poem with a serious tone and convert it into a poem with a humorous tone or take a serious theme and approach it with a humorous attitude (Think Shakespeare sonnet 130) or a not so serious subject with a serious tone (like this classic poem).
    3. Write two poems with the same subject, each with a different tone.
    4. Write a poem with at least three ridiculous hyperboles in order to create a humorous effect.
    5. Write a poem using hyperbole to describe love.