How to Analyze Emotion in Poetry

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  • 0:06 Poetic Emotion
  • 0:50 Choosing the Right Words
  • 3:50 Choosing the Right Sounds
  • 4:52 Choosing the Right Images
  • 7:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Poetry often begins with emotion and finishes with profound insights about human nature. In this lesson, you'll learn how to recognize emotion in poems. By understanding those feelings, you'll gain a broader understanding of literature.

Poetic Emotion

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.

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