Inferring Mood in Poetry

Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Jason Lineberger

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

Expert Contributor
Kaitlyn Danahy

Kate has a bachelor's degree in literature & creative writing from Gordon College. She taught high school literature, philosophy, and writing in India and has tutored for the same subjects in the US.

The mood of a poem is set through a tone, theme, or attitude and can be achieved through numerous tools and methodologies. Learn more about how poets use images, dictation, and acoustics, and read about various tips for the AP literature exam. Updated: 11/02/2021

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.

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  • 0:02 Setting the Mood
  • 0:47 Imagery
  • 1:56 Diction
  • 2:52 Sounds
  • 4:04 AP Literature Test-Taking Tips
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Imagery

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.'

Diction

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.

Sound

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?

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Additional Activities

Mood Analysis:

Answer the following questions for each stanza of the poem ""Hope" is the thing with feathers" by Emily Dickinson.

Stanza 1:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

Imagery: What is Dickinson comparing hope to? What words make this comparison?

Acoustics: How do the dashes the end of each line and in the middle of the fourth line affect the sound of the poem?

Stanza 2:

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

Diction: Would you describe Dickinson's word choices here as simple or complex? What message does this word choice reinforce?

Acoustics: Look at the first two lines of the second stanza. What sound is repeated? Why might that be?

Stanza 3:

I've heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

Imagery: How does the first line of the third stanza connect to the last lines of the preceding stanza?

Diction: How do ''land'' and ''sea'' contrast with the last two words of the poem?

Overall Questions:

Acoustics: Why does the first stanza not contain a direct rhyme, while the other two contain two?

Mood: How would you describe the overall mood of the poem?

Answer Key:

Stanza 1:

Imagery: She compares hope to a bird using words like ''feathers,'' ''perches,'' and ''sings.''

Acoustics: Answers will vary.

Stanza 2:

Diction: The word choice is simple, which reinforces that hope is something that can be felt anywhere. The possible exception is ''abash,'' which fits because it is the word that implies the silencing of hope.

Acoustics: ''S'' is repeated in ''sweetest,'' ''sore,'' and ''storm.''

Stanza 3:

Imagery: ''Land'' and ''sea'' imply the vast reach and universality of hope; "of me" brings it back to a personal experience.

Diction: The contrasting imagery of "warm" at the end of stanza two and ''chillest'' in the first line of stanza three shows what hope can bring to someone in dark circumstances.

Overall:

Acoustics: Answers will vary.

Mood: Answers will vary, but should be along the lines of hopeful, comforting, or brave.

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