The Basics of Poetry Analysis

Analysing poetry can seem like a daunting thing when faced with a page (or more) of flowery words that you just can’t understand. However, when you break it down it can be one of the most rewarding, enjoyable, and dare I say easy (?!) things to do. In this article I will break down the basics, and in future articles I will dive in further and explore specific forms, themes and language traits.

This article will be split into the following categories- Form, Metre, Language. Form is the way that the poem exists on the page and the way it flows from one point to the next. Metre is the way that the poems words are formed, how they sound on the tongue, the rhythm, and Language is, of course, the words and how they shape meaning.

To illustrate my points, I will be analysing Wilfred Owen’s famous war poem, Dulce et Decorum Est as I go, as this is a poem of outstanding poetical skill in all three categories. My analysis will be by no means exhaustive, as I only wish to give examples to explain my meaning. So, if you have anything to add or simply disagree, please do comment and let me know!

Dulce et Decorum Est 

BY WILFRED OWEN

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Form

Form, in poetry, can be understood as the physical structure of the poem: the length of the lines, their rhythms, their system of rhymes and repetition. In this sense, it is normally reserved for the type of poem where these features have been shaped into a pattern, especially a familiar pattern.

Another sense of “form” is to refer to these familiar patterns – these can be simple and open-ended forms, such as blank verse, or can be a complex system of rhymes, rhythms and repeated lines within a fixed number of lines, as a sonnet or villanelle is. – Poetry Archive

First, we shall look at number of lines and stanzas. In Dulce, there are twenty-eight lines, four stanzas, in a pattern of 8, 6, 2, 12. This form is irregular, however it still tells us a lot. Owen didn’t do this by accident because he was sloppy. The first stanza is 8, then the second and third are 6+2 = 8, therefore you could think of it as two eight lined stanzas broken up. Then the final twelve line stanza takes a turn after its eighth line, and in the final four lines, addresses the reader in an even more direct, and abrupt way

You may think then, wouldn’t it be better to have the stanza breaks be 8, 8, 8, 4 = 28?

Well, in a way, yes, so there must be a reason why a genius like Owen didn’t split the lines this way, and it is by reading the poem closely that you can find this out.

I can see four distinctive elements to this poem:

1- Describing the men having a terrible time of it

2- A gas attack, the spanner in the works, the action, zooming in on one man

3- an aside saying that he still dreams of that man today

4- addressing the misguided patriot of a reader and the point of the poem.

This is exactly how Owen has broken up his stanzas.

The fact that the poem could be separated 8884 means that the poem still maintains a pleasing rhythm, it is not totally random, but certain parts are to be emphasised. Let’s go deeper, specifically the third two-line stanza:

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

These two lines are clearly supposed to be emphasised, as they are alone, and you will notice that they differ from the rest of the poem in that they are an aside. They do not flow with the narrative of the poem, but they are important details that add a level of reality to the situation. If Owen were reading this poem to me as a recitation of events, I could imagine him turning his head, or looking down, when he says these lines.

The second anomaly is the final, extra long stanza. Why did Owen not split the final four lines from the rest, as they are surplus to the 8 line flow, and signify a shift in tone? Well, I see it as this-the whole stanza is addressing the reader/ recipient/ misguided patriot, and in layman’s terms, Owen is going off on one, that stanza is basically him exploding, telling us exactly how it is, all the horrors that we couldn’t dream of seeing, and a line break here would interrupt the tone. And here, between the 8th and 9th lines

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

the — indicates that he has got too carried away with his (justifiable) ravings, is interrupting himself, steadying his tongue with a sarcastic ‘my friend,’ and bringing the poem round to his actual point. Therefore, I am sure you will agree that Owen should have kept the first eight lines of description, as to lose four of those would be tragic, and had the final four line snippet run directly on.

You see, when analysing poetry, you are like a detective, always trying to find the motivations for seemingly strange or illogical behaviours, and arriving at a suitable conclusion given the evidence at your disposal.

Next, we can look at the length of the lines. In this regard Owen has again almost followed a clear structure, but not quite. In poetry, we count syllables in terms of line length, rather than words, because syllables tell you how long the poem takes to say, and poetry is traditionally a spoken medium. Owen’s lines are, more or less, ten syllables long. This you are free to analyse yourself in accordance with your own opinion, however I would say that trying to stick to a structure and ‘failing’ shows Owen trying and failing to make order out of chaos. The art of poetry is making order out of chaos, but the effect is amplified when the subject matter is something so terrible and out of control, that even a poetic structure can’t contain it.

Next, lets look at rhyme scheme. In Dulce, it is as follows:

ababcdcd

ababc (half-rhyme b)

c, rep. drowning

ababcdcd

abcb- almost a rhyming couplet

you will see here that again Owen has kept an almost-perfect rhyme scheme. The most notable facet of this being the final three lines

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

because the lines use enjambment, meaning that the sentence runs on past each line break, these lines are read almost like this:

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori.

making the effect of the final lines similar to that of a rhyming couplet, which adds a great deal of emphasis to this powerful final message, which still seems to smack me square in the face every time I read it.

Repetition is also something to take note of, for example, Owen’s repetition of drowning in the fourteenth and sixteenth lines. Half-rhymes and repeated words in lieu of full rhymes definitely lend an uncomfortable and disjointed feel to the poem. The use of enjambment also lends itself to this. Although enjambment is very common in poetry, the way that Owen has used it here makes the lines feel chaotic and messy, especially combined with his tendency to end sentences in the middle of lines, and his wide range of punctuation: ; — ! . ,

And with that, I think we have covered enough of form for an introductory guide.

Metre

You will be pleased to hear that metre is far simpler than form, with far less parts.

Metre is from the Greek word for measuring; at its most basic, metre is a system of describing what we can measure about the audible features of a poem. The systems that have been used in history to structure metres are: the number of syllables (syllabic); the duration of syllables (quantitative); the number of stressed syllables, or accents (accentual); and combinations of the above. – Poetry Archive

In order to assess Metre, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to read the poem aloud. I have mentioned that poetry was traditionally a spoken art form, and I truly believe that it should still be treated as such. Therefore, I encourage you now to read at least the first four lines of Dulce out for yourself.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

We have already discovered that Owen’s lines have roughly ten syllables each, called Pentameter. However, it isn’t Iambic Pentameter, as Iambic means that the syllables go

unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed

Owen does not follow this pattern, save in his first line. You can probably guess why; war does not fit into such neat little boxes, and to be honest, Iambic pentameter, as beautiful as it sounds, would be far too restrictive for such an unpredictable and dangerous poem, and beauty definitely wasn’t Owen’s aim. Here are Owen’s first four lines with stressed/ unstressed marked:

Bent dou | ble like | old beg | gars un | der sacks
Knock kneed | cou ghing | like hags | we cursed | through sludge
Till on | the haun | ting flares | we turned | our backs
And towards | our dis | tant rest | be gan | to trudge

When reading the above lines with the stresses pointed out, it really highlights how disjointed the meter actually is in this poem. I think this is made worse by the fact that the first and third lines are iambic, it almost lures you into a false sense of security and then trips you up again. When reading from the unmarked poem, this is much more subconscious, but that doesn’t mean it is unimportant.

I believe that this is enough to focus on when starting out with analysing metre, but check for future articles that will go far more in depth.

Language

It may be argued that language is the most important part of a poem, and I would definitely agree. Language is what makes it, it is what causes the sounds, the feelings, everything that a poem is, is language. The rest are just tools to make it better/ make more sense/ flow.

When analysing language in a poem, it less important to look at what the poet says, than how they say it. Let’s take those four lines again

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Owen could have written:

we walked hunched over

we coughed a lot and we walked through mud

flares are going off, we are still walking

we are going back to the dug-out

which I am sure you will agree, is not very good. My point is, we know what Owen is saying, but the poetry is all about how he is saying it.

There are a few things to look out for when analysing a poem’s language, and all fall within the category of rhetorical devices. There are a lot of rhetorical devices out there, bit some of the most common are:

Alliteration,

Assonance

Metaphor

Tricolon (the power of three)

So lets analyse the language of these lines, why is it so good?

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, – alliteration of bent and beggars makes a thudding sound when you say it aloud, like they are trudging, slow. And the metaphor- like old beggars immediately makes you think of a decrepit old man, not the strapping young men that were sent off to war, the war has aged them beyond their years, ruined them, and so on…

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,- similarly, alliteration of knock and kneed, knock is onomatopoeic by nature, so it is directly mimicking the sound of the knees knocking when read aloud. And again, the metaphor of coughing like hags, old, and now not just old (and probably male) beggars, but old women (shock?!) As women weren’t allowed on the front lines in WW1, this image seems completely out of place: they shouldn’t be there. And the image of this hag coughing is a very harsh one, we know exactly what it sounds like- like someone who has smoked forty a day for forty years.

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,- haunting flares show that the flares are foreshadowing, they are an inescapable part of the war, as long as the flares are there, so is death. The flares also illuminate the landscape, and in turn the bodies of their friends, and the carnage that surrounds them. We turned our backs could hint at denial, not wanting to see the flares, trying to ignore that they are there, but also an element of vulnerability, like they are exposed. (please let me know if you have any more thoughts about this line, I would love to hear them.)

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.- a lot of t sounds- in towards, distant, rest, trudge, the t-t-t-t of artillery fire, the alliterative sound of uniformed trudging. Distant rest could be literal in the sense that they are on a long journey, but to me it reeks of death, the distance being the distance to heaven or hell. Remember, it can always be both. The word trudge sounds so bogged down that it’s almost a chore to say. A well chosen word to describe walking through mud, I think.

And that is is! Is your head spinning? I hope in a good way. Soon, this will become completely instinctual to you when reading a poem, if you practice. If you wish to learn further, this article only just scratched the surface, so stay tuned for lots more in-depth poetry analysis tips!

RGW

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