Questions for Analyzing Poetry
(from The Elements of Writing About Literature and Film by Elizabeth Mc Mahan, Robert Funk and Susan Day. Longman Publishing, 1998)
Can you paraphrase the poem?
Who is the speaker (persona) in the poem? How would you describe this persona?
What is the speaker’s tone? Which words reveal this tone? Is the poem ironic?
What heavily connotative words are used? What words have unusual or special meanings? Are any words or phrases repeated? If so, why? Which words do you need to look up?
What images does the poet use? How do the images relate to one another? Do these images form a unified pattern (a motif) throughout the poem?
What figures of speech are used? How do they contribute to the tone and meaning of the poem?
Are there any symbols? What do they mean? Are they universal symbols or do they arise from the context of this poem?
What is the theme (the central idea) of this poem? Can you state it in a single sentence?
How important is the role of sound effects, such as rhyme and rhythm? How do they affect tone and meaning?
How important is the contribution of form, such as rhyme scheme and line arrangement? How does form influence the overall effect of the poem?
What is the "sound of sense," and why does Robert Frost use it in his poetry?
The "sound of sense" is a literary theory in which specific syllables and sounds are used to express the subject of a poem in a visceral way. For example, in the poem "Mowing," Frost selects certain terms (such a "whispering") in order to convey an aural sense of the swishing motion of the scythe as it cuts the hay. Frost is very concerned with the clarity and expression of his poetry, particularly in terms of the topic that he is discussing. By using the "sound of sense," Frost is able to layer additional meaning onto each of his works. Instead of absorbing the meaning of the poem solely through visual means, a reader is able to feel and even hear the meaning of the poem on a deeper level.
Why does Frost choose to write about everyday life in a rural environment? What is the effect of this choice on his poetry?
Frost is a major advocate of "reality" in terms of his poetry as a means of discovering greater metaphysical truths. By writing about everyday life instead of imaginary worlds, he is able to layer the basic meaning of his poems over more metaphorical ideas. For example, a poem about taking a sleigh ride through the woods ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening") can also be about the threat of death in the changing seasons and the traditional expectations of duty. In this way, his poems may seem to be simplistic on a cursory level, but they are actually multi-faceted in terms of their meaning and appeal. As a result of this choice, Frost allows his readers to become individual explorers in each of his poems. Although the basic meaning of the poem may be spelled out in a clear manner, the reader is left with unending possibilities of analysis and ultimately possesses a greater connection to each poem.
How does Frost use poetic form in unusual ways?
Frost is atypical as a poet because he uses a wide variety of forms and rhyme schemes in his poetry. However, in each case, Frost does not seem to select a specific form simply for the sake of having a difficult form to work with. Instead, he carefully chooses the form that will most clearly express the idea and meaning of his poem. In that way, Frost uses form in the same way that he uses the "sound of sense"; nothing is his poems is coincidental and everything is meant to evoke a certain idea, whether it is the sound of a syllable or the motion of a rhyme scheme. For example, in "After Apple-Picking," Frost creates a specific amalgamation of traditional rhyme schemes and free verse that is meant to illustrate the narrator's constant shifting between dreaming and waking. This also allows the reader to feel the same shifting of consciousness as the narrator while they are reading. The fact that Frost is able to execute each form flawlessly, even while using it to express the meaning of his poems, reveals the extent of his literary talent.
How did Frost's personal life influence his poetry?
Because Frost's poems are based on everyday events, many of his works are largely autobiographical. Even two of his most famous poems, "Mending Wall" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," are based on specific events in his life. In many cases, Frost was able to draw inspiration from his own life for his poems and then incorporate more metaphysical themes to give each event a deeper meaning. In addition to using life events as inspiration, Frost also used many aspects of his emotional side in his poetry, such as his life-long depression, loneliness, and sadness at the deaths of so many of his family members. Because Frost places so much of himself in each of his poems, they have a personal touch that makes them particularly appealing to the reader.
How does the familiarity of Frost's poems affect an analysis of their meaning? Is it better or worse that they are well-known?
Some of Frost's poems are so famous that it can be difficult to create an individual analysis of their meaning. The poems "Mending Wall," "The Road Not Taken," and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" have been studied in so many high schools and colleges that, in some ways, it may seem as if further analysis is impossible. However, this level of familiarity can also be beneficial because it forces the reader to go beyond the basic analysis that has already been established. Since so many people have read these poems, new readers must force themselves to think deeply about Frost's intentions and challenge themselves to reveal yet another layer of meaning.
How does Frost discuss the importance of communication in his poems?
Communication is an issue that appears in several of Frost's poems as a dangerously destructive force. In "Home Burial," for example, Frost introduces two characters whose inability to communicate eventually destroys their marriage. Each character expresses their own view about the death of their child, but only the reader is able to understand each side of the argument; the husband and wife are unable to communicate directly with each other. In this way, the reader is left with the agonizing truth that the husband and wife are speaking different languages, and that the rift in their marriage can never be healed. If their child had not died, the couple might have been able to save their relationship, but the unfortunate tragedy required a level of communication that was not possible. In Frost's poems with an isolated central character, there is a similar emphasis on communication as a saving force that is denied. For example, the old man in "An Old Man's Winter Night" and the depressed narrator in "Acquainted with the Night" are both unable to communicate with those around them and save themselves from their loneliness: the old man cannot make verbal noises, while the depressed narrator is unwilling to make eye contact with the watchman. In each of these cases, communication plays a far more important role than anything else; communication with other human beings would be enough to save any of these characters if they would only allow it.
What are some of the American ideals that are explored in Frost's poems?
Considering his background in the rural communities of New England, it is not surprising that Frost incorporates numerous American ideals and traditions into his poems. One of these primary ideals is the importance of hard work above all else. For the farmers in "Mowing" and "After Apple-Picking," hard work is necessary for survival, but it also creates a unique satisfaction that cannot be felt from the trivialities of imagination. Hard work is tangible and directly linked to an individual's success and happiness in America. Frost highlights the proud idealism of this mentality, even while discussing the loss and tragedy that hard work can occasionally cause (such as the death of the young boy in "Out, Out--"). Another traditional American ideal that Frost emphasizes in his poems is the concept of duty. In "Stopping by Woods on the Snowy Evening," the narrator wishes that he could stay in the woods to watch the snow fall, but he remembers his responsibilities to those around him. Rather than indulging in his own desires, the narrator fulfills his duties to his family and to his community and makes the necessary sacrifices for their well-being.
What is the role played by God and religion in Frost's poetry?
The figure of God does not appear in the majority of Frost's poetry. Instead of traditional religion, Frost seems to have a more transcendental approach toward the issue of faith, specifically in terms of mankind's relationship to nature. There are times when Frost does suggest the presence of a higher power (such as in "Birches"), but even those references are largely metaphorical and hint at a personal relationship between the individual and the freedom of nature. In "Choose Something Like a Star," Frost takes a rather ironic position on the existence of God and quips about humanity's need to find comfort in a higher power. However, there is not an overwhelming sense that Frost has atheistic beliefs. Instead, he seems to promote a more everyday religion, one that highlights traditional American values such as hard work, duty, and communication.
Which of Frost's poems do you think is the most effective in terms of form and meaning? Why?
The answer to this essay question is highly individual, but there are certain poems in Frost's oeuvre that are particularly dramatic and powerful. One such poem is "Fire and Ice," which is far more compelling than one would imagine, given the length of the piece. The poem does not have a single extraneous syllable, yet Frost is still able to take the age-old question of the world's fate and instantly transform it into a metaphor about the emotional destruction of a relationship from either desire or hate. The equally concise poem "A Patch of Old Snow" follows a similar pattern, with Frost creating a comparison between snow and an old newspaper as a way to broach the larger topic of the loss of the past. Frost's ability to inspire a vast range of emotions and metaphors in only a few lines speaks to the potency of these poems.
Does Robert Frost deserve the praise that he has received for his poetry? Why or why not?
This question is challenging because Frost's poetry has become so ingrained in American culture that it is hard to imagine the effect that it had when it was first published. Poems such as "The Road Not Taken" and "Mending Wall" have been repeated ad nauseum by high school English teachers and graduation speakers, so much so that it is sometimes impossible to view the poems with fresh eyes. At the time of its publication, Frost's poetry - inspired by everyday life and using a variety of poetic techniques - was unique and completely American. He created a literary canon in which the struggles and triumphs of real people were elevated to the level of high art; even the most simplistic activity could contain a deeper metaphysical meaning. Ironically, Frost's successful creation of the rural American genre of poetry could be what makes him seem irrelevant in today's society: the sense of American "reality" that he revealed in his poetry has become such a fundamental part of the American sensibilty that Frost's poetry seems almost simplistic. Although people find flaws in Frost's style and choice of topic, he is still worthy of praise as America's unofficial poet laureate for having created a new approach to poetry in America.