Poetry Analysis

A poem combines meaning, emotion, language and images. It contains rhythm and sound with sight and ideas. All at once it appeals to the senses, feelings and the mind. It works together even when the parts seem to exist separately. First we approach a poem simply and add the complexities one at a time to see how the parts work.

Start and end with the Poem itself. It is your anchor; you return to it to continually validate your working hypothesis. At first read any work as if they were prose, with standard sentence structure. [Although "Prayer (I)" is not a sentence.] Concentrate on the words, without benefit of References, Footnotes, Historical, Philosophical, Theological, Biblical, Biographical and any external information. Sometimes this is difficult, you may be left with very little to work with, but do what you can. Everything that is outside the perimeter of the poem must resound within or the meaning will be false. (Read the lines before you read between the lines. And then read the lines again. We are trying to understand what the poem is saying, not what the reader gets out of it. This is/should be the difference between High School and College {Sometimes Graduate/Post Graduate revert to "High School."} Through this we understand the poem, not ourselves. Once we understand the meaning as the author wrote it, we can see ourselves in the mirror of its meaning.) As you reread make note of elements that do not fit into the meaning as you understand it so far. Some poems may develop many question marks on your page. All of these should be answered before you come to your final understanding.

Next, test the meaning that you have carefully determined with references you need, those mentioned or alluded to in the poem. One example is the older meaning of words. (Use the Oxford English Dictionary. No substitutes.) When you are reading older works, a common word may mean something else. (In Herbert "then" often means "than," but sometimes it means "then." See which works better.) Look up names that you do and do not know; how do they fit into the meaning of the poem. (See "Decay," "Sacrifice.") The definition of a word may change throughout the stanzas ("all" in "The Invitation"). The double meaning of words, puns, can cause confusion. ("Sonne" handles 2 meanings simultaneously.) Start eliminating those question marks and refine your understanding. There may be times, even often, that you will revise or discard your original understanding. Don't be afraid to grow as you go.

Order and organization give you clues. Sonnets, for example, are carefully organized.1 ("The Holdfast") Lyrics develop their own order. ("Vertue," based on images; "A Wreath," woven with reiterated words; "Christmas" (B) built with 2 images that combine; "The Pulley" integrates 2 metaphors into a conceit.) Narratives use time sequence for their order ("Love Unknown"). A simple development may be through conflict and resolution ("Love (III)"). The ordering of ideas and events advances the theme.

So far we have been working within the poem, understanding parts of the whole. You have been treating a poem as if it were prose. (You may have been ignoring the poetic capacity of the prose.) That is fine so far, but now you should consider the poetic dimensions. More of your question marks will be answered when a metaphor confirms the meaning. Do not force images; when you understand them properly, they will fit. A simple reference can become an image which can become a symbol, center of the idea. ("The Rose," "The Windows") The conceit carries the story and meaning in "The Pulley." Examine poetic structure, rhyme, rhythm, and all the poetic techniques. (See Poetic Table.) Determine what the poetic devices contribute to the meaning of the poem. The rhyme itself may have a purpose ("Deniall," "Home," "Water-course," "Paradise").  Or the rejecting of rhyme and reason ("The Collar." In Herbert rhyme is a metaphor for harmony and order; the lack of rhyme, for disharmony and disorder). The format may carry part of the meaning ("The Altar," "Easter-wings"). Even italics has its part ("Coloss. 3.3"). Be sure that the tone does not compromise the message. (See "Time," "The Collar.") [Determine the truth of the content. Sarcasm, humor and satire will throw your present evaluation off.]

This brings up a fundamental attitude in interpreting anything, even a poem. Assume that the author knows what he/she is doing. And even more daring, it was done on purpose. ("Humilitie") This may be unbelievable [and with some people it is impossible], but if a writer does not know what he is doing - don't read him. {And if the reader does not know what he is doing, there is no reason to be read.} This includes other students, professors, &c and yourself. Of course Freud would say that an accident is unconsciously on purpose.

One other consideration and source of clarification is other poems by the author. Poems that are part of one poem ("Christmas," "Good Friday," "Easter") or one poem that purposely follows another ("Thanksgiving"/"Reprisall," "Love I"/"II," "H. Baptism I"/"H. Baptism II."). Writings on the same subject, prose or poems. (See the 5 Afflictions.) Writings in the same volume, other poems or his preface. (See Preface [not by Herbert], "Dedication," "The Altar," "Jordan (I)," "Jordan (II).") Writings from the same period of the author's life. (With Herbert this is more difficult because all poems were printed in 1633. Little is known of them before. The Williams MS is earlier than the British MS which was used for the printed edition so there is some comparison possible. [See Poem Order in The Temple] George Herbert Palmer has done some work in this area.) Even the placement of a poem may imply a context for interpretation. (See The Furniture poems or "Anagram.") Herbert gives the foundation for this in "H. Scripture II." He bases it on scriptural understanding, but he uses it as his own method of linking the poems. [Personal Note: Because of this interrelatedness of poems, words, concepts and images, The Temple becomes a complex extended metaphor/conceit.]

Consider external references and information not included within the careful construct of the poem. ["To all Angels and Saints," "Josephs coat"] These can include authors' and critics' observations. (WARNING: Be sure that these make the poem clearer. Not "more interesting/useful," "more contemporary/modern," "better Christian/whatever," "more intellectual/'real'" or any of the preset virtues of the reader. [You will say this is not possible. I know it's not possible, but do it anyway, the best you can.] If the observation makes the work clearer, use it.) To get the attitude of the time in which the author lived, the works of other writers on the same subject, works of his friends. With each step we widen the circle of influence and lessen the connection to the actual work we are studying. Still there may be parallels and insights. Be careful not to strain to make a connection.

Other larger areas of investigation include Poetry in general, its history, development and forms. Begin with the period in question and widen the circle until there is no connection. The same may be true for other disciplines: Language ["Sonne," "Jesu"], Government ["The British Church"], Philosophy ["Frailtie"], Religion ["To all Angels and Saints," "Church rents and schisms"]. This is why survey courses in all fields are useful ["Vanitie (I)"]. They give a perspective and environment for any author's work. Yet the author's concerns will be the first areas of investigation and relevance.

When all the question marks have been answered, and you have covered four times the area necessary for your analysis, you have all the pieces to fully understand the poem. Put the irrelevant information aside, and begin the interpretation.

General Note: From the illustrations above it is clear that Herbert successfully implemented a varied range of techniques to appropriately communicate his objectives. For his variety of rhyme and line length see a Resortable Table. For Herbert's reason and rhyme see Rhyme as a Poetic Image in The Temple.

1 In the English or Shakespearean sonnet (using the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG), the first four lines (first quatrain) state the subject. The second quatrain develops the subject sometimes with an appropriate image or description. The third quatrain applies the subject to another area of consideration or develops it in a different, contrasting way. The last couplet gives the conclusion.
   In the Italian sonnet (using the rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDECDE), the first 2 quatrains are the same, but the next 3 line contrast the meaning of the subject and the last 3 lines give the conclusion. Sometimes the entire sextet (last 6 lines) gradually works toward a conclusion.
   Teachers Note: All sonnets are 14 lines of iambic pentameter (syllables are accented " U / " as in "inSTRUCT." There are 5 of these, 10 syllables, to a line; pentameter). (Shakespeare has exceptions on the number of lines. Modern writers have exceptions on iambic; some use trochaic (accented " / U " as in TEnnis). Not all lines are 10 syllables, and not every foot is iambic. For the sake of variety and cadence another foot may be substituted, but the predominant line is iambic pentameter.)
   Editors Addition: Herbert uses 2 rhyme schemes: ABABCDCDEFEFGG (The Answer, Avarice, Christmas [A], The Holdfast and Sinne (I)] and ABABCDCDEFFEGG (H. Baptism (I), Love I & II, Prayer (I), Redemption, H. Scriptures (I) & (II), Sinner, The Sonne, and 2 in Walton.
   Although the sonnet has a reputation as being a love poem (see Love I & II for the sonnet used against itself), Herbert tells stories with it (Christmas [A], Redemption) maintaining the organization.
   See Sonnets Central by Eric Blomquist, for other English Renaissance writers. [Return]

Poetry Interpretation Exercises

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