In order to understand the subject of a poem, there is one very important thing that has to be accomplished first: finding it. This seems like a simple task, surely, a poet would make the subject clear, right? They would want the reader to know immediately what they’re talking about? Well…. sometimes. This is true with a great deal of poetry, but certainly not all. Poets, no matter their background and life experiences confront the task of writing a piece of poetry in different ways.
What is the subject of a poem? What exactly does that mean? Well, the subject might also be called the main idea, goal, or thing about which the poem is concerned. This could be anything from a birthday celebration or a walk through a natural space, to religious ecstasy or an appreciation of a piece of art, or all those things at once. Almost every poem has one or more subjects and it’s important when analyzing a poem to have the subject/s at the front of your mind.
Speaking of life experiences, these individual experiences are some of the basic elements that might play into a poetic work. Sometimes, the subject of a poem seems clear, but there are elements missing from a blind/cold reading of the text. This is often the case when a poet is writing from their own perceptive. Let’s take ‘To My Sister’ by William Wordsworth as an example.
In this poem, Wordsworth depicts a one-sided conversation between himself and an unknown listener who he calls “sister”. It is possible to take the poem at face value, but once you know the context it’s clear the important role it plays in understanding the subject.
Wordsworth wrote this piece in 1798 while living in Somerset. It is thought that the poem is part of a group of four, all of which were written with Wordsworth’s home Alfoxden Park in mind. It was a large house, well-loved by Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. They were both comfortable there, with Wordsworth recovering from a drawn-out depression. The poems from Wordsworth’s best-known collection, Lyrical Ballads, also had their start in Alfoxden.
Rather than being about a simple walk in a natural space with “grass in the green field” it is a walk between Wordsworth and his sister in order to clear their minds at the beginning of the day. It is with this information, which is discovered through a few moments of additional research, that one can come to a better, and more fulsome, understanding of the subject of ‘To My Sister’. Luckily, for lovers of Wordsworth, there is a great deal written online and in books about his works. This is not always the case for poets. Contemporary poets, or those who were not famous in their lifetime, and are still not famous now, will always be more difficult to research.
Wordsworth’s ‘To My Sister’ is only one example of how poets might use their personal experience within their poetry. In one way or another, a poet’s daily life, educational experiences, and intentions find their way into their written verse. Sometimes, these experiences are the subject, sometimes they aren’t. But, they always inspire the approach a poet takes. Therefore, if there is information online about a poet it can only benefit you to do a bit more research.
Mood and Tone
In addition to the historical research, you may or may not need to, or be able to, carry out about a specific piece of poetry, the mood and tone of the text is important when investigating the subject.
The mood is the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem. The tone tells us how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic and journalistic are going to have a tone of some sort. Sometimes the emotion in a work is not as obvious as it is in others, or the lack of emotion might even end up revealing the tone. It could be unconcerned or objective.
Above all else, the mood and tone refer to the qualities of the poet’s language. That is, how they’ve decided to arrange the words on the page and what effect those words have on the reader. Let’s take ‘You Begin’ by Margaret Atwood as an example. Within this piece the speaker addresses her child, giving them bits of information about the world. The mood is gentle, compassionate, and caring and the tone, calm, and reflective. Atwood uses simple images, shapes, and colours to depict a world for a child.
While childhood education might seem like the main subject of this piece, it is larger than that. Through an interpretation of the tone and mood a reader can expand their understanding of Atwood’s intentions and consider ‘You Begin’ as a larger commentary on what it means to grow up and live in a world that is knowable, but at the same time allusive. Themes of familial love and human bonds enter into the text, expanding the subject even further.
Other Aspects to Consider
In addition to the mood and tone, a reader should also consider the various ways poets use language, as seen through rhyme and meter. You should ask yourself, is there something unique about how the lines are written? When compared to a poet’s other works, are there similarities or differences? Do the rhymes come sporadically? Are they discordant? How does assonance or consonance affect your experience with the poem?
Perhaps this is obvious, but if a poet uses a word or phrase multiple times, or spends a great deal of time speaking on a specific topic, there is a good chance it is part of, if not the sole subject of the poem. Always be on the lookout for this technique!