The theme of a piece of poetry, a short story, a novel, or even a work of art, is the underlying message that the writer or artist wants to convey. It can be something as simple as love, or as something more complex, such as human versus nature. When you consider poetry and its attempts to convey something of the human experience, you can imagine the range of possible themes. But, let’s think about some of the most common that you are sure to come across.
Love is the most obvious. It can be love for another person, love for nature, or even love for oneself. The first on this list is the most obvious. Love for another can be seen within the work of countless poets since writing as a form of expression came into being. One writer who is known for crafting some of the most beautiful and memorable love poems in the English language is John Keats. He is known for works such as ‘Endymion’ and ‘Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art’. Or you might be familiar with Lord Byron, who wrote breathtaking poem such as ‘She Walks in Beauty’.
But, let’s look at a lesser-known poet, Anne Bradstreet. One of her best-known works is a clear example of love as a theme, ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’. Here are the final four lines:
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
In the twelve short lines of the poem, she uses the word “love” six times. She states that her relationship to her husband is more valuable than “whole mines of gold” or all the riches of the East. The poet expresses her devotion through simile and metaphor. The figurative language shows true passion.
Here are a few more examples of poems that clearly have a theme of love.
- ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ by William Shakespeare
- ‘Annabel Lee’ by Edgar Allan Poe
- ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne
- ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ by Sylvia Plath
Just like love, death is a very common theme in poetry. In Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Lenore’, Poe combines the two. In this piece, a lover and a bystander discuss the life and death of a woman, Lenore. The lover berates the public for not appreciating her adequately and tries to express how important she was to him. Here is the last stanza of the poem that speaks about her death.
Avaunt! to-night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,
But waft the angel on her flight with a Pæan of old days!
Let no bell toll!–lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth,
Should catch the note, as it doth float up from the damnéd Earth.
To friends above, from fiends below, the indignant ghost is riven–
From Hell unto a high estate far up within the Heaven–
From grief and groan, to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven.”
The first line of this section is a beautiful expression of love and care, even after one’s lover is gone. The speaker asks that the bells stop ringing as they might bother Lenore (now in the form of an angel) as she makes her way into heaven. Clearly, the love this speaker held for her is coming through, but the lines wouldn’t be necessary unless she had died so it is important to consider how both of these elements come together.
Here are a few examples of poems that have a theme of death:
- ‘Death is Nothing at All’ by Henry Scott Holland
- ‘Died…’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- ‘On the Death of Anne Brontë’ by Charlotte Brontë
- ‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath
The third theme we’re going to take a look at is religion or spirituality. Just like in the world of visual art, some of the more important written art was done while the writer was considering religion, faith, God and oftentimes, doubt. These themes often come together into the contemplation of the afterlife, a higher power, and the forces that control our everyday lives. The latter could be religious in nature, or more spiritual, concerned with nature and emotional universality.
For our example, let’s take a look at lines from Christina Rossetti’s ‘Good Friday’. It is a devotional poem, meaning that it expresses religious worship or prayer. In this case, the speaker expresses her longing to devote herself fully to Christianity, but also her reluctance to do so.
Here are the first two stanzas of the text:
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
As can be seen clearly, the speaker is addressing God, by way of Christ, asking if she is a “stone” because she can look at him upon the cross “And yet not weep”. The speaker compares herself to the women present at the crucifixion who “lamented” Christ adequately. They were Christ’s “sheep” and she feels she is the only one who is a stone. By the end, she asks God to show himself as a shepherd once more and bring her into the flock.
Here are a few examples of poems that clearly have a theme of religion or spirituality:
- ‘Church Going’ by Philip Larkin
- ‘I saw no Way— The Heavens were stitched’ by Emily Dickinson
- ‘This is my play’s last scene’ by John Donne
- ‘The Retreat’ by Henry Vaughn
Nature is undoubtedly one of the most commonly utilized themes of poetry in recorded history. It is due to nature’s wide-ranging connotations and the impossibility of perfectly defining it that makes it such an allusive and engaging theme. Poems in this category could speak on the natural world (as we commonly think of it: trees, mountains etc) and its beauties or dangers.
Alternatively, one might find poetry that elegizes the landscape as we once knew it, preindustrial revolution and the explosion of human populations. Also in this category, one might encounter poems that have to do with human nature and human interactions of altercations with the natural world. This was summed up quite nicely by Walk Whitman in the following quote: “[Nature is] the only complete, actual poem”. Nature, he believed, contained everything.
A poem that uses nature as one of its primary themes is Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Bight’. This poem was written while Bishop was living in Key West, Florida and observing a specific “bight,” or curved coastland.
Here are the first few lines from the poem:
At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
Here are a few examples of poems that clearly utilize nature as one of their main themes:
- Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats
- Winter Landscape, with Rooks by Sylvia Plath
- Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
- Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore by Charlotte Smith
Another wide-ranging and multitudinous theme is beauty. It comes in many forms and can be seen through natural beauty, physical human beauty, beauty in spirit or action, as well as an assortment of other instances. Often, poems dedicated to human beauty come in the form of odes, such as ‘Ode to Beauty’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Or, like ‘She Walks in Beauty’ by Lord Byron, be written in a very lyrical style as if to mimic the subject.
For an example of how the theme of beauty can expand beyond the physically human, one might consider ‘[London, my beautiful]’ by F.S. Flint. In this poem, Flint describes one speaker’s love for the city of London and how he feels the city improves others and himself.
Let’s look at the first six lines:
London, my beautiful,
it is not the sunset
nor the pale green sky
shimmering through the curtain
of the silver birch,
nor the quietness;
Here are some other poems that explore the theme of beauty in different ways:
- ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty‘ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- ‘The Rainbow’ by Christina Rossetti
- ‘Bell Birds’ by Henry Kendall
- ‘Fides, Spes’ by Willa Cather
The most powerful literary themes are those which touch everyone. Life, death, age, these are examples of universal considerations that each person, lover of poetry or not, must contend with. Some of the most powerful poetic works consider age, and one’s an unstoppable progression towards death. That being said, no one’s experience of ageing is the same as anyone else’s. As poets from across time explore what it means to age, their various conclusions and considerations paint a picture of human nature and the fear or hope that underlies one’s living days.
Let’s take for example ‘Transfiguration’ by Louisa May Alcott. This is a personal poem written from the poet’s own perspective. It details her emotions surrounding her mother, Abigail Alcott’s, death and attempts to paint change and death as something beautiful, not something to fear. The process of ageing for Alcott’s mother was not an easy one, in the text, she decides how once her mother died, “Age, pain and sorrow dropped the veils they wore”. Here are the next few lines:
And showed the tender eyes
Of angels in disguise,
Whose discipline so patiently she bore.
The past years brought their harvest rich and fair;
While memory and love,
Together, fondly wove
A golden garland for the silver hair.
Here are a few other examples that consider the theme of age from different perspectives:
- ‘Age’ by Philip Larkin
- ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ by Lord Byron
- ‘You Begin’ by Margaret Atwood
- ‘Lullaby’ by W.H. Auden
Speaking of universally relatable themes, desire is certainly an important one. Whether romantic, erotic or spiritual, desire poems are expansive. Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sonnets come to mind. The speaker in these works addresses a young man through a series of sonnets that outline his love, desire and heartache. Some of the most famous are sonnet number 13 ‘O! That you were yourself; but love, you are’ and sonnet 116, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’.
A clear cut example of desire can be found in John Donne’s ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’. The poem was published after the poet’s death in 1654 and details a speaker’s pleas for his lover to undress and come to bed. Here are a few lines from the middle of the poem:
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
Some interesting examples that speak on a variety of desires include:
- ‘Absent from thee’ by John Wilmot
- ‘To Be in Love’ by Gwendolyn Brooks
- ‘XII’ by Sappho
- ‘The Heart asks Pleasure— first’ by Emily Dickinson
Writings about oneself, especially in a poetic form, were most popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although, that is not to say that they don’t exist in today’s contemporary literary world. These writers, no matter what time period they lived in, deeply considered their own place in the world, the impact (or lack thereof) they thought they were having, who they wanted to become, or any number of other contemplative self musings. Some are inspiring and rousing, such as ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou, others, like Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ as more expansive and span greater periods of time.
For example, let’s turn to ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes, which is also known as ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’. The text speaks about the lives of Harlem residents who are not experiencing the “American Dream”, but instead are having their dreams deferred. Through a series of questions, one Harlem resident asks what happened to his dreams, and more widely, the dreams of all those like him.
Let’s look at few lines from this short poem in which the speaker considers why and how dreams disappear, and where they end up after they’re gone:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Here are a few more poems that utilize identity, or a search for one’s self, as one of their major themes:
- ‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath
- ‘Search for My Tongue’ by Sujata Bhatt
- ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou
- ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore
When one considers this wide-ranging theme, there are a number of possible subjects to keep in mind. A journey can consist of just about anything. One could be moving physically travelling from place to place, or be transforming in some significant way. The journey might be somewhere specific that can actually be listed on a map, or somewhere less tangible, such as the afterlife.
The former is the subject of Billy Collins’ poem ‘Writing in the Afterlife’. It presents the reader with an interesting depiction of the afterlife from the perspective of a man who is experiencing it. Nothing is as the reader, or the speaker expected. He outlines what it was like to arrive at a rive, not dissimilar from the River Styx in Greek mythology.
Here are a few lines from the poem:
Many have pictured a river here,
but no one mentioned all the boats,
their benches crowded with naked passengers,
each bent over a writing tablet.
Take a look at this list of very different approaching to the theme of travelling, or embarking on a journey:
- ‘Travel’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- ‘Postcard from a Travel Snob’ by Sophie Hannah
- ‘The Road Goes Ever On’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
- ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ by Joseph Brodsky
Throughout time, writers and non-writers have interpreted the end of the world in startlingly different ways. Some see a violent, bloody end to the human race. Others, something simpler, calmer and even to be looked forward to. No matter the writer’s religious or cultural background, apocalyptically themed poems can be stimulating and disturbing.
For a haunting example of one poet’s interpretation of the end of the world, let’s look at ‘Holy Sonnet VII: At the round Earth’s imagin’d corners, blow’ by John Donne.
Here are the first few lines from the poem:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
This piece contains the speaker’s description of Judgment Day and an appeal to God to forgive him for his sins. It begins with the speaker directing angels at the corners of the earth to blow their trumpets and wake the dead. With this action, all those who have passed away, in all their “numberless infinities” will return to earth and seek out their bodies.
Here are a few more examples of poems that speak on the apocalypse:
- ‘Fire and Ice’ by Robert Frost
- ‘Darkness’ by Lord Byron
- ‘The Hollow Men’ by T.S. Eliot
- ‘Speaking Tree’ by Joy Harjo
Dreams have the potential to change the way we experience the world. Negative or positive, they are a reflection (and for some a space of inspiration) of how we live our lives. Many a poet has written about nights ruined by strange and terrible dreams. Or, days improved by thoughtful, wistful imaginings. One example, ‘Dreams’ by Helen Hunt Jackson, is closer to the former.
Here are a few lines from the poem:
Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain,
Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep,
And lead us to the houses where we keep
Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain
That we can forge and bind […]
In this text, she speaks abut the negative impact dreams can have on one’s waking life. They force back into one’s conscious mind negative experiences of the past and prolong sadness.
Here are four more poems, these speak on the importance of the dream state and the different forms it can take:
- ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe
- ‘The House of Ghosts’ by Margaret Widdemer
- ‘Death in the Arctic’ by Robert Service
- ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by John Keats
Why should you care about Themes in Poetry?
A great question, and one that really answers itself. If you are interested in reading poetry it is likely because you enjoy the way writers manipulate words to a specific purpose. That purpose could be more ephemeral, such as tapping into an appreciation for the written word itself and the art one can create with it, (exemplified by movements such as Oulipo or Dada) or more straightforwardly emotional. Either way, without themes, most poems do not have a purpose.
Here is a list of some more themes you might come across while reading poetry:
- Coming of age
- Good versus evil,
- Hierarchy of nature
- Isolation, self-awareness and vanity