Interpretation of Poetry for AP English Literature
Interpretation is not license for you to say just anything. Your comments/analysis/interpretation must be based on the given text.
How do I begin to interpret poetry?
To thoroughly understand a poem, you should be able to view it and read it from three different angles or viewpoints.
The first level is the literal reading of the poem. This is the discovery of what the poem is actually saying. For this, you only use the text:
- Poetic devices
The second level builds on the first and draws conclusions from the connotation of the form and content and the interpretation of symbols. The third level refers to your own reading and interpretation of the poem. Here, you apply the processes of levels one and two, and you bring your own context or frame of reference to the poem. Your only restriction is that your interpretation is grounded in, and can be supported by, the text of the poem itself.
To illustrate this approach, let's analyze a very simple poem.
- Where ships of purple gently toss
- On seas of daffodil,
- Fantastic sailors mingle
- And then, the wharf is still.
- Read it.
- Respond. (You like it; you hate it. It leaves you cold. Whatever.)
- Check rhyme and meter. We can see there is some rhyme, and the meter is iambic and predominantly trimeter. The first and third lines are irregular. (If this does not prove to be critical to your interpretation of the poem, move on.)
- Check the vocabulary and syntax. Are there any words you are not familiar with?
- Look for poetic devices and imagery.
- Highlight, circle, connect key images and words.
- Begin to draw inferences from the adjectives, phrases, verbs.
As an example, we have provided the following notes:
- Ships of purple = purple ships (Where or when do you see purple ships?)
- Seas of daffodil = daffodil seas (When would seas be yellow?)
- Fantastic sailors = sailors of fantasy = clouds moving, birds flying (What might they be?)
- Wharf is still = place is quiet = ?
Put your observations together and formulate your interpretation. Write it below.
Some students have said that they saw a field of flowers, bees and butterflies, a coronation, a celebration, and/or a royal event. These are all valid interpretations. Remember, this is only a simple exercise to acquaint you with the approaches you can use to analyze complex poetry. By the way, Emily Dickinson was writing about a sunset over Boston harbor.
Poetry for Analysis
This section will walk you through the analysis of several poems, presenting the poetry and a series of directed questions for you to consider. For maximum benefit, work with a highlighter and refer often to the poem. Always read the entire poem before you begin the analysis.
by D. H. Lawrence
- A snake came to my water-trough
- On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat
- To drink there.
- In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carobtree
- I came down the steps with my pitcher (5)
- And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough
- before me.
- He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
- And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the
- edge of the stone trough, (10)
- And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
- And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
- He sipped with his straight mouth,
- Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
- Silently. (15)
- Someone was before me at my water trough,
- And I, like a second comer, waiting.
- He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
- And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
- And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a (20)
- And stooped and drank a little more,
- Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
- On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
- The voice of my education said to me (25)
- He must be killed,
- For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are
- The voice in me said, If you were a man
- You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off. (30)
- But must I confess how I liked him,
- How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my
- And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
- Into the burning bowels of this earth? (35)
- Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
- Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
- Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
- I felt so honoured.
- And yet those voices: (40)
- If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
- And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
- But even so, honoured still more
- That he should seek my hospitality
- From out the dark door of the secret earth. (45)
- He drank enough
- And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
- And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
- Seeming to lick his lips,
- And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air, (50)
- And slowly turned his head,
- And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice a dream,
- Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
- And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
- And as he put his head into that dreadful hole, (55)
- And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered
- A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that
- horrid black hole,
- Deliberately going into blackness, and slowly drawing himself (60)
- Overcame me now his back was turned.
- I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
- I picked up a clumsy log
- And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter. (65)
- I think it did not hit him,
- But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in
- undignified haste,
- Writhed like lightning, and was gone
- Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front, (70)
- At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
- And immediately I regretted it.
- I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
- I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
- And I thought of the albatross, (75)
- And I wished he would come back, my snake.
- For he seemed to me again like a king,
- Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
- Now due to be crowned again.
- And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords (80)
- Of life.
- And I have something to expiate:
- A pettiness.
- Since there is no regular rhyme scheme or length of lines or stanza form, we may conclude that this is free verse. __Yes __No
- After reading the poem, you should be able to determine the situation, which is _______________, and the speaker who is
- The first stanza establishes the conflict, which is _______________
- Find evidence of the developing conflict in lines 4–6. _______________
- Find examples of alliteration and assonance in lines 7–13. Notice how the sounds are appropriate for a snake rather than just random sounds.
- Read line 12 aloud. Hear how slowly and "long" the sounds are, like the body of the snake itself.
- Circle or highlight the imagery in lines 16–24. _______________ Notice how the scene is intensifying.
- Restate the speaker's position in lines 25–28. _______________
- In lines 31–38 identify the conflict and the thematic ideas of the poem. Highlight them.
- Identify the opposition facing the speaker in lines 36–39. State it. _______________
- In lines 46–54 highlight the similes presented. Explore the nature of a snake and the connotation associated with one. _______________
- Interpret the setting as presented in lines 55–62. _______________
- The poem breaks at line 63. Highlight the change in the speaker at this point. Who is to blame for this action? _______________
- In line 75 there is a reference or allusion to the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Coleridge, which is a poem in which a man learns remorse and the meaning of life as the result of a cruel, spontaneous act. Is this a suitable comparison for this poem's circumstances? Why? _______________
- Identify the similes and metaphor in lines 66–71. _______________
- Elaborate on the final confession of the speaker. May we conclude that the poem is a modern dramatic monologue? _______________
The following poem is particularly suitable for the interpretation of symbolism. Apply what you have learned and reviewed and respond to this sample.
The Sick Rose
by William Blake
- O Rose, Thou Art Sick!
- The Invisible Worm
- That flies in the night
- In the howling Storm,
- Has found out thy bed
- Of Crimson joy,
- And his dark secret love
- Does thy life destroy.
Try your hand at interpreting this poem:
Apply the following thematic concepts to the poem:
Interesting, isn't it, how much can be found or felt in a few lines. Read other poems by Blake, such as "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience."
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