Types of Poetry for AP English Literature
Because of its personal nature poetry has evolved into many different forms, each with its own unique purpose and components. What follows is an examination of the most often encountered forms.
Most poetry falls into one of two major categories. Narrative poetry tells a story. Lyric poetry presents a personal impression.
The ballad is one of the earliest poetic forms. It is a narrative that was originally spoken or sung and has often changed over time. It usually:
- Is simple.
- Employs dialogue, repetition, minor characterization.
- Is written in quatrains.
- Has a basic rhyme scheme, primarily a b c b.
- Has a refrain which adds to its songlike quality.
- Is composed of two lines of iambic tetrameter which alternate with two lines of iambic trimeter.
The subject matter of ballads varies considerably. Frequently, ballads deal with the events in the life of a folk hero, like Robin Hood. Sometimes they retell historical events. The supernatural, disasters, good and evil, love and loss are all topics found in traditional ballads.
The following is a typical folk ballad. Read this poem out loud. Listen to the music as you read. Get involved in the story. Imagine the scene. Try to capture the dialect or sound of the Scottish burr.
Bonny Barbara Allan
After you've read the ballad, consider the following:
- It was in and about the Martinmas time,
- When the green leaves were falling,
- That Sir John Graeme, in the West Country,
- Fell in love with Barbara Allan.
- He sent his man down through the town,
- To the place where she was dwelling:
- "O haste and come to my master dear,
- Gin ye be Barbara Allan."
- O hooly, hooly rose she up,
- To the place where he was lying,
- And when she drew the curtain by:
- "Young man I think you're dying."
- "O it's I'm sick, and very, very sick,
- And 'tis a' for Barbara Allan."
- O the better for me ye's never be,
- Though your heart's blood were a-spilling.
- "O dinna ye mind, young man," said she,
- When ye was in the tavern a drinking,
- That ye made the healths gae round and round,
- And slighted Barbara Allan?"
- He turned his face unto the wall,
- And death was with him dealing:
- "Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
- And be kind to Barbara Allan."
- And slowly, slowly raise she up,
- And slowly, slowly left him,
- And sighing said, she could not stay,
- Since death of life had reft him.
- She had not gane a mile or twa,
- When she heard the dead-bell ringing,
- And every jow that the dead bell geid,
- It cried, "Woe to Barbara Allan."
- "O mother, mother, make my bed!
- O make it saft and narrow!
- Since my love died for me to-day,
- "I'll die for him to-morrow."
- Check the rhyme scheme and stanza form. You should notice it is written in quatrains. The rhyme scheme is a little tricky here; it depends on pronunciation and is what is called a forced rhyme. If you soften the "g" sound in the word "falling," it more closely rhymes with "Allan." Try this throughout the ballad, recognizing that the spoken word can be altered and stretched to fit the intention of rhyme. This falls under the category of "poetic license."
- Follow the plot of the narrative. Poor Barbara Allan, poor Sir John. They are a classic example of thwarted young lovers, a literary pattern as old as Antigone and Haemon or Romeo and Juliet. Love, unrequited love, and dying for love are all universal themes in literature.
- Observe the use of repetition and how it unifies the poem by sound and structure. "Barbara Allan/Hooly, hooly/Adieu, adieu/Slowly, slowly/Mother, mother."
- Notice that dialogue is incorporated into the poem for characterization and plot development.
Here are some wonderfully wicked and enjoyable ballads to read:
- "Sir Patrick Spens"—the tragic end of a loyal sailor
- "The Twa Corbies"—the irony of life and nature
- "Edward"—a wicked, wicked, bloody tale
- "Robin Hood"—still a great, grand adventure
- "Lord Randall"—sex, lies, and death in ancient England
- "Get Up and Bar the Door"—a humorous battle of the sexes
- "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"—John Keats's fabulous tale of a demon lover
Have you read ballads? Traditional or modern? List them here. Jot down a few details or lines to remind you of important points. If you're musical, try singing one out loud.
Lyric poetry is highly personal and emotional. It can be as simple as a sensory impression or as elevated as an ode or elegy. Subjective and melodious, it is often reflective in tone.
The following is an example of a lyric:
A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns
- O my luve's like a red, red rose,
- That's newly sprung in June;
- O my luve's like the melodie
- That's sweetly played in tune.
- As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
- So deep in luve am I;
- And I will luve thee still, my dear,
- Till a' the seas gang dry.
- Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
- And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
- O I will luve thee still, my dear,
- While the sands o' life shall run.
- And fare the weel, my only luve,
- And fare the weel awhile!
- And I will come again, my luve,
- Though it were ten thousand mile.
Now answer the following questions:
- The stanza form is __________
- The rhyme scheme is __________
- The meter of line 6 is __________
- The first stanza depends on similes. Underline them. __________
- Cite assonance in stanza one. __________
- Line 8 is an example of __________
- Highlight alliteration in the poem __________
- Did you recognize iambic trimeter? How about hyperbole? __________
The following are wonderful lyric poems. Read a few.
- Edna St. Vincent Millay—"Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies"
- Emily Dickinson—"Wild Nights, Wild Nights"
- Dylan Thomas—"Fern Hill"
- Matthew Arnold—"Dover Beach"
- Andrew Marvell—"To His Coy Mistress"
The ode is a formal lyric poem that addresses subjects of elevated stature. One of the most beautiful odes in English literature is by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Ode to the West Wind
- O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
- Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
- Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
- Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
- Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
- Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
- The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
- Each like a corpse within the grave, until
- Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
- Her clarion*'er the dreaming earth, and fill
- (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
- With living hues and odors plain and hill:
- Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
- Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
- Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion,
- Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
- Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
- Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
- On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
- Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
- Of some fierce Maenad,*even from the dim verge
- Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
- The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
- Of the dying year, to which this closing night
- Will be the dome of a vast sepulcher,
- Vaulted with all thy congregated might
- Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere
- Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!
- Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
- The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
- Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams
- Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
- And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
- Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
- All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
- So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
- For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
- Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
- The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
- The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
- Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
- And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
- If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
- If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
- A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
- The impulse of thy strength, only less free
- Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
- I were as in my boyhood, and could be
- The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
- As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
- Scarce seem a vision; I would ne'er have striven
- As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
- Oh, lift me as a wave, a leave, a cloud!
- I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
- A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
- One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
- Make me thy lyre,* even as the forest is:
- What if my leaves are falling like its own!
- The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
- Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
- Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
- My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
- Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
- Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
- And, by the incantation of this verse,
- Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
- Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
- Be through my lips to unawakened earth
- The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
- If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
As always, read the poem carefully. (Find a private place and read it aloud. You'll be carried away by the beauty of the sounds and imagery.) Now answer the following questions.
- Look at the configuration of the poem. It is divided into five sections. What function might each section serve? __________
- Count the lines in each section. How many? _____Name the two stanza forms you encountered. __________
- Check the rhyme scheme. Did you come up with a b a b c b c d c d e d e e? The first four tercets are written in a form called terza rima. Notice how this rhyme scheme interweaves the stanzas and creates unity throughout the poem. Did it cross your mind that each section might be a variation on the sonnet form? __________
- Check the meter. You should notice that it is very irregular. (Freedom of form was a tenet of the Romantic Movement.)
- Stanza one: Did you catch the apostrophe? The direct address to the wind places us in the poem's situation and provides the subject of the ode. Highlight the alliteration and trace the similes in line 3. __________
- Stanza two: What are the "pestilence-stricken multitudes"? In addition to leaves, could they be the races of man? __________
- Stanza three: See how the enjambment pulls you into this line. Find the simile. Alliteration can be seen in "azure," "sister," "Spring," "shall."
- Stanza four: What images are presented? _____Locate the simile. _____Find the contrast between life and death. _____Highlight the personification.
- Identify the essential paradox of the poem and life itself in the couplet.
We are not going to take you through the poem line by line. You may isolate those lines that speak to you. Here are a few of our favorites that are worth a second look:
- Lines 29–31
- Lines 35–42 for assonance
- Lines 53–54
- Lines 55–56
- Lines 57–70
You should be able to follow the development of ideas through the five sections. Were you aware of:
- The land imagery in section 1.
- The air imagery in section 2.
- The water imagery in section 3.
- The comparison of the poet to the wind in section 4.
- The appeal for the spirit of the wind to be the poet's spirit in section 5.
After you have read the poem, followed the organization, recognized the devices and images, you still have to interpret what you've read.
This ode has many possibilities. One interpretation linked it with the French Revolution and Shelley's understanding of the destructive regeneration associated with it. Another valid reading focuses on Shelley's loss of faith in the Romantic Movement. He asks for inspiration to breathe life into his work again. Try to propose other interpretations for this "Ode to the West Wind."
The elegy is a formal lyric poem written in honor of one who has died. Elegiac is the adjective that describes a work lamenting any serious loss.
One of the most famous elegies is by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was written to mourn the loss of John Keats. Here is the first stanza of "Adonais." It contains all the elements of an elegy.
- I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
- O, weep for Adonais! Though our tears
- Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
- And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
- To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
- And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
- Died Adonais; till the Future dares
- Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
- An echo and a light unto eternity!"
* An Elegy on the death of John Keats, author of "Endymion," "Hyperion," etc.
Read this stanza several times. Try it aloud. Get carried away by the emotion. Respond to the imagery. Listen to the sounds; let the meter and rhyme guide you through. Consider the following:
- Adonais, Shelley's name for Keats, is derived from Adonis. This is a mythological allusion to associate Keats with love and beauty. (The meter will tell you how to pronounce Adonais.)
- Check the rhyme scheme. Did you come up with a b a b b c b c c? See how the last two lines are rhymed to set this idea apart.
- Line 1 contains a major caesura in the form of a dash. This forces the reader to pause and consider the depth of emotion and the finality of the event. The words that follow are also set off by the caesura and emphasized by the exclamation point. Notice that the meter is not interrupted by the caesura. ( is perfect iambic pen ta meter.) This line is a complete thought which is concluded by punctuation and is an example of an end-stopped line.
- Line 2 utilizes repetition to intensify the sense of loss. Here the caesura is an exclamation point. Notice that the last three words of the line fulfill the meter of iambic pentameter but do not express a complete thought as did line 1. The thought continues into line 3. The thought continues into line 3. This is an example of enjambment.
- Lines 2 and 3 contain alliteration ("Though," "tears," "Thaw," "the") and consonance ("not," "frost," continuing into line 4 with "thou").
- Line 3 contains imagery and metaphor. What does the frost represent? _______________
- Line 4 contains an apostrophe which is a direct address to the sad Hour, which is personified. To what event does the "sad Hour" refer? _______________
- Lines 4, 5, and 6 incorporate assonance. The vowel sounds provide a painful tone through "ow" sounds ("thou," "Hour," "our," "rouse," "sorrow").
- Notice how the enjambment in lines 7–9 speeds the stanza to the final thought. This helps the pacing of the poem.
- Reread the poem. Choose images and lines you respond to.
Have you read any elegies? List them here. Jot down the poet, title, and any images and lines you like. Add your own thoughts about the poem.
Following is a list of some of the most beautiful elegies in the English language. Make it a point to read several. You won't be sorry.
"Elegy for Jane" by Theodore Roethke—a teacher's lament for his student.
"Elegy in a Country Church Yard" by Thomas Gray—a reflective look at what might have been.
"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and "O Captain, My Captain" by Walt Whitman—tributes to Abraham Lincoln.
"In Memory of W. B. Yeats" by W. H. Auden—a poet's homage to a great writer.
The Dramatic Monologue
The dramatic monologue relates an episode in a speaker's life through a conversational format that reveals the character of the speaker.
Robert Browning is the acknowledged master of the dramatic monologue. The following is an example of both the dramatic monologue and Browning's skill as a poet.
- The rain set early in tonight,
- The sullen wind was soon awake,
- It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
- And did its worst to vex the lake:
- I listened with heart fit to break.
- When glided in Porphyria; straight
- She shut the cold out and the storm,
- And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
- Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
- Which done, she rose, and from her form
- Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
- And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
- Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
- And, last, she sat down by my side
- And called me. When no voice replied,
- She put my arm about her waist,
- And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
- And all her yellow hair displaced,
- And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
- And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
- Murmuring how she loved me – she
- Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
- To set its struggling passion free
- From pride, and vainer ties desever,
- And give herself to me forever.
- But passion sometimes would prevail,
- Nor could tonight's gay feast restrain
- A sudden thought of one so pale
- For love of her, and all in vain:
- So, she was come through wind and rain.
- Be sure I looked up at her eyes
- Happy and proud; at last I knew
- Porphyria worshipped me: surprise
- Made my heart swell, and still it grew
- While I debated what to do.
- That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
- Perfectly pure and good: I found
- A thing to do, and all her hair
- In one long yellow string I wound
- Three times her little throat around,
- And strangled her. No pain felt she;
- I am quite sure she felt no pain.
- As a shut bud that holds a bee,
- I warily oped her lids: again
- Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
- And I untightened next the tress
- About her neck; her cheek once more
- Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
- I propped her head up as before,
- Only, this time my shoulder bore 50
- Her head, which droops upon it still:
- The smiling rosy little head,
- So glad it has its utmost will,
- That all it scorned at once is fled,
- And I, its love, am gained instead!
- Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
- Her darling one wish would be heard.
- And thus we sit together now,
- And all night long we have not stirred,
- And yet God has not said a word!
Read the poem aloud, or have someone read it to you. Try for a conversational tone.
- Concentrate on following the storyline. (Were you surprised by the concluding events?) _____
- Once you know the "story," look closely at the poem for all the clues concerning character and episode.
- Automatically check for the relationship between form and content. Quickly scan for rhyme scheme and meter. You should notice a definite presence of rhyme in an unusual form a b a b b c d c d d e f e f f, etc. You should be able to recognize that the meter is iambic tetrameter. Rather than scan the entire poem, try lines throughout to see if a pattern exists.
- Lines 1–5: What does the setting indicate or foreshadow? _____
- Lines 6–9: What diction and imagery is associated with Porphyria? _____
- Lines 10–12: Why are we told her gloves were soiled? _____
- Lines 20–25: Try to understand what the narrator is telling you here.
- This reveals what is important to him. _____
- Lines 30–37: Have you found the turning point? _____
- Remember, literary analysis is like unraveling a mystery. Find motivational and psychological reasons for the narrator's behavior. __________
- Line 41: Notice how the caesura emphasizes the finality of the event. You are forced to confront the murder directly because of the starkness of the syntax. This is followed by the narrator's justification.
- Line 55: What character trait is revealed by the narrator? _____
- Lines 59–60: Notice how the rhyming couplet accentuates the final thought and sets it off from the previous lines. Interpret the last line. Did you see that the last two lines are end-stopped; whereas, the majority of the poem utilizes enjambment to create a conversational tone. _____
The AP often uses dramatic monologues because they can be very rich in narrative detail and characterization. This is a form you should become familiar with by reading several from different times and authors. Try one of these: Robert Browning—"My Last Duchess," "The Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "Andrea Del Sarto"; Alfred Lord Tennyson—"Ulysses."
How many dramatic monologues have you read? List them here and add details and lines that were of interest and/or importance to you.
The sonnet is the most popular fixed form in poetry. It is usually written in iambic pentameter and is always made up of 14 lines. There are two basic sonnet forms: the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, named after Petrarch, the poet who created it, and the English or Shakespearean sonnet, named after the poet who perfected it. Each adheres to a strict rhyme scheme and stanza form.
The subject matter of sonnets varies greatly, from expressions of love to philosophical considerations, religious declarations, or political criticisms. The sonnet is highly polished, and the strictness of its form complements the complexity of its subject matter. As you know by now, we like to explore the relationship between form and function. The sonnet effectively integrates these two concepts.
Let's compare the two forms more closely. The Italian sonnet is divided into an octave and a sestet. The rhyme scheme is:
Modern sonnets often vary rhyme and stanza form, but they will always have 14 lines.
For more practice with the sonnet, see Poems for Comparison and Contrast in this chapter. We recommend you read sonnets written by Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, e e cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Keats.
The villanelle is a fixed form in poetry. It has six stanzas: five tercets, and a final quatrain. It utilizes two refrains: The first and last lines of the first stanza alternate as the last line of the next four stanzas and then form a final couplet in the quatrain.
As an example, read: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas. Other villanelles that are worth a close reading include "The Art of Losing" by Elizabeth Bishop and "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke.
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