Finding the Meaning of a Poem
After a careful reading of a poem we should be in a position to give its meaning. In relation to this, we should note that the meaning of a poem is part of the total experience it expresses. The meaning will not necessarily or perhaps even usually be an idea. It may be a story, a description, a statement of emotion, a presentation of human character, or a combination of these. For examples, Tennyson’s The eagle is primarily descriptive and his Break, Break, Break is mainly an expression of emotion. In literary appreciation, such meaning is elaborated into three components: general meaning, detailed meaning, and the intentions of the writer.
Since the meaning (idea) of a poem is only part of the total experience it communicates, the value and worth of the poem are determined by the value of the total experience, not by the truth or the nobility of the idea itself. This is not to say that the truth of the idea is unimportant, or that its validity should not be examined or appraised. A good reader of poetry will be receptive to all kinds of experience. He must be able to make ‘the willingness suspension of disbelieve.’ He should even be willing to enter imaginatively, for the time being, into ideas he objectively regards as untrue.
To help you get the meaning of a poem, you need to understand and respond to it, and to achieve these, you you must read it carefully. You could do this by doing the following five important stages:
- Read the poem more than once. To get a poem’s full meaning, several readings may be necessary. A poem is different from a newspaper, which can be be hastily read and caste into the wastebasket. Poetry is to be hung on the wall of one’s mind.
- Read the poem aloud, or, if you can’t bring yourself to read aloud, at least sound the poem in your mind’s ear. Try to catch the speaker’s tone of voice. Poetry is written to be heard: its meanings are conveyed through sound as well as through print. Every word is therefore important.
- Keep a dictionary by you and use it. It is useless to try to understand poetry without troubling to learn the meanings of the words of which it is composed.
- Pay careful attention to what the poem says. As far as possible, do not put your own ideas and feelings into the poem. Examine closely what the poet has actually written.
- Think about the effects of reading the poem on you. Note your responses to the following questions:
- Do you think the poem interesting? Why or why not?
- Do some things on it interest you more than others? If so, why?
- Does anything in it puzzle you? If so, what?
After reading a poem carefully, you might be ready to get the meaning of the poem, which can generally be differentiated into three items: general meaning, detailed meaning, and intention of the poet.
The general meaning is a kind of summary of what the author expresses in the poem. Thus, it is based on a reading of the whole poem. It should be expressed simply in one, or at the most two sentences. In Break, Break, Break, for instance, Tennyson conveys the contemplation of the speaker who feel sad because he is reminded of the death of someone he loves. Very often, but not always, a poem’s title will give us some indication of its general meaning.
The detailed meaning is the meaning provided in every stanza. It may be written as a continuous paragraph, but you must take every care to be accurate and to express yourself in simple sentences. Try to show how the poet begins, how he develops his theme and then how he concludes it. If a poem is not divided into stanzas, you should make some rough attempt in your reading to divide the lines into fairly self-contained groups.
The intention of the writer is the feelings the poet is trying to arouse in the reader. Every poem conveys experience or attempts to arouse certain feelings in the reader. It probably affects different people in a great variety of ways, and, thus, it’s impossible to define a poet’s ‘true’ intention. Your interpretation of a poet’s aim is, therefore, largely a personal matter, but at the same time, it should never be far-fetched.
To see how the general meaning, detailed meaning, and intention of the author of a poem is determined, look at the following example.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watched from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Tennyson’s The Eagle is a brief but vivid description an eagle’s power. (general meaning)
In the initial three-line stanza, the eagle is portrayed in a lofty position, on a crag ‘close to the sun’. The bird is alone in a high place. This indicates how powerful and ‘fearless’ he is. Tennyson’s use of hard ‘c’ sound alliteration in the first line: ‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands’, proceeded by in the word ‘Close’ at the beginning of the second line, creates the sense of the lack of comfort on the mountain top. The phrase ‘lonely lands’ in the second line emphasizes the sense of solitude.
The second stanza also highlights the power of the eagle. The first line of the second stanza directs the view from the mountain top to the region below it: ‘The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls’. The waves are reduced to the size of wrinkles, emphasizes the high position of the eagle. In the last line, Tennyson uses a simile to create an image of the bird’s swift and powerful descent on his prey: ‘And like a thunderbolt he falls.’ (detailed meaning)
There is no doubt that through this poem, Tennyson means to describe how powerful the eagle is. (intention)