2. Finding the Meaning of a Poem

Finding the Meaning of a Poem

Parlindungan Pardede

Universitas Kristen Indonesia

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.

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.


The Eagle

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892)

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.

Break, Break, Break

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892)

Break, break, break,

On thy cold gray stones, O sea.

And I would that my tongue could utter

The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman’s boy,

That he shouts with his sister at play!

O well for the sailor lad,

That he sings in his boat on the bay!

As the stately ships go on

To their haven under the hill;

But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,

And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,

At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!

But the tender grace of a day that is dead

Will never come back to me.


18 thoughts on “2. Finding the Meaning of a Poem”

  1. Alexander Amoasi said:

    I want the meaning of The dining table by Gbanabom Hallowell.

  2. liznindia said:

    Sir.. I’ll try to answers your questions..

    1.General meaning: everyone in life has a different job and profession.Good jobs and profession should have responsibility, relying on the ability of self, do it the best.

    2.Detailed meaning: awareness / provide input to the reader that what we should do. do it from whole heart,and do it the best

    3.Intentions: although our work low ..
    we are not disappointed, still must be grateful

  3. mega sari (0812150012) said:

    hi, sir! 🙂
    1. General meaning: The poem tells about if we can not be the best we should be yourself and doing the best.
    2. Detailed meaning: The writer said even if we lower among the high and fail between the success we have to keep doing the best for everyone and ourselves and something for we : we can start from the smallest to finally become the best and and we must try complete the sections that are still not perfect.
    3. Intentions: The writer want to give a motivation to do the best in our lives and not have to compare ourselves with others not only that we also have to believe that whatever we do must be the best.

  4. pretty simanjuntak said:

    Dear Sir, this is my opinion. For me,
    *general meaning : the poem is talking about motivation for people to be and do the best they can in whatever they are now.

    *detailed meaning: many people try to be the best in every part in their life. but sometimes they can’t reach what they want. don’t be disappointed with your self. everyone has their own talent, strength, and so on.. just do what you can do it best,,of course it based on your ability..and the most important is be useful for others so you will know that you are doing best.

    *intention: encourage the readers to do and be the best in what they are good at.


  5. Nanda Dwi Kurina said:

    Sir.. I’ll try to answers your questions..

    1. General meaning : Malloch motivate us to be the best although we are not a great person.
    2. Detailed meaning : Malloch begins by compare great something with small something but he suggest in the small things, they can do their job well and give the best in everything that they do. (it is begins from 1st sentence to 13rd sentence, and the last sentence of this poem is the message’s the poet to the reader)
    3. Intention meaning : The writer tells us that whatever you are, you must be the best. because if you give your best in small things, you will become a blessing for other.

    Sir and my friends, I need your opinion and suggestion to make me more understand about our lesson..

  6. Linda Yuliandini said:

    1. General meaning: The poem is talking about never give up with the current situation or condition and try to do better.
    2. Detailed meaning: No matter the situation we are now in a situation of low and not above us never to despair must do their best and even better.
    3. Intentions: The writer encourages and motivates the reader to never give up to do my best in whatever they have done.

  7. yesi kartika sari said:

    hi, sir!
    1. General meaning : The poem is talking about, the acceptance of what we are means that we have to accept the condition or the situation that is given to us and try to do our best.
    2.Detailed meaning : The writer said tries to give a motivation or encouragement to the reader through this poem, indicate with the words that are put up even in a very low situation or position, but try to do it our best.
    3. Intentions:The writer want to encourage and motivate the reader in order to do the best in what ever they are doing.

  8. sri darma said:

    1. general meaning : the poem is talking about that whatever we are now be the best and do the best. ( just be your self).
    2. detailed meaning : the writer wants to give a motivation to the reader that no matter what we are now even though we are not in a high position or not a big man but we can be the best and do the great things through what we are now.
    intentions: the writer encourages and motivates the reader to be the best in what ever they are.

  9. Tommy Sangapan said:

    I’m sorry Sir, this my first posting in our lesson

    -general meaning: if we can’t be a great people, be ordinary, the best ordinary people among others
    -detailed meaning: in our life, often we are not the best. There are some people who are higher then us. Don’t be hopeless because we can be the best by doing everything with big responsibility
    -intention of writer: the writer is trying to say to the readers that when we are not the best, don’t give up to do the best

    I think this is not perfect answer, I’m waiting for your opinion my friends. Thank’s

    • Dear Tommy,
      Don’t underestimate yourself: your idea is very close to the poem’s meaning. What the poet mean to say is that naturally not all people can be on the highest position, but he/she’s got to be the best in his/her own position. For instance, in the army, not all people can be a general, but he/she can probably be a colonel, or lieutenant, or sergeant. Lower the rank may be, he/should be the best in that position.

      So, whatever you are doing, including in your position as a student, work maximally to give your best.

      Waiting for your brighter ideas in the next assignments. Good luck!

  10. nilam mantika said:

    Sir, this is my answer!
    General meaning: Find a way out and never give up to achieve the best.
    Detailed meaning: We must do everything diligently and seriously. We should always try to find a way out if you get any trouble. Take a wise decision. Don’t give up to become one of the best.
    The intention of the poem so that the readers don’t give up, keep trying to find the best way. Do it with full responsibility. Undoubtedly, we will be the best.

  11. Sir…here my answer. It may still be wrong but I try to answer.
    1. The general meaning: not everyone can be a great people or has a high position, but whatever our job and our profession, we must do it seriously. We must do the best and full responsibility.
    2.Detailed meaning (And some highway some happier make):we can be a small part to create the big thing.
    There’s something for all of us here: everyone has a part to be performed either small or large that complement each other.
    Everybody has an important function in an office or a country although it is small or big all completing one another like human body, every part has a duty according to their position. If any part of body that hurt so the other part can not work perfectly.
    3. The poet tries to encouragement to the readers not to be disappointed and felt themselves failing because they do not have a position an office or a state.

    • Hello Romaita,
      Your answer is very interesting, and it shows you could catch the poet’s message. However, you need to develop your writing skill so that you can express your idea more precisely. Look at the following excerpt as a sample.

      1. … not everyone can be a great people or has [will get] a high position, but whatever our job and our profession [is], we must do it seriously. We must do the best [for it] and [be] full [of] responsibility.

  12. Dear all attendees of Literature 1,
    After reading the poem below, state the general meaning, detailed meaning, and intention of the writer.
    Good luck!


    (By: Douglas Malloch)

    If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill

    Be a scrub in the valley–but be

    The best little scrub by the side of the rill;

    Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.

    If you can’t be a bush be a bit of the grass,

    And some highway some happier make;

    If you can’t be a muskie then just be a bass–

    But the liveliest bass in the lake!

    We can’t all be captains, we’ve got to be crew,

    There’s something for all of us here.

    There’s big work to do and there’s lesser to do,

    And the task we must do is the near.

    If you can’t be a highway then just be a trail,

    If you can’t be the sun be a star;

    It isn’t by size that you win or you fail–

    Be the best of whatever you are!

    • Frewica says: said:

      1. The general meaning: each of us has a different job and profession, we must do it seriously, full of responsibility, must do their best, and never give up.
      2. Detailed meaning: even though others see our work are low, but let our lives become channels thanks to the people around us.
      3.The poet tries to encouragement to the readers not to be disappointed because there is something for all of us here is the task we must do, do your best

      • Dear Frewica,
        I appreciate your ideas on the poem. They are interesting. However, please note that the detailed meaning should be longer than the general meaning. You should have include some other details used Malloch in the poem. Try your best in the next assignment. Good luck!

      • Dear Frewica,
        we are very impressed with your ideas on be the best poem.
        good luck
        Thank You

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