Tone is the writer or speaker's implied attitude toward the subject, material and/or audience. It is the emotional meaning or the emotional coloring of the poem. In order to interpret the tone of a poem, the reader should focus on the kind of atmosphere or mood that the poem creates, and the kind of words that the writer chooses, i.e. diction. The tone of the poem may be formal, serious, ironic, angry, humorous, etc.
How to Approach Interpretation
You should approach interpreting the tone of a poem the same way you would try to interpret the tone of someone who is speaking to you. For example, the tone of someone selling a used car is different from the tone of someone who is collecting a bill. The tone of a used car salesman is complementary and pleasing to the person he is speaking to him while the tone of a bill collector is stern and demanding. These differences in tone reflect the attitudes that the different speakers have toward their subjects. The tone that a writer uses in her poem likewise reflects her attitude toward her subject and/or the audience.
Interpret Tone using Mood
In order to interpret the tone of the poem, you should look for the kind of atmosphere that the poem has and examine the types of words that the writer uses. The writer’s attitude toward the subject of the poem and/or the audience evokes certain feelings in the reader, creating a certain atmosphere in the poem. This atmosphere is the poem’s mood.
Interpreting Tone using Diction
In order to interpret the tone and mood of a poem, you should examine the writer's choice of words. Diction refers to the word choices that the writer makes to create the poem. Words, their meanings and sounds, are of particular importance in poetry. They give the poem its emotional meaning, thereby revealing its tone. For instance, the writer’s use of hyperbole or exaggeration might indicate a kind of sarcastic attitude or tone toward his subject or audience. As a result, this tone might create an atmosphere or mood of distance and distrust.
Note Shifts in Tone
In interpreting the tone of a poem, you should note any shifts in tone. The tone of a poem does not necessarily remain static throughout. For example, in Richard Wilbur’s poem, “A Barred Owl,” the tone in the first stanza is different from the tone in the second stanza. The tone in the first stanza is reassuring and comforting as indicated by phrases such as “the wrapping night air” and the reassuring nature of the speaker. In the second stanza, lines such as “terrors, fear, stealthy flight” indicate a more ominous tone. This shift from a comforting tone to the ominous and dark tone creates a sense of dynamism and change, illustrating the changing atmosphere or mood.
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