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Poetry has the power to evoke emotions and feelings in its readers and audience members, if it is read out loud. These emotions and feelings help establish a certain atmosphere or mood. The writer of the poem creates the mood using a number of elements such as setting, tone and theme. To define the mood of a poem, the reader should analyze how these different elements interact and what feeling or atmosphere they evoke.
The setting of a poem establishes its location in time and space, creating context in which the action of poem takes place. In other words, setting situates the story or, if there is no story, the essence of the poem. For example, in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” the lines “Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, / Doubting” situate the poem in a deep darkness, establishing its setting. The setting, in turn, contributes to the overall mood of melancholy.
The tone of the poem is closely related to mood but tends to be associated with voice, which comes from the narrator and is associated with the writer’s attitude toward the world. The tone of the poem relays the writer’s attitude toward his subject or audience. For example, in the poem “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath’s tone oscillates from childlike love and adoration to detachment and fear. This variation creates the atmosphere or mood of uncertainty.
The theme of poem relays the overall meaning of the work. The poem’s theme is not always explicit but comes from interpreting a combination of the poem, including, but not limited to, voice, characterization, setting, diction, meter and rhyme. Identifying the poem’s theme may come after or before identifying its mood. In some cases, the driving force of a poem may be its theme, while in other cases, it may be its mood or atmosphere. For example, the theme of Tanya Shirley’s poem “The Distance Between Us” is absence, and this theme evokes the mood of longing.
In interacting with one another, these broader elements of setting, tone and theme evoke specific feelings in the reader and create a particular kind of mood or atmosphere. Each of these elements is affected and influenced by a number of other elements such as figurative language, structure, diction, length of poetic lines and punctuation, which also interact with one another. In identifying the poem’s mood, the reader should consider all of these elements and interactions. Examples of moods that poems may have include feelings of fear, doom, pride, love or atmospheres of peace, serenity or chaos.
Kate Prudchenko has been a writer and editor for five years, publishing peer-reviewed articles, essays, and book chapters in a variety of publications including Immersive Environments: Future Trends in Education and Contemporary Literary Review India. She has a BA and MS in Mathematics, MA in English/Writing, and is completing a PhD in Education.