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Who says you can’t read poetry?  And why bother? Here’s why and how:

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “Poetry just isn’t my thing!”

My response to that: Don’t be so sure! Could it be that you just haven’t met the right poem?

I can well believe that some particular poem, or poet, is not your thing. Many famous poems are quite old, therefore using language that seems unfamiliar to modern readers. Even some poetry written after 1900 may be hard to understand, given that many 20th century writers followed a modernist aesthetic calling for experimental, strange, or highly figurative language. That kind of poetry might seem puzzling at first reading. If you’re not accustomed to poetic language of these kinds, reading poetry might not seem worth the effort.

However, classic and much beloved poems are hardly all alike. Many lovely poems are not that hard to understand; reading them can add meaning and beauty to your mental life.

Besides, making poetry is natural to the human mind: poetry is playing with language, finding meaningful and powerful ways of expressing ideas, and reveling in beautiful and interesting sounds of words. From the very beginning of language, people have naturally sought memorable words to capture, enshrine, and encourage contemplation of human experience.

Besides offering meaning, so many poems are just pretty—their pictures, their sounds, the feel of the words upon the tongue. Experiencing poetry taps into something primal and pleasurable in the human mind.

Whether you are poetry skeptic or poetry-loving enthusiast, I invite you to join me now for a little poetry read-along. Just below, I quote three different poems. Below each one is a series of guided reading questions I hope will help you understand and enjoy the poems more.

Want to play?

To get the most out of the process, read each poem a couple of times through, then get a piece of notepaper to jot down your own responses to the questions. I hope the little time it takes to think through the questions will bring each poem to life for you.

If  You Like:

When you’ve interpreted each poem for yourself, you can click the link or scroll down to the bottom of the article to see some of my responses to each question. I expect we won’t have all the same answers to every question, and that’s OK! Every reader has a personal response to every poem.

It doesn’t follow, though, that a poetic text can mean just anything at all. Words, even poetic ones, do communicate specific ideas. As you develop your ideas of what each poem is saying, test those ideas to see if they truly fit with the words, phrases, and references in the poem itself, as the writer seems to have used them.
One object of reading poetry, just like reading any literature, is to lend an open mind and ear to exactly what that writer is communicating to us, whether the idea is familiar to us or completely strange or new.

Ready to go on this guided poetry-reading adventure? If doing a slow and deep analysis is the sort of thing that just makes you nuts, no problem! Just choose some great poems and read away. You can skip to this post for suggestions about how to “Just Fall In,” or skim on down this post, leaping over the reading questions to take today’s poems direct and straight.

However, if you do want to come along on this guided poetry reading journey, read on!

 

Poem 1: “The Eagle” by Tennyson

Let’s take on a short poem first, written in 1851 by English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As you read, think about what pictures Tennyson paints with his words; also note special features in the word choices, such as rhyme. Which pictures jump out at you? Which words attract your attention the most?

The Eagle
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
1851

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Guided Reading Questions for “The Eagle”

1. Try to see the picture described by the poem in your mind’s eye. Where is the eagle? What is the environment? What does the eagle do?

2. What does “azure” mean? Why is the eagle said to be surrounded by an “azure” world?

3. At what points in the poem does Tennyson use any language that is not literally true? Such language, which may not be strictly factual but is true in another larger, idealistic sense, is called “figurative.” When figurative language is used, we can think about what new, striking, or unusual ideas the poet brings to mind by making these word choices.

For instance, what is the effect of calling the eagle’s claws “crooked hands”? What does it add to your picture? What does it add to your feeling about, or understanding of, the eagle?

4. Do you see any more figurative language in the poem (words that are meaningful without being literally true)?

5. What seems to be the poet’s attitude toward the eagle? Do you think Tennyson is making a point about this eagle, or is he just describing a pretty picture?
As you read the poem and imagine the details Tennyson depicts, what ideas and feelings about the eagle come to you? Which particular words have the most impact on your ideas and feelings?

6. Where do you see rhyming words in the poem? What is their impact? What kind of rhythmic feel do the lines have?

One step beyond: All excellent art is built using what I refer to as “Contrast and Tension.” That is, images, language, ideas, or themes may “pull against” each other, jammed together into the poem even though they are opposite ideas, or seem to come from opposite categories of thought or mood.

Where do you see Contrast and Tension in “The Eagle”? What images or ideas are contrasting or in tension with what other images or ideas? What ideas might the poet be entertaining by placing these unlike or unexpected things side-by-side?

Jump to Responses to   questions on “The Eagle”

Poem 2: “The Children’s Hour” by Longfellow

For our second poem, let’s take one that’s a little longer. “The Children’s Hour” written by Longfellow in 1860 was often a favorite of my students. After reading through a time or two, you can speculate about why it was popular. I wonder if you will like it as much as my students did?

There is one reference to explain before you begin reading: the seventh stanza mentions the Mouse-Tower of the Bishop of Bingen. The reference is to a folk tale about a medieval bishop who was attacked by many mice in his small tower on the Rhine as punishment for his terrible treatment of the peasants. The Bishop was a real person who seems to have been quite benevolent, unlike the character in the folk story about the tower. More information about this tale is here.

Actual portrait of Longfellow’s Three Daughters mentioned in “The Children’s Hour.” By Thomas Buchanan Reed

The Children’s Hour
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Published 1860

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

Guided Reading Questions for “The Children’s Hour”

1. For all the talk of banditti, towers, and dungeons, the literal scene in this poem is quiet and domestic. What literally happens in this poem?

2. The names of the little girls in the poem were the actual names of Longfellow’s daughters. Why do you think Longfellow used his true daughters’ names? What does it say about what the poem meant to him?

3. What are some of the words used in the poem to describe how the daughters interact with their father, and how he responds? Why does Longfellow describe this scene in terms of castles, fortresses, and dungeons? What is the effect?

4. How do the daughters appear to feel about their father? How would you describe their relationship? What do the last two stanzas (last 8 lines) suggest about how the father feels about the daughters?

5. What sentiments and ideas seem to be communicated through this poem? If you liked the poem, why do you think you did? If the poem doesn’t appeal to you, why might that be?

6. Take a minute to size up the form of the poem. How long are the lines? Where are the rhymes? Do any of the rhymes draw attention to any of the emotions or ideas in the poem? Which ones?

A Step Beyond:
As noted above, good art usually contains Contrast and Tension. Do you see any elements in this poem that contrast or are in tension with each other?

Jump to Responses to questions on “The Children’s Hour”

Poem 3: “Tree at my Window” by Robert Frost, 1928

Robert Frost has long been one of my favorite poets. For our third guided reading, let’s look at this poem, in which the speaker discusses his ideas about a tree he likes to look at outside his bedroom window. As in all of Frost’s poems, it quickly becomes apparent that the natural element, the tree, means more to the speaker than just a large plant outside the window. The tree is more of a companion he can address directly.

Here are a couple of notes before you begin:

The first stanza uses the word “sash,” which might not be familiar to people today. The sash is the frame part of the window that holds the glass, and which the speaker in the poem can open and close. In the first stanza, he says he closes his window at night but will never close the curtain because he likes to be able to see the tree.

The second stanza describes the tree, seen at night through the window, as a “vague dream head” that doesn’t look quite real. The treetop appears so lightweight with the breaks between the leaves that it is almost as “diffuse” as a cloud. Then he compares the tree’s leaves to tongues that can speak, referring to the noise they make when the wind blows through them.

Tree at My Window
By Robert Frost
from West Running Brook , 1928

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Guided Reading Questions for Robert Frost’s “Tree at My Window”

1. How does the speaker describe the tree? Why does he seem so fascinated with it?

2. The speaker talks to the tree as if they are companions. How is the speaker different from the tree? More important, what does the speaker have in common with the tree?

3. What does the speaker mean when he says the tree has seen him “taken and swept / And all but lost”?

4. The speaker says both he and the tree are concerned with “weather.” The tree, however, is concerned with “outer” weather whereas the speaker is concerned with “inner” weather. What does that mean? Especially, what is “inner” weather?

5. The speaker says “Fate had her imagination about her” when she placed the tree close to the man’s bedroom, thus linking the two. Perhaps we could say more accurately that it’s the poet who used imagination to put the two together. Do you think the tree is an apt comparison to the speaker? In what ways?

6. Look at the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the poem. How would you describe it, and the effect it has on readers? Why is this rhyme scheme suitable for the ideas and pictures in the poem?

Going Deeper: Contrast and Tension:
Where do you see contrast or tension depicted in the poem?

Jump to Responses to questions on “Tree at My Window”

Possible Responses to Guided Reading Questions

Engraving of portrait of Victorian gentleman with long flowing beard and hair, in waistcoat, jacket with wide lapels, and cravat.

Alfred Tennyson

Some Responses to Reading Questions about “The Eagle”

1. Try to see the picture described by the poem in your mind’s eye. Where is the eagle? What is the environment? What does the eagle do?

When I read this poem, I see a very vivid picture of a powerful bird poised high above a blue sea, surrounded by a deep blue sky. The poet grants me the eagle’s perspective, allowing me to look far down toward the sea from a mountain top. I watch as, without warning, the eagle plummets from his perch, presumably toward some prey.

2. What does “azure” mean? Why is the eagle said to be surrounded by an “azure” world?

“Azure” means bright blue. The eagle is perched so high on a mountain that the sky seems to be his home environment.

3. At what points does Tennyson use figurative language?

For instance, what is the effect of calling the eagle’s claws “crooked hands”? What does it add to your picture? What does it add to your feeling about, or understanding of, the eagle?

Calling the eagle’s claws “hands” tends to humanize the eagle. For me, it makes him seem larger, more sentient, and more dignified than I might otherwise imagine a bird to be.

4. Do you see any more figurative language in the poem (words that are meaningful without being literally true)?

“Mountain walls”: calling the sides of the mountain “walls” further humanizes the eagle and shows he is in his own, strong, natural element, suggesting he is the master of this grand home.

The “wrinkled” sea “crawls”: These words animate the sea and give it life. Upon reading, we unconsciously start to think of the sea as more of a conscious animal than an insentient natural element. “Crawling” also puts the sea firmly underneath the eagle, who is high above it; the eagle is more powerful by contrast.

“Like a thunderbolt”: The eagle’s dive is compared to a thunderbolt, likewise adding power and skill to the eagle’s stunning qualities.

5. What seems to be the poet’s attitude toward the eagle? Do you think Tennyson is making a point about this eagle, or is he just describing a pretty picture?

Tennyson seems to admire this creature greatly, enjoying the wonder of its power and its complete command of an environment that would be too grand or even frightening for a human. For a moment, we are allowed to feel like this eagle. When he plunges, however, I feel left behind, reminding me of the differences between the animal and human worlds. Tennyson seems to be calling readers to admire nature and regard it with awe.

As you read the poem and imagine the details Tennyson depicts, what ideas and feelings about the eagle come to you? Which particular words have the most impact on your ideas and feelings?

My heart lifts as I imagine this dramatic scene and this magnificent natural creature. Usually we must watch these wonderful creatures from afar as they fly above us while we stand down on the ground. In this poem, Tennyson gives us a privileged position to view the world as an eagle might—a heady feeling. Powerful words for me: “azure” (paints the whole picture in one word); “beneath him crawls” (with the sea “crawling” far beneath him, the eagle is in full command of the environment); “thunderbolt” (expresses the power of the eagle).

6. Where do you see rhyming words in the poem? What is their impact? What kind of rhythmic feel do the lines have?

You probably noticed that the poem is built of two three-line stanzas, each of which have the same rhyme (tercets). Rhymes help hold each stanza together as a whole, as well as fall pleasantly on the ear. The words that rhyme also drive home the essential qualities of this brief portrait.

“Hands/stands/lands” tell us this creature is a king in his natural environment. “Crawls/walls/falls” capture the tension and contrast in the scene between the eagle’s power and height, and the un-intimidating “crawling” sea far below.

The meter of this little poem is traditional for poetry written in English, so probably feels natural to most of us to read. It is based on four iambs in one line (iambic tetrameter). An iamb is a piece of a poem consisting of two syllables with one soft beat followed by a harder accent. (For more about meter in poetry, see this post.)

The meter is not completely regular though—in the beginning of both lines two and three, the harder beat comes first. The poet has used a “metrical substitution” by putting a trochee in place of an iamb, making the first words of both lines two and three stand out more. Did you notice the change in beat pattern when you read it? The words “Close” and “Ring’d” are accented.

One step beyond: All excellent art is built using what I refer to as “Contrast and Tension.” That is, images, language, ideas, or themes may “pull against” each other, jammed together into the poem even though they are opposite ideas, or seem to come from opposite categories of thought or mood.Where do you see Contrast and Tension in “The Eagle”?

I see dizzying contrast between the height of the eagle’s perch and the crawling sea below. Although the eagle is imagined in human terms (he has hands and a mountain hall to dwell in), the bird is also depicted as something very different from people. I experience tension between being drawn toward the eagle as a fellow being and the perception that we are not much alike at all.

There are many other possible answers to this question! What is yours?

A summary thought about “The Eagle”: this poem is only six short lines, yet I seem to have written quite a bit about it. Yet, looking back at the poem, I realized there are other things I might have discussed and appreciated. Strange and marvelous to me how poetic language can pack so much meaning into a short space!

Jump to Poem 2: “The Children’s Hour”

Some Responses to Reading Questions about “The Children’s Hour”
Engraving of picture of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

1. For all the talk of banditti, towers, and dungeons, the literal scene in this poem is quiet and domestic. What literally happens in this poem?

The literal scene shows a father working in his home office when his three little daughters sneak in, or think they are sneaking in, swarm all over their father in his chair, and cover him with hugs and kisses. The father responds by grabbing them close and pretending to capture them while hugging them back—a typical father-child romp. The title of the poem “The Children’s Hour” implies that a similar scene is enacted at the same time every day, when the girls know their father has time to take a break from his work.

2. The names of the little girls in the poem were the actual names of Longfellow’s daughters. Why do you think Longfellow used his true daughters’ names? What does it say about what the poem meant to him?

The poem seems to be a bit of real autobiography, in which Longfellow expresses and enshrines his love for his girls.

3. What are some of the words used in the poem to describe how the daughters interact with their father, and how he responds? Why does Longfellow describe this scene in terms of castles, fortresses, and dungeons? What is the effect?

Talk of storming a castle might imply warfare or conflict in some contexts, but here, it shows how the father and daughters add an element of play and imagination to their affectionate encounter. The reference to the Bishop of Bingen story might seem dark, but here it is not sinister at all. As his daughters swarm all over him with kisses and hugs he feels as if he is being attacked by little mice. They are energetic in the “attack” but in the end won’t really hurt him. Indeed, the father seems to welcome strength and powerful physical play from his daughters. The love and fun among them take away any sense of threat or fear, turning even the mention of a dungeon from something dark into a metaphor for everlasting love in the father’s heart for his daughters.

4. How do the daughters appear to feel about their father? How would you describe their relationship? What do the last two stanzas (last 8 lines) suggest about how the father feels about the daughters?

The daughters seem to adore their father and enjoy planning their daily “attack.” The father asserts that no matter what may come in the future, his love for his daughters will always remain locked in his heart.

5. What sentiments and ideas seem to be communicated through this poem? If you liked the poem, why do you think you did? If the poem doesn’t appeal to you, why might that be?

This poem describes a scene like many that are acted daily in loving homes all over the world—a doting parent playing with and cherishing his children, allowing them to freely express their straightforward affection. The scene and the father’s assertion that his love will not fail conveys that family love is a central value in life. I think many of my students enjoyed this poem, as I do, because it calls to mind warm, similar memories from one’s own life, or at the least, because it celebrates something warm, wholesome, and valuable, even if you can only observe rather than remember.

6. Take a minute to size up the form of the poem. How long are the lines? Where are the rhymes? Do any of the rhymes draw attention to any of the emotions or ideas in the poem? Which ones?

The rhythm of this poem is more of a triple meter than a double one—that is, instead of sounding like this: ta DA ta DA ta DA, is sounds more like this: ta DA da, ta DA da, ta DA. Triple meter is used a lot in both comic poems and children’s poems, as well as action poems. The rhythm sounds quick and active, light and cheerful, more than solemn, sad, or contemplative.

The stanzas are quatrains (four lines each) with the second and fourth lines rhyming, similar to rhyming patterns for ballads or songs. It’s enough rhyme to be pleasant to the ear without feeling too elaborate.

One Step Beyond: As noted above, good art usually contains Contrast and Tension. Do you see any elements in this poem that contrast or are in tension with each other?

The speaker of the poem calls the girls “blue-eyed banditti” and compares them to little mice who attack with kisses, while he is an “old mustache,” drawing a contrast between childhood and adulthood. Though the father and daughters are in happy communion in their roles at this moment, someday “walls will crumble to ruin,” the girls will grow up, and things will change. Thus the most poignant tension in the poem to me is the father’s awareness that this precious time cannot last forever. His insistence that he will lock his affection away in the “dungeon” of his heart suggests he is storing up the memory of this happy time to keep his love ever-present and fresh in the midst of changes that must come.

Jump to Poem 3, “Tree at My Window”

Possible Responses to Guided Reading Questions for “Tree at My Window”
Headshot of Robert Frost in Profile. By Walter Albertin

Robert Frost. Photo by Walter Albertin*

1. How does the speaker describe the tree? Why does he seem so fascinated with it?

The speaker describes the tree partially in human terms, known in “poetry speak” as “personification.” The poem focuses its description on how the tree appears at night outside the bedroom window, which seems rather mysterious and dream-like, perhaps reflecting the speaker’s melancholy turn of mind.

2. The speaker talks to the tree as if they are companions. How is the speaker different from the tree? More important, how are they alike? What does the speaker have in common with the tree?

The speaker is different because he is inside while the tree is outside; he is also keenly aware of how different they are in physical form, which lends the tree mystery in his mind. The thing both have in common is that both are often tossed and swept by storms, either real storms or storms of the mind.

3. What does the speaker mean when he says the tree has seen him “taken and swept / And all but lost”?

Evidently the speaker often sleeps badly, tossing in his bed with a very troubled mind. He thinks of the tree as a witness to his distress, a kind of a companion during bad times.

4. The speaker says both he and the tree are concerned with “weather.” The tree, however, is concerned with “outer” weather whereas the speaker is concerned with “inner” weather. What does that mean? Especially, what is “inner” weather?

“Outer” weather is literal—wind, storms, rain, drought, whereas “inner weather” refers to the moods and ideas that sweep through the speaker’s mind. The storm-tossed tree provides an apt picture to the speaker of how it feels inside his mind when he is distressed.

5. The speaker says “Fate had her imagination about her” when she placed the tree close to the man’s bedroom, thus linking the two. Perhaps we could say more accurately that it’s the poet who used imagination to put the two together. Do you think the tree is an apt comparison to the speaker? In what ways?

Certainly Frost found it so. Before I read this poem, I would not have seen a tree as something closely comparable to a human, especially to myself. But now I see exactly what he means; it enlarges my idea about nature, how natural things can reflect or depict human experience even when it doesn’t exactly share it. What do you think?

6. Look at the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the poem. How would you describe it, and the effect it has on readers? Why is this rhyme scheme suitable for the ideas and pictures in the poem?

The poem is built with a simple four-line stanza. The meter is iambic (ta DA ta DA), but not completely regular, so it feels more casual. Irregular meter allowed the poet to punch up some words more than others, like “TREE at my WINdow / WINdow TREE). The final line of each stanza is one “foot” short of the other three, so falls home to the ear more strongly, like a little summary punch of each section of the poem.

Each stanza has two rhymes. Lines one and four rhyme and enclose a rhyming couplet in between them. This rhyme scheme conveys to me a sense of quiet enclosure as I witness the poet’s sense of closeness to the tree outside the window.

How do you feel about the sound and general feel of the poem?

Going Deeper: Contrast and Tension: Where do you see contrast or tension depicted in the poem?

As with so many of Frost’s poems, contrast and tension is its very essence. The speaker dwells on tension as talks of his times of personal distress, tossing on his pillow unable to sleep. He also provides tension by asserts a close comparison of himself to the tree while at the same time emphasizing how they are very different.

These tensions give me a sense of melancholy energy and sadness tempered with a sense of wryness from the speaker. The speaker seems to be thinking something like “Maybe I take myself too seriously sometimes? But all the same, I’m glad the tree helps me feel less alone when my mind is uneasy.”

How Did It Go? Did the Questions Help?

We have reached the end of our Guided Poetry Reading. I wonder if these guided questions helped you see more in these three poems? Perhaps having given this a try, the whole process of analysis just makes you nuts. You find that you can interpret and enjoy the poems perfectly well without all this probing. If so, go right ahead! Just pick a poem, read, think, contemplate, and enjoy. As I mentioned in the introduction, you can take a look at this post, where I recommend and discuss doing exactly that:  “Just Fall In.”

You can also go to the Reading Lists and Timelines index for recommendations of good poems to read, or check out other posts in the Lit 101-How to Read Poetry series.

For many of my students and me, however, doing this kind of deeper reading and analysis did help all of us appreciate not just the meaning of the poem  but enable us to see and admire how the poem is built. 

If you like this approach and want to learn more about how to read, interpret, and enjoy poetry, take in our step-by-step Lit 101 series of How to Read Poems.

Whether you analyze deeply or simply read and reflect, I hope you come across some poems today that add a little beauty and meaning to your life.

Photo Credits

Girl on tree branch with book.

Old poetry books.  Photo by  Suzy Hazelwood  from  Pexels

Eagle soaring among mountains.  Photo by  eberhard grossgasteiger  from  Pexels

Head of Eagle

Longfellow’s Daughters.   English: Museum Collection (LONG 4324) / Public domain via Wikimedia.

Tree on the grass.  Photo by  Max Saeling  on  Unsplash

Blooming tree. Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

Tennyson.   By nach einem Gemälde von P.Krämer herausgegeben von Friedrich Bruckmann Verlag München Berlin. (Carte de Visite – Foto 6,0 x 8,4 cm .) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Longfellow.

Frost.  By Walter Albertin, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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