Close Reading: How to Read a Poem

Some tips for the close reading of poetry

‘Close reading’ is not as straightforward as it may appear. Many readers of poetry, for instance, may have encountered ‘close readings’ of poems which are anything but. They’re not so much ‘close’ as ‘at arm’s length’. How do you close-read a poem? F. R. Leavis was one of the most influential literary critics writing in English in the twentieth century. Yet he often claimed he was performing a ‘close reading’ of a poem which was actually, at best, a sort of flirtatious dalliance with the words and meaning of the text.

For other critics and readers, the desire – or need – to consider the broader context of the poem, itself an admirable and important endeavour, can end up obscuring the ‘trees’ of the poem in the rush to take in the panoramic ‘wood’ of poetry, culture, and everything else. Recently we’ve started to offer our own thoughts on the meaning of famous poems, and how they achieve their effects – everything from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ to Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’. Close reading is also a key part of our checklist for writing better English literature essays. What follows is some further advice specifically on the close reading of poetry: how to close-read a poem, what ‘close reading’ might mean, and what sort of things you might look out for. We hope you find these close-reading tips useful.

Let’s start with a nice short example – short and sweet, in fact. For instance, consider this poem, ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’ by George MacDonald (1824-1905), which is perhaps the shortest Victorian poem ever written:


This was the shortest poem Sir Christopher Ricks included in his The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (Oxford Books of Prose & Verse). What is the poem about? The speaker obviously wants somebody to come home, and we may infer that that someone is an absent sweetheart, his wife or lover. There is a sense of longing in these two simple words, then, as well as a few unanswered questions: who is the poem addressed to, and why aren’t they at home? Have they left the speaker, and if so, under what circumstances?

These questions remain unresolved by the poet himself, but look at how the poem suggests all this: in very simple language, but with the two words spread out over two separate lines, suggesting the gulf between the speaker and his absent lover:


There may be only two words in this poem (if we discount the title), but we can close-read this poem the same as we can, say, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ or The Waste Land. What is clever about the poem is that, whilst it doesn’t rhyme, it wants us to think of rhyme and to bring our usual assumptions about rhyme to our reading of the poem. Rhyme often brings a sense of ‘closure’ or unity to a poem: think of the way the last line of a limerick utters a triumphant ‘and that’s that’ which rounds off the poem as a self-enclosed little skit. But the pairing of ‘Come’ with ‘Home’ is a mockery of this function of rhyme. Although the two words look as though they should rhyme, they do not and cannot – and this neatly reflects or embodies the yearning sense of remorse that lurks behind the poem. (They didn’t rhyme in the nineteenth century either, when MacDonald wrote the poem; though ‘come’ and ‘home’ may have rhymed many centuries ago.) The speaker wants the addressee to come home, but he or she (presumably she) will not; the poem wants to rhyme, but it cannot. The form and rhyme of the poem – or rather its failure to rhyme, its near-miss – work together effectively. When it comes to learning how to close-read a poem, start with the very simplest units that make up any poem: the words. Look at how they’re put together, how they’re arranged on the page. How does this arrangement chime with what the poet is saying?

Of course, words don’t have to rhyme in a poem simply because they come at the end of the line. From a two-word poem, let us proceed to a two-line one. The following fragment is a very short poem written by T. E. Hulme (1883-1917):

Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.

This fragment doesn’t use rhyme at the ends of its lines, but it is still poetry. Yet how it attains this status is not obvious. It has no obvious rhythm (though ‘workmen whistling’ has a certain workmanlike regularity to it), and it expresses itself in very ordinary, unadorned language. There’s nothing flowery here. But, as with the MacDonald poem, the poem invites us to bring emotional associations to the poem which invest it with meaning beyond its matter-of-fact manner. Old houses – built a century or longer ago – were built by workmen who whistled, did a day’s work (or half a day’s, to offer the old jibe), and then, inevitably, died. The houses are their legacy, but they themselves have passed on. Time is brief, the poem seems to say – but it doesn’t say it in the usual way poets of old might express it – for instance, by seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674):

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying,
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

That is literally flowery, and has full recourse to the rhyme and rhythm of traditional poetry. Indeed, it uses rhymes which are internal as well as at the ends of lines, so it might be rendered as follows (with the pairings signalled by italics, bold, and underlining):

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying,
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

So, when it comes to learning how to close-read poetry, we should pay attention to what’s going on inside the line as well as at the end. Poets often use such internal rhymes or effects to create associations between the words, or to help to bring a certain music to the line. (Think of the way rappers often play the sound of one word off another in their lyrics.) Yet if we return to Hulme’s fragment, we see a similar, but subtler, use of sound-patterning and internal rhyme to that used by Herrick:

Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.

In other words, there is no type of poetry that does not repay closer inspection, as these examples have tried to highlight. In short, when thinking of ways to close-read poetry, pay attention to the music of all the words.

The following general pointers and pieces of advice might be useful when approaching a new poem. Look at the structure of the poem – how many lines it has, what the rhyme scheme is (if it does rhyme), is it a certain sort of poem, e.g. sonnet, ballad, dramatic monologue? If you find a poem has fourteen lines and fits in with the sonnet Cat readingrhyme scheme, why might the poet have chosen this form? For instance, Wordsworth’s poems ‘Scorn not the sonnet‘ and ‘Nun’s fret not at their convent’s scanty room‘ are both sonnets about sonnets, defending this poetic form and arguing for its usefulness. Obviously the best way to argue this is to show how the sonnet might be put to good use by a poet, so it makes sense that Wordsworth chose this form. If he’d argued in favour of the sonnet form but done so in a dramatic monologue, the effect would have been different, to say the least. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Anne Hathaway’ adopts the general structure of a Shakespearean sonnet, which is fitting given that Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife. When endeavouring to do a close reading of a poem, then, pay attention to the form of the poem. Poems aren’t like prose, which is arranged into paragraphs but otherwise pretty much follows a set layout. Poems can take all sorts of forms. Why has the poet chosen this particular form?

Sometimes the choice of poetic form might be making a statement about the poem’s themes: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem ‘Nuptial Sleep‘ adopts the sonnet form, and specifically that of the Petrarchan sonnet, a form typically associated with courtly love, where the sexual relationship between the male poet and his female love-interest is unconsummated. Rossetti’s sonnet, however, turns this convention on its head: it’s a poem very much about consummated love, between a newly married couple (hence the title ‘Nuptial Sleep’). In other words, Rossetti’s choice of the Petrarchan sonnet form might be seen as a deliberately provocative choice for a poem that is, daringly for its time, depicting a man and a woman lying in bed together enjoying each other’s bodies. (It worked: certain moralistic quarters of Victorian England were shocked and scandalised by the poem.)

Look at the rhyme and what it does, and if it doesn’t rhyme, what does it use instead, e.g. rhythm, half-rhyme, syntactical rhyme (such as ending numerous lines with a prepositional phrase, e.g. ‘on the roof’, ‘in the house’, ‘over the fence’), even what we might call semantic rhyme (for instance, the words ‘night’ and ‘dark’ don’t rhyme, but their meanings are obviously similar; ‘ocean’ and ‘water’ are another example). Many of the war poet Wilfred Owen’s poems use half-rhyme (sometimes called pararhyme) rather than full rhyme, partly to suggest the discord and confusion that the First World War had created (so ‘killed’ is rhymed with ‘cold’ in one poem – an altogether colder and more effective way of talking about a soldier who has been killed than a perfect rhyme would imply). For more on pararhyme in his poetry, see our analysis of Owen’s ‘Futility’. In summary, then, when close reading poetry look at the rhyme scheme – and if there isn’t one, does the poet use something else instead, e.g. half-rhyme or semantic rhyme? Even apparently unstructured poems have been carefully designed by the poet, at least if they’re any good!

Look at the rhythm – is it regular or irregular? Regular but with some irregularities? If so, do these irregularities mean something? Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) often uses what he called sprung rhythm in his poetry, to suggest the surprise and awe of his experiences with nature and his feelings about God. (See our analysis of Hopkins’s classic poem ‘The Windhover’ for more about this.) A regular rhythm might be fitting for when you’re describing a horse cantering across the countryside, or a train journey (such as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘From a Railway Carriage’). But if the poet is attempting to convey madness, or surprise and excitement, an irregular rhythm and metre might be more suitable. So, pay attention to the rhythm when thinking about how to close-read a particular poem.

Look at the imagery – what does it mean? Is it unusual? The artist Salvador Dali is reported as once saying, ‘The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.’ Poets – great poets, anyway – are looking for ways to avoid cliché and instead offer something fresh and exciting to make us see the world in a new way. So, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wanting to convey the way he feels about the grandeur of God, states in ‘God’s Grandeur’ that it ‘will flame out, like shining from shook foil’: we immediately get a concrete visual image of light flaring from sheet metal, for instance when it catches the sunlight. (We’ve got more about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry here.) Ezra Pound, in his two-line poem ‘In a Station of the Metro‘, famously juxtaposes the faces of the crowds of people in the Paris Metro with ‘petals’ on the ‘wet, black bough’ of a tree. Such images are eye-catching and memorable because they are unusual and make us think about one or both of the images in a different way. When close-reading poetry, one of the best tips or pieces of advice we can give is to think about the poem’s use of imagery: simile, metaphor, and the like.

If in doubt, start with the title. What does it tell you about the poem that follows? Sometimes you can perform a close reading of the title alone! Looks can often be deceptive: Simon Armitage wrote a sonnet called simply ‘Poetry‘ about an old medieval clock in Wells Cathedral, England. But the old clock might be viewed as a metaphor for poetry itself: apparently outdated in the modern world, yet still desired – indeed, needed – by enough people to be preserved. ‘Poetry’, then, is a sneaky little title for Armitage’s poem: it describes both the poem itself and the (oblique) subject of the poem.

We hope these ideas and suggestions for how to close-read poetry help you to analyse – and to enjoy – poems more fully. On a similar theme, we’ve compiled some tips for how to write a good English essay, and some tips for how to remember works of literature for exams.

Image: Cat reading a book, via BibBornem on Pixabay.

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Posted on November 13, 2015, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fabulous post – thank you!

  2. I am not a fan of blank verse, but there are examples like the ones you present where the rhythm is still there, if not the rhyme (at not the obvious rhyme). I have noted it on occasion and it is very common in Urdu poetry (shayari) where it is unusual for the ends of the lines of the couplet to rhyme. As a part of a longer work ( the ghazal), the second lines of the couplets will rhyme, and often end in the same word, but a couplet that can and does stand alone has no such limitation. I enjoyed reading your post. :)

  3. A wonderful wander along the paths of poetry. Thank you.

  4. This is really interesting. You live up to your blog name. :) I think I’ll share this with the writing club my friends and I just started. They might enjoy it.

  5. Quite timely. May I borrow for my AP Lit class?

  6. Thanks for this post! It will not only help me read poetry better, but also write better.

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