ABCs of Poetry: T is for Tone

Posted by on May 30, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: T is for Tone

Kristin Tenor

It’s often been said in order for a poem, or any piece of literature for that matter, to truly resonate, the writer must build a bridge between him/herself and the reader. One way to construct that bridge is through tone. Tone is defined as the attitude a poet exhibits toward the poem’s subject and/or audience. For those who like to keep it simple, think of it as the emotion propelling the words onto the page.

One doesn’t necessarily need to be a poet to understand the possibilities in tone are endless—from angry to melancholy, humorous to even whimsical—there’s an entire spectrum at the poet’s disposal. In fact, the folks over at Poetry In Voice compiled a list of approximately two hundred tones a poem might convey.

There are several devices one can use to help create tone in poetry. Some of the most common include:

  • Rhythm
  • Imagery
  • Word Choice

Let’s take a look at how each of these are handled by William Butler Yeats in his poem, “When You Are Old”:

When You Are Old

By William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moment of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

[Credit: This poem can be found in the public domain.]

Rhythm: You can see this poem of unrequited love is comprised of three stanzas, each including four lines written in iambic pentameter. Also, the last words in the first and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, as do the last words in the second and third. Read the poem aloud. Do you hear the sing song tone the repetition creates as the speaker addresses his lover? How does it make you feel? Wistful, maybe full of longing? Think how different the tone would have been had Yeats used short, choppy lines. Perhaps, instead of regret one might have felt resentment or even anger.

Imagery: So many beautiful images and details are tucked inside this poem, especially within the first stanza—the young lover imagining herself as an old woman nodding by the fire, the book held in her hand as she slowly reads, and then, the dream of the soft look her eyes had once. Yeats creates this scene so we as readers experience the same bittersweet tenderness regret brings for this man as he addresses his former lover. Colors, objects, seasons, weather, light—all these bring with them the power to evoke emotion and set tone, especially when they are juxtaposed against one another.

Word Choice: Just about every word in the English language has more than one meaning or connotation associated with it. For instance, the third line in the second stanza of Yeats’ poem:

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.

The word pilgrim often refers to a person who journeys a long distance to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion. On the other hand, it can also suggest a person who wanders. Each connotation gives the line, and potentially the entire poem, a different vibe all together. Is the speaker devoted to this woman or is he frustrated because he feels she has wandered away from him? Considering the context surrounding the line, one can surmise the speaker is telling his lover he loved her to the very depths of her soul, which as the reader leaves us breathless.

Finally, there are two other elements one may want to consider when it comes to identifying tone—mood and voice. Mood refers to the poem’s atmosphere, as well as the emotions and feelings evoked while reading it. You might say mood is tone’s translation. Similarly, the narrator’s voice and diction determine tone or attitude. Tone, mood, and voice—all these are important when it comes to building resonance between the writer and reader. One cannot exist without the other.

Kristin Tenor finds inspiration in the quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Midwest Review, Spry Literary Journal, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She resides in Wisconsin with her husband. Learn more @ or find her on Twitter @KristinTenor.