Identifying Tone in Poetry

Contributor: Emily Love. Lesson ID: 10894

Few art forms affect our emotions like songs and poems. Music and words set the tone for a piece, which is part of its message. Listen to a popular song and read and hear poems, then write your own!


Literary Studies

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Watch the music video Smokey Robinson & the Miracles- Tears of a Clown (1970) HD:

Write down two adjectives you would use to describe the music and the video, then read on to discover how to "read" the tone of a poem.

The music sounds light and upbeat, and the video features bright colors and nicely dressed young men.

You may have come up with adjectives like "happy," "energetic," "old-fashioned," or "hopeful." However, if you paid close attention to the words, you would have noticed the song is actually describing a sad situation. Consider this verse of the song:

Now if I appear to be carefree
It's only to camouflage my sadness
In order to shield my pride I've tried
To cover this hurt with a show of gladness
But don't let my show convince you
That I've been happy since you

Decided to go, oh I need you so
I'm hurt and I want you to know
But for others I put on a show

Even though the music is upbeat, the message is far from happy.

Labeling the tone — the general feeling you get from the music itself — of this song would not be an accurate description of its message. However, the songwriter is able to convey a deeper meaning by pairing an upbeat tone with sad lyrics; he is explaining that sometimes people feel a need to put on a show, or put on a happy face, because other people will not understand their problems.

In this case, the songwriter says it's to "camouflage" his sadness and to "shield" his pride, but there are many reasons people might pretend to be OK on the outside when they are hurting on the inside. The song becomes more meaningful as a result of this contrast, or juxtaposition.

In poetry, tone means the author's attitude towards the subject or the audience.

Poets have to convey tone through word choice, so readers have to pay careful attention to the author's use of language in order to correctly identify the tone. You use adjectives to describe tone.

For instance, a tone could be sincere, sarcastic, humorous, anguished, cheerful, hopeful, or informal. Sometimes, poets shift the tone throughout the piece of writing to reflect a natural progression from one emotion to another.

Other poems include dramatic shifts in order to emphasize a particular theme. Just as you use transition words when writing, poets use transition words to create shifts in tone. When you read poetry, be on the lookout for words like but, however, or, although, etc.

Consider the tone of this short poem by the famous Robert Frost:

"Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Before you assess the tone of this poem, go to the Poetry Foundation's page for "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost and listen to the reading of the poem.

The reader draws even more attention to the shift in the poem's tone. The beginning of the poem has a somewhat straightforward tone, as the poet writes, "From what I've tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire." The shift happens after the transitional word "But."

The second half of the poem reflects a cold, pessimistic tone. The comparison between hatred and ice is harsh, and the poet describes it as "great," or immense. By shifting from one tone to another, the poet is able to communicate the message that while desire, or passion, is fiery, and often leads to destruction, hatred is equally strong in its destructive power. Frost is able to warn his audience to consider the dangers in following desire and in storing up hatred.

When you're ready, continue on to the Got It? section to listen to poems being read aloud.

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