HOW TO BREAK POEMS DOWN AND ANALYZE THEM
While we have had some practice in class, try using this model to improve your poetry analysis for the AP Literature and Composition Exam. This sample will use the classic poem from Henry Vaughan, “The Retreat.”
Read the poem and use the following acronym to explicate meaning
Title—Read the title for any significance
Paraphrase—translate the poem in your own words
Connotation-Contemplate the poem for meaning beyond literal level
Attitude—Observe both the speaker’s and the poet’s attitude.
Shifts—Note any shifts in speakers and attitudes
Title—examine the title again, this time on an interpretive level
Theme—Determine what the poet is saying
Happy those early days! When I Shined in my angel-infancy, Before I understood this place Appointed for my second race, Or taught my soul to fancy ought  But a white, celestial thought; When yet I had not walked above A mile or two from my first love, And looking back—at that short space— Could see a glimpse of His bright face;  When on some gilded cloud, or flower, My gazing soul would dwell an hour, And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity; Before I taught my tongue to wound  My conscience with a sinful sound, Or had the black art to dispense A several sin to every sense, But felt through all this fleshy dress Bright shoots of everlastingness.  Oh how I long to travel back, And tread again that ancient track! That I might once more reach that plain, Where first I left my glorious train; From whence the enlightened spirit sees  That shady city of palm trees. But ah! my soul with too much stay Is drunk, and staggers in the way. Some men a forward motion love, But I by backward steps would move  And when this dust falls to the urn, In that state I came, return. ~Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) 1650
1. Look at the title and attempt to predict what the poem will be about.
Retreat means to move backwards due to opposing forces. As you explicate the rest of the poem, consider how this definition of retreat creates a deeper meaning.
2. Paraphrase the literal meaning or “plot” of the poem. A true understanding of the poem must evolve from comprehension of “what’s going on in the poem.”
Lines 1-6: Days of the poet’s infancy and purity were happier days
Lines 7-10: A brief moment of life is youth; young love is true and pure; God can be seen in these fleeting hours
Lines 11-14: In all of nature and the world he found Heaven and God—signs of Heaven
Lines 15-20: Before the poet lost his innocence and gained knowledge of adulthood, he saw a soul within that would be “everlasting.”
Lines 21-26: The poet longs to return to days of purity and innocence.
Lines 27-32: Future goals do not inspire the poet, but a longing for the unattainable past. The
only way to return to this purity is through death.
3. For poetry, connotation indicates that students should examine any and all poetic devices, focusing on how such devices contribute to the meaning, the effect, or both of a poem. Students may consider imagery (especially simile, metaphor, personification), symbolism, diction, point of view, and sound devices (alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhythm, and rhyme).
Meter: 4 feet (4X ˘ ′ ) Tetrameter
Rhyme scheme: AA, BB, CC
2 Stanzas—1st is 20 lines, 2nd is 12
Line 1: Syntax—inversion is used to emphasize the happiness felt in early life.
Line 2: Tone—connotation of “Shined” and “angelic-infancy” show purity of childhood
Line 3: Metaphor—white, celestial thought is representative of pure actions and virtuous deeds
Lines 5-6: Internal Rhyme—emphasizes the teaching of his own soul in pure thoughts —personification of the soul as a separate entity from poet.
Line 13: Litote—the grandeur of these images is powerful, but they are “weaker glories” compared to the divine purity of God
Enjambment—lines grammatically flow into proceeding lines used often throughout poem.
End-stopped—used for lines 15-20 to show shift in connotation and break off from previous tone
Line 15: Personification—the tongue is taught by the poet to sin as well as in other senses, indicating that the poet is the inherent sinner
Line 19: Synecdoche—the “fleshy dress” refers to the physical body; the connotation of “flesh” clearly addresses the sinful side of the poet.
Line 20: Metaphor—“shoots of everlastingness” is symbolic of the pure soul that lies within. Shoots could refer to rays of heavenly light or shoots of a blossoming plant.
Lines 21-26: Symbolism—The poet longs to return to the purity before his fall. This place of
purity is symbolized by this “city of palm trees.” Palms are indicative of the holy cities Jerusalem or Jericho.
Line 28: Connotation—“drunk” and “staggers” possesses an overwhelmed, tired and intoxicated
connotation. His life has stretched too far and too deeply into sin.
Lines 29-30: Antithesis—Other men’s concentrate on future worldly desires is directly contrasted with the poet’s desire to return to a state of purity that was of older times or an “ancient track.”
Lines 31-32: Symbolism—The final symbolism of dust (flesh) and urn (death) shows his only hope at “retreating” to his former state of purity against the evils of the world.
4. Having examined the poem’s devices and clues closely, you are ready to explore the multiple attitudes that may be present in the poem.
Several attitudes are conveyed throughout Vaughan’s “The Retreat.” The first several lines of the poem indicate a reminiscently nostalgic attitude toward youth and purity. After the third end-stop, Vaughan’s self-loathing emerges from the words “wound,” “sinful,” and “black art,” embodying a sinister connotation. He is ashamed and disappointed in his lack of purity he lost in adulthood. However, the final stanza comprises of a longing yet hopeful attitude; he misses the days of his youth and pines for those days. The hopeful attitude is tinged with melancholy in the end, for the only way to return to purity is death.
5. Rarely does a poet begin and end the poetic experience in the same place. Discovery of a poet’s understanding of an experience is critical to the understanding of a poem. Trace the feelings of the speaker from the beginning to the end, paying particular attention to the conclusion.
Look for the following to find shifts:
|1. Key words (but, yet, however, although)|
|2. Punctuation (dashes, periods, colons, ellipsis)|
|3. Stanza division|
|4. Changes in line or stanza length or both|
|5. Irony (sometimes irony hides shifts)|
|6. Effect of structure on meaning|
|7. Changes in sound (rhyme) may indicate changes in meaning|
|8. Changes in diction (slang to formal language)|
While the attitude changes frequently throughout “The Retreat,” the major shift is found at line 15 where Vaughan grudgingly admits his adult sin and putrification of his once pure world. Before this line the tone is reminiscent; however, after the prior end-stop, the reader clearly senses the shift of focus from pure thoughts to the teaching of “black arts,” referring to a “fleshy dress,” his corporeal sin.
- Examine the title again, this time on an interpretive level.
The poet retreats from the sins he has knowingly committed in his adult life. It is to where he retreats that the title refers. He draws back from reality by reminiscing of his pure and joyous childhood where he only envisioned “celestial thoughts.” This short space is vanished and only exists in his memory. The final retreat from harsh realities is death, where judgment may or may not deem him pure.
7. Identify the theme by recognizing the human experience, motivation, or condition suggested by the poem.
“The Retreat” addresses humans’ desire to recapture nostalgia of pure and innocent youth. Once innocence is lost, one can only focus on the dreams of the future or the joy of the past. Unfortunately, this ultimatum offers no solace; the only true way to escape the adversities and perils of later life is death—this ends the suffering and returns one to Heaven or a pure state.
ANALYTICAL POETRY WRITING
Below is a poetry analysis for Henry Vaughan’s “The Retreat.” I avoid simple paraphrasing in attempts to draw out a deeper theme. In order to explain this theme I use evidence from Vaughan’s writing to prove that he is saying much more than, “We are all bad grapes!” I simply picked some poetic devices from my notes above, decided what evidence to use to support my claims, and structured the body paragraphs based on theme.
The Sanctity of Retreat
The seventeenth century brought with it The Age of Reason; not only did European civilization venture into the Earth’s unknown territory, but the human mind’s as well. Novice scientists as well as philosophers questioned morality and truth in the quickly expanding world. In his poem “The Retreat,” Vaughan uses subtle yet superior syntactical strategies, imagery and tonal devices to examine life’s inevitable moral degradation and its cyclical course of purity.
The poet nostalgically conveys reverence toward days of youth and purity and abhorrence toward corrupt adulthood. In the first stanza, Vaughan depicts “angel-infancy” and “celestial thought” when referring to his youth. Clearly, he refers to Heavenly firmament through his imagery; this purity is a metaphor of his innocence upon which he longingly reflects—“Happy those early days!” and “looking back—at that short space…” These lines of inversion and caesura subtly and effectively emphasize the fleeting and capricious days that have given way to an inevitably brutal, sinful world. Vaughan’s use of anaphora on lines 3 and 15, “Before I…,” foreshadow the looming threat of purity’s end and the inevitability of the “black art” of aging that corrupts all lives.
Though Vaughan leaves the reader distraught with “A several sin to every sense,” the final stanza offers hope of salvation through purity’s cyclical nature. “The shady city of palm trees” offers the reader imagery of a holy city, referring to Jerusalem or Jericho, perhaps. Yearning for purer days, the poet states in a surrendering tone, “But ah! My soul with too much stay/is drunk, and staggers in the way…,” conceding to the impossibility of attaining such a place in life. Vaughan employs antithesis to juxtapose his yearning for a place of higher morality to others’ continued earthly desires, elevating the greater nobility in death which returns humans to their original state.
“The Retreat” brings greater meaning to the concept of not only one’s morality, but the acceptance of failure in a struggle. Vaughan addresses retreating as a noble act, one to be celebrated for its acceptance of engaging in sin rather than forging against a dying light. To not engage in a conflict or war (in this case a war against immorality) is to remain a pacifist. When one surrenders, is not a white flag that is flown? For white is the very color of purity to which Vaughan refers.
Student Notes for Poetry Logs
While my notes are extremely detailed and extensive, you will not have the time to document as much on the AP exam. Below is a condensed version of the notes from TPCASTT that I expect to see before the actual writing analysis.
*infancy and purity were happier days
*youth is brief, though God can be seen in these fleeting hours
*sin is inevitable, but there can still be good in Man
*The poet longs to return to days of purity and innocence.
*Future goals do not inspire the poet, but a longing for the unattainable past; The only way to return to this purity is through death.
Connotation: Devices Used
Inversion (syntax), reverent tone, abhorrent tone, metaphor/symbolism, anaphora and antithesis
Inevitable loss of innocence in life; cyclical path of purity
Cited from https://musa05.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/how-to-break-poems-down-and-analyze-them/