How to Figure Out the Tone in Poetry

Robert Frost's poem Dust of Snow has a thoughtful and melancholic tone.

Tone is the attitude that the writer of the poem exhibits toward his subject or audience. This attitude may be expressed in the subject matter of the poem, the poem’s characters or the particular events that the poem describes. Furthermore, tone is conveyed in the style or manner of how the writer expresses his attitude and may come through in the poem’s syntax, structure or vocabulary.

Tone of a poem is expressed in three ways

  1. the subject matter
  2. characters
  3. events described

Writer’s Two Attitudes

In order to figure out the tone of a poem, you should analyze the writer’s attitude just like you would interpret the attitude of someone speaking to you.

We know that when others speak to us, their tone of voice suggests a particular attitude either toward us or the subject that they are discussing. Tone in a poem is no different.

The tone of the poem suggests the writer’s attitude toward the reader, also known as the ​audience​, or his attitude toward the thing that he is discussing in the poem, also known as his ​subject​.

How to Describe the Tone

To figure out the tone of a poem, understand the writer’s attitude toward the subject or the audience. A poem of praise conveys the tone of approval while a satirical poem conveys an ironical tone.

Tone can be formal, informal, playful, angry, serious or humorous, and the tone of a poem can even change throughout the poem.

In describing a poem’s tone, use adjectives that accurately convey your interpretation of the writer’s attitude toward the subject or the audience.

Considering Mood and Voice

To identify a poem’s tone, you should also consider two other important and related poetic elements: ​mood​ and ​voice​. Tone is closely related to mood and voice, and they will often give you insight into the poem’s tone.

  • The mood​ is synonymous with the atmosphere of the poem, and the emotions and feelings that it evokes in you.
  • The poem’s tone​, or the writer’s attitude toward his subject or audience, helps create a particular kind of atmosphere or mood in the poem.
  • The narrator​ of the poem is responsible for the poem’s voice, conveying the narrator’s attitude.

Example

In order to properly identify the poem’s tone, you should consider the poem as a whole. For example, in the second part of “Dust of Snow,” Robert Frost writes, “Has given my heart/ A change of mood/ And saved some part/ Of a day I had rued.”

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued

  • Robert Frost

The poem as a whole relays a thoughtful moment that is tinged with sorrow. The narrator appears lost in contemplation. Thus, the tone of the poem is ​thoughtful​ and ​melancholic​.