Though related to the concept of a moral, or lesson, themes are usually more complicated and ambiguous. Whereas a moral might say that “power corrupts,” a poem exploring the dangers of power might recognize, as well, the necessity of power. To describe the theme of a poem is to discuss the overarching abstract idea or ideas being examined in the poem.
Theme vs. Subject
A poem’s subject is the topic of the poem, or what the poem is about, while the theme is an idea that the poem expresses about the subject or uses the subject to explore. So, for example, in the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Raven,” the subject is the raven, who continually repeats a single word in response to the speaker’s questions. The theme of the poem, however, is the irreversibility of death -- the speaker asks the raven, in a variety of ways, whether or not he will see his dead beloved again, to which the raven always replies “nevermore.”
Close Reading for Theme
The theme of a poem may be stated explicitly, but more often it is implicit, and must be determined by a close reading. First, determine the subject of the poem, that is, what the poem is explicitly talking about. Next, ask yourself why the poet chose this subject for the poem, and what larger ideas or issues the poet is talking about through this subject. Common themes include love, death, loss, the importance of self-knowledge, the contrast between ideals and reality and the dangers of power, among many others.
Look for meaningful repeated elements in the poem, or motifs. An example from the poem “The Raven” is the repeated word “nevermore.” Whenever an element is repeated in a poem, you should assume it is both intentional and meaningful. Motifs are often connected to the theme of the poem, as is the case with “nevermore.” This connection is so close that many people use the words “theme” and “motif” interchangeably.
Writing About Theme
Once you have identified the theme of a poem, read through the poem again and note any lines or phrases that connect to this theme that you may have missed in your first reading. You are likely to find things that you didn’t notice before jumping out at you. If the thesis of your essay is making a claim about the theme, state the theme in your thesis and present quotations from the poem throughout your essay as evidence that the theme you have stated is correct. When describing the theme, it is also helpful to point out any places where the poem complicates -- or says something unexpected -- about the theme.