Students may find poetry perplexing because they usually look for literal meaning in what they read. Poetry often requires readers to look more deeply to find less obvious meanings behind words and situations presented in the work. Irony is a common device used by poets to enhance the themes they wish to convey. When a poem contains irony, there is a clear discrepancy between appearances and reality. It is relatively easy for students to recognize when irony is present, and the effect is often humorous, which makes reading poetry fun. A few examples from famous poets will illustrate how irony is used.
Dickinson's "Fame Is a Bee"
Emily Dickinson's poetry is often short and easy to read, so even beginners are likely to enjoy her work. She uses irony in many of her poems to express the contradictions inherent in the human condition. The poem "Fame Is a Bee" is an example that even very young students can understand:
Fame is a bee. It has a song -- It has a sting -- Ah, too, it has a wing.
In the classroom, generate a discussion of irony as you examine the poem's meaning. Kids understand that bees are frightening and dangerous, yet they probably view fame as something desirable. The final line speaks of how fleeting fame is once it has been achieved. By examining the irony in this poem, children will be able to consider the less desirable consequences of fame, which Dickinson herself experienced.
Poe's "For Annie"
Edgar Allan Poe often wrestles with the uncomfortable inevitability of death in his poems, and he often uses irony to contrast life and death. The opening stanza of "For Annie" uses irony to challenge the reader's assumptions:
Thank heaven! The crisis, The danger is past, And the lingering illness Is over at last, And the fever called "living" Is over at last.
Students will be surprised by the ending lines of the stanza, which suggest that death brings a welcome end to the "fever" of living. Challenge them to consider how life's struggles might be compared to an "illness" full of danger and crisis.
Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a classic piece often used to introduce long-form poetry to students. It contains a famous example of situational irony:
Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water everywhere, And not a drop to drink.
Here, there is a discrepancy between appearances and reality -- the mariner is dying of thirst while surrounded by water that he cannot drink. Coleridge struggled with loneliness in his lifetime, and the mariner's ironic situation may represent this. Just as the mariner was surrounded by water and still thirsty, Coleridge was surrounded by people but perpetually lonely.
Pope's "Rape of the Lock"
Alexander Pope's "Rape of the Lock" is a satire that uses irony to emphasize its criticism of society's shallowness. The poem is written in the style of an epic poem, which in itself is ironic since it deals with human vanity, not heroic deeds. Pope writes of the main character: "If to her share some female errors fall,/ Look on her face, and you'll forget them all." In this case, irony is used to illustrate the failings of human perception.