Tone in Poetry terms

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Last updated: December 6, 2019

persona (plural personae)
the speaking voice in a poem, as distinguished from the poet’s own voice. The term is most useful when the speaker is clearly not the poet, as in “My Last Duchess,” where Robert Browning assumes the persona of a murderous duke in Renaissance Italy.

voice
a term often used vaguely, but useful to describe the speaking voice in a poem that uses no persona.

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Voice can refer to an unidentified third-person speaker, or even to the “I” in a poem that does not distinctly characterize the speaker. In Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” voice is a more accurate term than persona, even though the speaker is obviously a soldier who happens to be the poet. Every poem has a voice, even if the poem only describes something and directs the reader’s attention away from the person understood as speaking.

That voice is not necessarily the same as the poet’s.

attitude
a judgment which an author, character or work expresses. To be distinguished from tone (the emotion with which views are expressed). Tone is emotional, attitude intellectual. Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” expresses the attitude that efforts to glorify war in the name of patriotism are lies that distort its ugly reality. Often in good poetry the tone is mixed and the attitude complex.

tone
the emotion with which views are expressed. To be distinguished from attitude, which is a judgment of something. Tone is emotional, attitude intellectual. The tone of a love poem might be awestruck, pleading, self-pitying, bitter, or many other things; it may involve more than one emotion. In good poetry the tone is often mixed and the attitude complex.

irony
a difficult term to define, irony can refer to a manner of expression or a quality in the thing perceived. In both cases, irony involves the perception of discrepancy, usually between apparent and real significance. It is an indirect way of communicating an attitude. Irony can vary in tone, from humorous to bitter.

verbal irony
the rhetorical use of language to mean the opposite of what is expressed. When Andrew Marvell writes, “But sure as oft as women weep / It is to be supposed they grieve,” he is making an indirect comment on coyness.

irony of situation
a situation in life or a literary work in which an ironic discrepancy is apparent.

When a song entitled “Almost There” peaked at number two on the pop charts, it was an example of irony of situation. An example from literature comes at the climactic point in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when Boo Radley, the neighbor whom the child protagonist feared, rescues her; the fact that it is Halloween when Boo emerges enhances the irony.

satire
a form of literature or art that criticizes something (e.g.

, an idea or institution) by making it seem ridiculous. The term can apply to a writing technique (“Jonathan Swift uses satire in Gulliver’s Travels”), a genre (“Swift excelled at satire”), or a particular work (“Gulliver’s Travels is a satire”). The adjective is satirical; satirize is a transitive verb.

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