This article contains five first steps to understanding the meaning of poetry. It uses as an example "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes.
One of the common complaints readers have against poetry is its obscure meaning. Meanings are often set in unfamiliar times or depend on historical or literary references. For a student it may seem like a scavenger hunt. There are some strategies to help if you want to read poetry.
• First, identify your reason for reading the poem.
Is this for a grade in school, or do you just want to know what all the talk is about? If you really need to understand the meaning and value in the poem, you have a different goal than the person who just wants to understand an obscure metaphor.
• Second, what is your first impression?
Does the title suggest an image or a setting? Highlight the nouns and verbs that are unusual or important the first time you read it. Are they telling a story? Maybe you are beginning to get a sense of what the poet is talking about.
• Third, does the poem rhyme?
Sometimes rhymes accentuate the meaning. Other devices also do this. Repeated words or refrains may restate and reframe the meaning.
• Fourth, does the poem conform to common syntax?
An odd format or construction may be the way the poet highlights an important thought. It may also be simply to get the correct syllable count and rhyme. Be attentive and sensitive to these matters, but don’t let them overwhelm you.
• Fifth, are the lines metered?
Meter and line length can be used by a poet to emphasize words or phrases that carry meaning.
I have often read poetry for the rhythm and cadence and the meaning seeps into my consciousness as I read the pounding words.
“THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”
From “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes
Mark the meanings of phrases, and explore the associations you find. There may be historical references or cultural hints. In this example from “The Highwayman,” metaphors emphasize darkness and mystery. The following action throughout the poem takes place at night except for the arrival of the troops. Their sinister actions were performed in daylight.
As a general rule, highwaymen are crooks, but Noyes casts him in a sympathetic lover whose loyalty extended beyond death with Bess as the tragic heroine.
Apply these questions to other poems and you may begin to unlock some of the mystery in reading poetry.