What Is the Function of Tone in Poetry?
The function of tone in poetry is largely meant to set the mood or feel of a poem for the reader. Tone typically allows a poet to control the way in which a poem is to be read, or the attitude that the speaker in the poem takes toward the subject of the poem. Two poems could both be written about a flower, for example, but with two very different tones used to make one a very positive poem and the other a much more depressing work. The way in which a poet controls tone is typically through word choice and imagery.
Tone in poetry, much like other works of literature, refers to the overall attitude that seems to be expressed within the work and the mood that this creates. It is important to note, however, that tone and mood are not synonymous, but that tone is usually utilized as a way to set the mood in a work. Tone can be established and developed in a number of different ways, depending on how the poem is written and how well-established the speaker is within the structure of the poem.
Works by Edgar Allen Poe, for example, are renowned as examples of excellent displays of a somber or creepy tone in poetry. Poe often creates this tone by establishing a speaker within the poem, frequently using a first-person point of view, and using the speaker’s word choice and voice. Use of words like “fear,” “dread,” “panic,” revulsion,” and “horror” can all be used to quickly and unequivocally establish a sense of paranoia or terror in a work. By manipulating tone in poetry, poets like Poe are able to establish a particular mood for a poem and express that mood without actually telling the reader to feel that way.
Two poems, for example, could both be written about a flower, but the tone of each poem could be very different and create different moods for each poem. The first poem might describe the flower as “tall and radiant, with crimson petals that shimmered with the languid glow of early morning dew;” this uses a romantic tone to set a positive mood. A similar flower in another poem, however, could be described as “twisting up from the ground like the gnarled claw of some buried simian predator, its scarlet petals glistening like the floor of an abattoir;” this uses a sinister tone to set a very negative mood. Both of these statements describe a red flower, but by manipulating the tone of each example, the mood established by the description becomes quite different.
@croydon - Mood in poetry is most definitely influenced by the writer though. I mean, putting a raven into your poem might be negative or positive depending on the associations you make. Ravens are intelligent and beautiful but they are also carrion eaters and associated with death.
If your raven is muttering in a guttural voice, I think you'd be hard-put to justify that description isn't intended to create a creepy tone. If your raven is described as gentle, or sitting on someone's shoulder and helping them during the day, then perhaps it's meant to be a more positive image.
@pleonasm - I do find this difficult sometimes as the tone of poetry can depend on the bias of the person reading it. For example, if you really like ravens you aren't going to find it creepy to have one in a poem. I prefer to just write down what I think looks and sounds good and then let the reader decide how they want to feel about it.
It's a very good exercise to change the tone of a poem or even just a description in order to see the effect it might have on the reader. For example, you might try describing a character in a positive light, or in a negative light in order to get a good, well-rounded view of them. You might go back over a poem and try to re-write it with a different tone in order to figure out what tone you were using in the first place.
Word choice is not always deliberate, but it usually ought to be in poetry and this is a good way of figuring out how and why you are choosing the words that you are.
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