Sometimes Poetry Analysis Goes Too Far
Sometimes those who analyze poetry go too far in their explications or detailed analyses of poetry. As a result, they often butcher rather than illuminate a poem, frequently finding ideas and themes in poems the poet most likely never intended to include.
The most famous examples of over-analysis, perhaps, are explications of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Because of several zealous teachers and professors, I grew up thinking that this beautiful pastoral poem was a poem about death because of the lines: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.” A professor said, “The word ‘sleep’ connotes death, and in this poem, a man wishes to die in that cold, snowy, pristine, perfect setting.” Even Frost’s biographer, Jeffrey Meyers wrote that the man has a “subconscious desire for death in the dark, snowy woods.”
I didn’t see death in Frost’s poem then, and I don’t see it now. To me, the man in the poem is cold, and although it’s a glorious scene, he has obligations at home and must get there. Knowing how pragmatic and down-to-earth Frost was in many of his other poems like “Mending Wall” and “The Wood-Pile,” I think he might agree.
Overdoing an explication
I graded explications of poems for twenty years as an English teacher, and I had students who “found” some amazing things. They found Nazis in anything written by a German poet of any era. They found sexual undertones wherever they could. They found convoluted allegories in simple children’s rhymes—Little Boy Blue became the totalitarian state, his horn the military, and the sheep and cattle unruly citizens to subjugate. Let me show you how ridiculous an explication could sound using “Mary Had a Little Lamb”:
(Queen of Scots, a bloody Mary, the ocean liner, the Virgin)
(used, knew in a biblical sense, enslaved, owned, exploited)
(trivial, mean, narrow, vertically and horizontally challenged)
(of God, innocence, ignorance, William Blake topic, gentle or weak person, dear, flesh used for food, English essayist Charles Lamb)
(Jason and the Argonauts, Old Navy clothing, what the government does to Americans every April 15)
(pure, Christmas, albino, Caucasian, inherently racist)
(dandruff, skiing in Aspen, the winter Olympics, cocaine) …
Therefore, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is not a harmless children’s rhyme at all. In reality, it is about a boozing monarch bent on oppressing and eating the little people using enslavement and addictive drugs …
The focus of an explication
In order to keep from butchering a poem, the writer of any explication should focus on:
- historical period
- universal relevance
Tips for writing better explications
If you adhere to these, you are sure to impress your teacher or professor:
- Use quotations and line references properly, and weave quotations and line references into your writing—don’t merely type “block quotes” and then comment—see the example below.
- Keep everything in the present tense because the work still exists.
- Use “we” and “us” to cure all of your pronoun-antecedent problems.
- Avoid using “the reader.”
- Do not use the word “I”; it is understood that the entire explication is your opinion.
- When explicating a specific type of poem, break it down according to the form. If you’re working with a sonnet, for example, break it down according to the three quatrains and the couplet.
- Always have a thesis statement at the beginning of the explication that encompasses your entire analysis—see the thesis underlined in the example below.
A sample explication of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"
The following is an example explication of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan." I have underlined my thesis.
From the outset of “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge immerses us in the mysterious realm of “Xanadu,” (l. 1) a place of idyllic beauty, by inverting normal sentence order, using alliterative S-sounds, and providing an irregular meter and rhyme scheme. The poem’s first verb—“decree” (l. 2)—appears at the end of line two after we have already been introduced to the setting (“Xanadu” (l. 2)) and the principal actor (“Kubla Khan” (l. 1)). This inversion immediately jolts us back to a bygone, romantic time where “Alph, the sacred river” (l. 3) runs “Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea” (ll. 4-5). We can almost hear that river whispering through that cavern because of the S-filled phrase “sunless sea” (l. 5). While the first four lines contain eight syllables, the fifth only contains six; this irregular meter coupled with a curious ABCCB rhyme scheme tells us that we are in a place where even poetry breaks all the rules, the hallmark of most Romantic poetry.
My example only covers only five of the poem’s forty-nine lines. Explication is work and requires diligence and attention to detail. Your job is to illuminate and reveal the layers within a poem—not butcher it until it becomes unrecognizable.