Critical appraisal of a poem is defined as critical reading of a poem. The meaning of their words, their rhyme, outline, the speaker, figures of speech, references to other works (intertextuality), the style of language, the poet’s general writing style (if mentioned), the genre, the context, the speaker’s tone and other elements make up critical reading or appreciation. It does not mean criticizing the poem. A critical appreciation helps to better understand the verse.
- Meaning: Read the poem more than once to get a clear idea of what the speaker is trying to say. Look up the meaning of difficult or unusual words in a thesaurus. The title of the poem is key to the general meaning and summary of the thought presented. A poem could be about lost love, ‘Lucy’ (Wordsworth).
- Rhyme scheme: find the words that rhyme. These occur at the end of each line. Rhyming words can also be present in the middle of the line. Check out the rhyme scheme. For example, if the rhyming words appear at the end of each line alternately in a 4-line poem, the rhyme scheme will be ‘aba b’. In Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Stopping in Woods on a Snowy Night’, the second stanza reads like this:
“My little horse must think it’s weird
To stop without a farmhouse nearby
Between the forest and the frozen lake
The darkest afternoon of the year … “
In these lines, the rhyme scheme is ‘aabb’
In several poems there are no rhymes. Such a poem is called a blank verse.
- Speaker: Identify the speaker of the poem. It can be a child, an old man, a shepherd, a swordsman, a student, a milkmaid, a sailor, an animal, or even an object like a chair or a place like a house or a mountain. Each speaker will speak differently.
- Setting: each poem has a specific setting. It can be a boat or a modern condo. The setting is the background of the poem and contributes to its meaning. For example, a pastoral environment is most likely a grazing ground for a flock of boats. The setting for Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ is a modern city with its people leading mechanical lives. Words also convey the same meaning.
“And short square fingers filling cakes,
And the evening papers and the eyes
Sure of certain certainties … “
- Context: the context gives us the time and location of the poem. It is what motivated the poem. The context could be an event of great political importance such as the French Revolution. This sparked PB Shelley’s famous “Ode to the West Wind”. The poem wonderfully defends the spirit of the revolution and heralded the dawn of a new era.
- Language: the language of a poem is the very vehicle of its thoughts and ideas. Study the language in terms of the use of rhetorical figures, their tone, use of borrowed words or archaic words, sentence length, rhythm (iambic, trochaic or any other meter), number of lines, etc. Consider introducing new ideas and mark where it occurs. For example, in William Blake’s poem ‘The Lamb’, the lamb refers to both the baby sheep, the child who is the speaker, and the Lamb of God. Here the word “lamb” is a metaphor.
- Intertextuality: while writing a critical appraisal of a poem, we notice that another poem is being alluded to or looking back at another poem. This is called intertextuality or reference. For example, Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ alludes to Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ in its structure of people telling stories during a journey.
- Genre- Genre roughly means the category of the poem. Each genre has established rules and characteristics. For example, a very long narrative poem, of several thousand lines, that deals with divine figures or demigods or great generals of the past and describes a terrible war or an incredible journey on which the destiny of humanity rests, can be termed as epic. . For example, the ‘Iliad’ (Homer), ‘Paradise Lost’ (J. Milton) and similar poems. A short 14-line poem that expresses intimate emotions is a ‘sonnet’. For example, “Do not leave me to the marriage of true minds” (Shakespeare) is a sonnet that extols real love and devotion. There are several genres: satire, mock epic, ballad, lyric, ode, parody, etc.