tone: "in literature, may be defined as the writer's or speaker's attitude
toward the subject, the reader, or herself or himself. It is the emotional
coloring, or the emotional meaning, of the work and is an extremely important part
of the full meaning" (161).
Perrine offers us a distinction between the "prose meaning" or the denotative meaning
of a poem and its "total meaning" or the full experience of poetic information on page
148. Since we have already been employing these distinctions more or less through
your informal posts, this chapter will hopefully add to your store of knowledge without
presenting anything entirely new.
One point that Perrine makes regarding the "idea" of a poem is important to underscore:
"The value and worth of the poem are determined by the value of the total experience, not
by the truth or the nobility of the idea itself. . . . The primary value of a poem depends
not so much on the truth of the idea presented as on the power with which it is
communicated and on its being made a convincing part of a meaningful total experience" (149).
That suggests, rightly I think, that one can appreciate a good poem even though one may
not agree with its core principles. Something to think on ....
Perrine also suggests that "Other things being equal, good readers naturally will, and properly
should, value more highly the poem whose idea they feel to be more mature and nearer
to the heart of human experience" (151). Response??
Regarding tone, we shall take Perrine's precaution: "But the correct determination
of tone in literature is a much more delicate matter than it is in spoken language,
for we do not have the speaker's voice to guide us. We must learn to recognize tone
by other means" (161). This is a crucial fact about poetic tone. We become something
of a detective looking for clues into the poem's tonal register. Perrine says that
almost all the elements of poetry will help to indicate the tone. We must learn to
read very carefully.
As a guide, the book offers several good readings of tone in well-known poems presented
in the chapter. What do you think, for example, of his explanation of Frost's famous
"Stopping by Woods" on p. 162? Other examples in the chapter?
Also remember that tone can and often does shift in a poem. "But the varying or shifting
tones in a single poem are often a valuable means for achieving the poet's purpose, and
indeed may create the dramatic structure of a poem" (165).
I believe this is the case for the poem we will be considering for class today. At what
points does the speaker's tone shift in "Church Going"? How might these shifts create
a structure of dramatic thought? What is the conflict or question being debated? What
resolution does the poem offer? How does the language convey a tone about this resolution
and what does the tone indicate about the resolution?
Note, for instance, how stanza six offers a self-appraisal of the speaker that
tells us his emotions when he visited the church; in other words, it offers us a clue as to how to
read the tone of the description in the opening two stanzas.
While you are working on "Church Going," keep in mind some of our other figures and terms.
In particular, what types of irony are at work? Examine the embedded or fourth form
metaphors indicated by the verbs "brewing" (8) or "robed" (57), or the adjective
"unspilt" (48). What other metaphors does he employ and what do they contribute to the
meaning of the poem?
To practice reading tone, the authors provide two poems that speak to the same idea or
subject matter. In this case, "Church Going" is paired with "Dover Beach" by Matthew
Arnold. Both focus on the issue of lost or declining faith. Be prepared to offer some
contrast between the two poems.