Analysing a poem - The Ecchoing Green
The following is a worked example of how a student might analyse one of Blake's Songs.
The Ecchoing Green
The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells' cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.
Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth-time were seen
On the echoing green.'
Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mother
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen
On the darkening green.
1. Start with looking at whether this is a Song of Innocence or a Song of Experience
This will alert you to:
- Questions about the nature and possible limitations of the speaker and of his/her standpoint
- Matters of structure, versification and language.
In a Song of Innocence, the effect is often produced by adopting very limited diction and evoking a child's manner of speaking. In a Song of Experience, the speaker may appear to be a child, but will use many more rhetorical devices and will often echo contemporary poetic diction.
This is a Song of Innocence. The speaker is a child. Diction is limited and depends upon repetition. The speaker seems unaware of any negative associations in, ‘Such, such were the joys' and in the use of ‘darkening'.
- Do you think this speaker is a totally reliable guide to the meaning of this poem?
2. Read the poem and work out the literal sense as far as you can
See if you can then identify the images and allusions Blake is using and what they suggest and how they work together. Look back then at your literal account and decide how this connects with the imagery. This should then give you an idea of what Blake is trying to say and the effect he is trying to create.
Think about the imagery of: spring, birds, childhood and the green, and what they suggest about the meaning of this scene.
- There is harmony, the children are free and the old people have neither the desire to repress the children nor do they express any jealousy.
3. Now look more closely at the language
- Are there any words which are repeated – do they make any pattern?
- Are their groups of similar and/or contrasting words? Do these make any pattern?
- What emotional or pictorial effect do they produce?
- Does the meaning of any word change between one stanza and another?
- Are any rhetorical devices used – e.g.. repetition (especially in threes), rhetorical questions, irony?
- What effects do these produce?
Look at the repetition of words denoting happiness and those suggesting freedom.
- Are there any words or phrases suggesting any other feeling or reality?
Look at the effect of repeating ‘Such, such'.
- Do you hear any sadness here – a lament for what has passed?
- Does ‘darkening' suggest the shadow of death and change hanging over this scene?
4. Then look at the form
- What patterns have been created?
- What is the metre?
- Do the metre and rhythm reflect or contradict the content, tone or mood?
- What is the effect of this?
- How does the patterning created by the rhyme add to the impact of the poem?
Notice the neatness of the closed rhyming couplets
- What effect has this in enhancing the mood and tone of the simple completeness of the children's experience?
- Does it suggest the simplicity of a child's speech?
The lines are five or six syllables with a basic pattern of two stresses per line. Usually an iamb or anapaest is followed by an anapaestic foot, with a stress on the end syllable. This creates a rising rhythm and gives the poem a positive, jaunty rhythm.
- What effect does this have?
- Is it appropriate?
The repetition of ‘Such, such' creates a trochee which gives this line three stresses and causes the reader to linger. This may suggest an underlying lament, especially as the next line is also slowed down by the caesura ‘we all, girls…' in the next line.
- How does this affect your interpretation of the whole poem?
- Does it encourage you to see this poem as only concerned with ‘innocence', with harmony, freedom and fertility?
- Or does it link with the suggestions behind ‘Such, such,' and ‘darkening' to imply that the speaker does not see the intimations of death and change within the poem?
I have tried to concentrate here on the kind of questions you need to ask in analysing a poem, rather than on providing definite answers. It is more important that you can show that you know what questions to ask, and that you can give reasons from the text for your answers, than that you can reproduce a ready-packaged response.
The choice of words a poet makes; his vocabulary and any special features of it.
Related to rhetoric; eloquently-expressed, designed to persuade.
A passing reference to a text or historical fact.
A figure of speech where a question is apparently asked, but no answer is expected.
Where the surface appearance of something is shown to be not the case, but quite the opposite. Often done for moral or comic purpose. An ironic style is when the writer makes fun of naive or self-deceived characters.
The particular measurement in a line of poetry, determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (in some languages, the pattern of long and short syllables). It is the measured basis of rhythm.
The musical effect of the repetition of stresses or beats, and the speed or tempo at which these may be read.
The device, frequently used at the ends of lines in poetry, where words with the same sound are paired, sometimes for contrast ' for example, 'breath' and 'death'.
The smallest sound fragment of a word, consisting of one vowel sound, with attached consonants if any.
A word containing only one syllable; this may be contrasted with a polysyllabic word ' that is, a word containing several syllables.
Rhyme which occurs within a single line of verse, rather than between lines.
Rhyming couplets which are punctuated as self-contained units of sense. Often found in mock heroic verse.
The tone of voice in which anything is to be read in: e.g. lyrical, dramatic, contemplative.
Metrical feet made up of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (or one short syllable followed by one long syllable).
A metre in poetry, each foot consisting of two unstressed syllables, followed by a stressed syllable. A rising metre, like the iambic.
A group of syllables which constitute a metrical unit within a line of poetry. In English poetry this includes stressed and unstressed syllables.
A rhythm which is less heavily weighted at its start; an iambic or anapaestic metre.
A metric foot in a line of verse, consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed. It is thus a falling metre.
A pause, often indicated in text by a comma or full stop, during a line of blank verse.
The sun rises on a green field where birds sing and children play. As they play, “Old John with white hair” and other elderly observers laugh at their antics and remember a time when they were young, energetic, and playful. Eventually the little ones grow tired and the sun begins to set. The children gather back to their mothers and prepare for a night’s rest.
“The Ecchoing Green” consists of three ten-line stanzas, each in turn composed of five rhyming couplets. The first stanza focuses on the children playing in the morning; the second stanza shifts to the older people recalling their own youthful pleasures and is possibly set in the afternoon; and the third takes place at evening, as the weary children begin their tired journey home.
“The Ecchoing Green” is a joyful poem celebrating spring. The green fields, chirping birds, and playing children remind the elderly observers of their own youth and bring them joy as well. That the field is “Ecchoing” indicates that this scene, like the season of spring itself, has played out before and will play out again and again in the future.
In the second stanza, time has progressed. The older people remember their youth, as these children will someday be reminded of it by their own descendants. Spring is still here, but it is a spring remembered, not the vibrant, impassioned spring of the children in the first stanza. Already the flowers fade and the possibility of endings, and eventually of death, is present. Nonetheless, the old people “laugh at [the children's] play,” suggesting a pleasure taken by the more mature in the sheer innocent joy of youth. Similarly, the tone of the stanza is not intended to be sorrowful, but inspiring. That the older people are still around is a testimony to the persistence of life; the oak of the second stanza stands in the green as a symbol of strength and security to accentuate this feeling.
A hint of melancholy affects the poem in the last stanza, where the “Ecchoing” green becomes the “darkening” green. Spring will always come, and with it all the joys and vitality of the season, but it always eventually ends, giving way to the cold and gloom of autumn and winter. Similarly, there will always be young people to celebrate their joy in this world, but every young child eventually matures into an adult like “Old John,” who must content himself with secondhand or remembered joy while others dance the dance of life.