Tone

There are numerous and sometimes conflicting text book definitions of tone:

"The poet's or persona's attitude in style or expression toward the subject, e.g., loving, ironic, bitter, pitying, fanciful, solemn, etc. Tone can also refer to the overall mood of the poem itself, in the sense of a pervading atmosphere intended to influence the readers' emotional response and foster expectations of the conclusion." (Glossary of Poetic Terms from BOB'S BYWAY)

 
"The writer's or speaker's attitude toward his subject, his audience, or himself; the emotional coloring, or emotional meaning, of a work." (Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry by Laurence Perrine)
 
 
"The word tone in literary discussion is borrowed from the expression tone of voice. Tone is the manner in which a poet makes his statement; it reflects his attitude toward his subject. Since printed poems lack the intonations of spoken words, the reader must learn to "hear" their tones with his mind's ear. Tone cannot be heard in one particular place since it reflects a general attitude, it pervades the whole poem." (Poems: Wadsworth Handbook and Anthology by C. F. Main & Peter J. Seng)
 
 
"Tone expresses the poet's attitude toward his audience. We all experience tone in everyday life. A speaker's placing of emphasis, his tone of voice, his facial expression, even his gestures all help the hearer to determine the speaker's meaning and attitude." (The Order of Poetry, An Introduction Bloom, Philbrick and Blistein)
 

None of the text book definitions of tone given above seem to resolve the exact meaning of the term. It continues to present a difficulty for this writer to understand the term exactly and to relate it to Frost's poetry as we have done with meter, metaphor and rhyme. When Frost spoke and wrote about his poems, he always mentioned tone. As with many of his theories, he had his own twist. Tone is the central idea of Frost's "sound of sense." To him, it meant voice tones.
 
When Frost explained his theory of the sound of sense, he said tone is what comes through a closed door when people are speaking out of earshot. We cannot understand the exact words, but the tones of voice tell us what is going on. You can tell if the voice is pleading, demanding or doubtful. These living voice tones can be heard in Frost's poems.
 
Frost explained, "It's tone I'm in love with; that's what poetry is, tone." "That tone is everything, the way you say that 'no.' (Job in The Masque of Reason) I noticed that - that's what made me write that."
He said he wrote the last lines of The Runaway just for the "aggrieved tone of voice." In Spring Pools, you can see the finger wag a bit as the speaker says, "Let them think twice.."
 
"Everything written is as good as it is dramatic...Sentences are not different enough to hold the attention unless they are dramatic...All that can save them is the speaking tone of voice some how entangled in the words and fastened to the page for the ear of the imagination." (Frost in Preface to A Way Out)
 
Frost believes that tone gives variety. He said, "you've got to get dramatic." It is therefore hard sometimes to identify an overall tone in a Frost poem because he is consciously changing them. Frost wrote poetry in a speaking voice and the tone(s) are essential to the drama. This applies just as well to The Death of the Hired Man as to Nothing Gold Can Stay.
 
These examples were given by Frost himself to explain his use of tone:
 
A Patch of Old Snow

 

There's a patch of old snow in a corner,
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.
 
It is specked with grime as if
Small print overspread it.
The news of a day I've forgotten --
If I ever read it.
 
Frost explained the first stanza is "merely ordinary and bookish." He relied on the reader's recognition of the snow and blow-away newspapers and the transient nature of news. The first 6 lines set up the situation for the last two where he makes you drop your voice to expose the irony of the last line ... "If I ever read it." That is classic Frostian tone and sound of sense. Frost imparts the tone through the sense or meaning of the ongoing situation. If you get several people to read it, you will hear that they all read the last line alike. Frost has a way of making the reader say the lines in a certain way.
 
Frost believed it was the tone and the sound of sense which conveyed art in poetry. Poetry should be about things we recognize, things common in experience, BUT delightful in the uncommon way a thing is said: "All the fun's in how you say a thing." He wanted the living sound of speech to come off the printed page and into the reader's ear or audile imagination.
 
Here is another example Frost gave of changing tones:
 
The Pasture
I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;         (light, informing tone)
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away                  ("only" tone - reservation)
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):      (supplementary, possibility)
I sha'n't be gone long. -- You come too.              (free tone, assuring)  (after thought, inviting) "Rather well for me" --
 
I'm going out to fetch the little calf                       (Similar, free, persuasive, assuring
That's standing by the mother.  It's so young,    and inviting tones in second stanza)       
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long.  -- You come too.
And more from Frost, "The visual images thrown up by a poem are important, but it is more important still to choose and arrange words in a sequence so as to virtually control the intonations and pauses of the reader's voice. By the arrangement and choice of words on the part of the poet, the effects of humor, pathos, hysteria, anger, and in fact, all effects, can be indicated or obtained."
 
Now if we think again about the definitions of tone, we can say: tone, as Frost used it, does indicate the emotional intent of the poet, the speaker and the overall attitude of both. The textbook definitions speak to the ultimate result of the use of tone, while Frost actually addresses how this is accomplished with the use of voice tones. Frost was not interested in idioms and intonation to be quaint. He consciously wrote the sound of talk including vernacular tones in order to expand his poetry and to convey meaning to the reader.
 
Further reading: Visit The Frost Free Library and read "Frost as a Critical Theorist" from Robert Frost on writing by Elaine Barry.
 
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