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
- 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
- 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
- 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:
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.