Tone

Tone is our term for any assessment of the extra-literal associations that are conjured by, and then linger over the language of a poem. I think, again, most of us have an intuitive sense that the word choice of a text can prompt emotional reactions within us, and that diction, like form and content, has some impact on the tone of a poem. If a poem repeatedly uses words that, when taken out of context, often strike you as sad, you might be tempted to declare that the speaker has a melancholy tone. But unless you verify that, in the context of the content and the form, that melancholy is sponsored by the rest of the poem, you’re basically falling into the trap of the affective fallacy (importing your own associations into a text that doesn’t support them). The voice may be ironic, or figurative, or ambiguous; or, as is the case for Sassoon’s “Repression of War Experience” from the last page on diction, the unstable diction and shaky syntax may be undermined by the prosody. Or, as is the case for Eliot’s “Gerontion,” perhaps the tone of the speaker is meant to be read as something distinct from the tone of the poem: in this case, the speaker is a judgmental bitter old man who may also be a mass-murderer of innocents, and so we should be judging him rather than sympathizing with his feelings of exclusion.

Tone is holistic. Wait until you feel as though you’ve considered all the evidence in the poem before trying to make any pronouncements about tone. To demonstrate this point, let’s turn to “Woodchucks” again, which has that deeply ambiguous first line, “Gasing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.” It didn’t work, and at the same time, it turns out it was the morally wrong thing to do. But you wouldn’t know that the speaker regrets her part in trying to kill the family of critters until the end, when she compares the quick and painless gasing to her laborious, drawn-out, and obsessive shootings and decides that gasing is “the quiet, Nazi way” of getting rid of vermin. “Nazi” is a word that I never treat favorably, and indeed inside the poem I am immediately troubled by her preference for gasing. So troubled, in fact, that we must conclude that she deeply regrets her role, her obsession, and how caught up she got in hunting the woodchucks. I understand your collective inclination to judge her pretty harshly because she calls herself “a lapsed pacifist,” but of course she is the one accusing herself of abandoning her principles, and she is laying bare her own humiliation, self-loathing, and hypocrisy.

In general, we might say that at least she is thoughtful about what happened: this is not somebody boasting about what she did and self-righteously showing off the bumper crop of chard that she saved from the woodchucks. While it’s troubling that she did what she did, those of us who garden know well how much it hurts to have your work destroyed by others, even if your livelihood does not depend on it (I actually think that a small garden, say 10’ square, would be more likely to provoke this response than a large industrial farm) and you’re doing it as a hobby – because then it’s a labor of love rather than necessity, and you’re probably doing it only on weekends or evenings when you’re exhausted from working all day. But then all the more reason to feel guilty when your fun hobby devolves into a murderous ferocity.

So, say I gave you “Woodchucks” on the first exam and asked you to typify the tone of the speaker, with the following options:

a.)    Murderous.

b.)    Regretful.

c.)    Self-righteous.

d.)    Innocent.

I hope you would all agree after hearing me out that we can be conclusive about the tone of this poem, that d.) is not a good answer, and that a.) and c.), although mentioned within the text, and which are emotions that the speaker inhabited in the recent past, are also incorrect because they are not being felt in the lyric moment that the poem is creating. Since this is a retrospect (“Gasing… didn’t work out right”), she’s had some time to think about the incident and treat it in hindsight. B.) is the best answer.

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