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Creating mood in poetry, with examples

By BBC Maestro

If you want to write a poem that lingers in your readers’ minds, take time to create a memorable mood.

Mood in poetry is the atmosphere created by the poet to evoke certain feelings in their audience, sometimes described as the “emotional landscape” of the poem. Every poem has a mood, from the succinct haiku to pages-long epic poetry. However, by becoming more aware of mood and how you build it, you can better elicit an emotional response from your readers.

In this article, we take a closer look at creating mood in poetry, with examples from emotionally rich poetic works.

What is mood in poetry?

In poetry, the term “mood” describes the atmosphere of the poem and the feelings this evokes in the reader. There are lots of different types of mood in poetry: reflective, celebratory, brooding (we see you, Romantics), fearful, optimistic, resigned… just think of any human emotion and you’ll find a whole host of poems that evoke it.

But surely, one of the liberating aspects of reading poetry is that we can interpret the work as we choose? That is very true, and one of the most enjoyable things about poetry is this ability to read it in a way that speaks to us personally. Written well, the mood doesn’t interfere with our own reading of the poem; rather it enhances it.

Poet Carol Ann Duffy compares being a poet with being a painter. Her words are her “palette” and she thinks “of the verse as a canvas”. Like a painting, a poem elicits emotions in its audience through how it makes us feel.

Mood versus tone in poetry

The terms mood and tone in poetry may seem similar, but they aren’t interchangeable. The mood is the atmosphere of the poem while the tone is the poet’s attitude. For example, a poem that paints a rich picture of a grand country house could have an underlying attitude of class inequality – a theme that appears in poetry down the centuries.

As Poet Laureate, one of Carol Ann Duffy’s duties was to create celebratory poems to mark significant national occasions.

“When I was poet laureate, I wanted to see if I could write public poems that sometimes had to be written, that somehow intersected with my own being as a poet,” she says in her BBC Maestro course. “I didn’t want to feel like I was writing the kind of poem I wouldn’t have written.”

The challenge here is to align mood and tone: her writing had to capture a sense of public joy while remaining thought-provoking, without any dissonance.

However, while mood and tone are different, the tone can still contribute towards the mood. We’ll now take a look at the tools the poet uses to craft their chosen atmosphere.

How to convey mood in poetry

When a poet wants to create a certain type of mood in their poem, there are certain poetry techniques they can draw on.

Setting

The setting of a poem can be the clearest early indication of its mood. If you read the words “Churchyard” or “Cemetery” in the title, you can get a pretty good idea of where the mood is heading. The actual landscape of the poem, from a bustling city to a bucolic landscape, helps to convey the emotional background. Weather, temperature, colours, noises, smells: these are all rich resources for scene setting in poetry.

Imagery

The right setting naturally leads to evocative imagery. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem In Mrs Tilscher’s Class recreates her old school classroom in warm and intimate detail:

This was better than home. Enthralling books. 

The classroom glowed like a sweet shop. 

Sugar paper. Coloured shapes.

These sensory details enhance the setting, enriching the mood of the poem.

Their word hoard

Imagery in poetry is painted with words, with the poet drawing from their own personal word hoard to find the exact expression they need. Think of Seamus Heaney’s “gregarious smoke” in a pub or Eliot’s tired old moon with “washed-out smallpox cracks” in her face. Just a few well-chosen words make all the difference to the emotional landscape of the poem.

Carol Ann Duffy reminds us of the importance of sensory language:

“But we must also realise that both us as writers and our readers experience the world physically, and we must never forget to bring our senses into our language.”

Sounds

When we read a poem, we hear the words in our head, so the acoustics of a poem also go towards creating its mood. Rhythm and repetition emphasise mood: Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” sounds angry, and also insistent. You can also use rhyme and metre to give a poem a light-hearted sing-song feel.

Tone

The poet’s tone of voice can complement the mood of the piece, or it can also be deliberately dissonant to create an ironic effect. As we’ve already discussed, mood and tone are different things, but they can help each other out. If you want to create a feeling of sadness, a sombre tone will enhance this.

Form

Poetic form also adds to the mood. This may sound obvious, but you wouldn’t use a limerick structure for an elegy. Establish a more conversational mood with the reader by using free verse, or try a ballad if you have a story to tell.

Great examples of mood in poetry

Now we’ve discussed the techniques, let’s read some examples of mood in poems and see what tools the poets have used to create atmosphere.

Valentine – Carol Ann Duffy

This Valentine poem opens simply:

“Not a red rose or a satin heart. 

I give you an onion. 

It is a moon wrapped in brown paper. 

It promises light 

like the careful undressing of love.”

The free verse creates a conversational mood, and by addressing the second person, an intimate one. It begins by challenging us and our romantic expectations: it’s “Not a red rose”. However, the mood is one of honesty, as the original gift, an onion, is introduced. Words like “promises” and “careful” paired with the implications of protective packaging, imply tenderness. In this poem, love is fierce, faithful and set in reality, with as many layers as an onion.

Mr Bleaney –  Philip Larkin

This example of mood in a poem is also quite intimate and subtle, but it’s not romantic, it’s bleak. The narrator is being introduced to a new rental room, while being told about a previous occupant. It’s a poem about mediocrity, and a life defined by a small and dismal space.

“This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed

The whole time he was at the Bodies, till

They moved him.” Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,

Fall to within five inches of the sill.”

The atmosphere of neglect and sadness permeates the poem, through the too-short and inadequate curtains, to the later inventory of the room. “No hook”, notes the narrator, a bald little sentence that says so much about the emptiness of both the room and the intertwined life of Mr Bleaney and the newer tenant.

The Ecchoing Green – William Blake

Let’s finish on a more upbeat note: the cheerful mood created by the opening lines of Blake’s The Ecchoing Green. The poem deals with death and transience; however, thanks to its happy language and idyllic setting, it celebrates the cycle of life, rather than mourning it.

The Sun does arise,

And make happy the skies.

The merry bells ring

To welcome the Spring.

The sky-lark and thrush,

The birds of the bush,

Sing louder around,

To the bells’ cheerful sound.

The words used are joyful, conjuring up images and sounds of pleasure. A poem that’s ultimately about death can still be full of life. This opening is a lovely, simple illustration of the value of the word-hoard to create a certain mood.

As we can see from these three examples, a poetic mood doesn’t have to be dramatic. Yes, an epic poem needs its bombast and something like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven needs to thrill; however, you can create an atmospheric landscape for any poem that you write, whatever the theme or scale.

To find out more about writing poetry, discover Carol Ann Duffy’s BBC Maestro poetry course. She covers how to draw on your own memories and experiences to create evocative poetry, as well as how language and form can help to realise your ideas.

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