How to work out the theme of a poem… This baffles a lot of GCSE and IGCSE students, so here’s a lesson we did on how to work out the theme in poetry. This is important if you have an unseen poetry exam. 

What is the theme of:

[1] The poem ‘Limbo’, Edward Kamau Braithwaite
First we looked at key words. Limbo appears in the title, and is repeated a lot throughout the poem. So we asked, what does the word ‘limbo’ mean? Literally, it means: ‘in between’. So then we tried to figure out, what does the poet feel that he’s ‘in between’? Because there was so much repetition, we decided to look for the words that were different, and picked out: ‘water’ ‘ship’ ‘slavery’. This helped us pick out the topic, or subject: ‘slavery’ – being taken on a ship from one place to another.

The rhythm is very strong, and it has the feel of an incantation. There’s a disturbingly blurry, dark mood. The repetition is hypnotic, further emphasised by the italics.

Theme: transition, the liminal: going over a threshold, in a ritual trance-like state

[2] The poem: ‘Blessing’, Imtiaz Dharker
Subject: the poem begins with drought; there is ‘never enough water’. Then there’s a transitional verse, with a small amount of water ‘drip’, ‘small splash’. In the third stanza, ‘the municipal pipe bursts’ and the people rush out to see. There is the semantic field of divinity: ‘kindly god’ and ‘congregation’ and the word ‘blessing’ in the title and the final stanza.

Theme: this is a sensory poem about the beauty of small, random moments, where a simple thing like water is a blessing.

[3] The poem: ‘Pike’, Ted Hughes
When looking at a poem with an animal in the title, as in Ted Hughes’ poems ‘Pike’ and ‘Hawk Roosting’, your spider senses should be tingling. This is going to be a nature poem about some sort of creature (animal / fish / bird). Often, this will be a meditation on either
a. ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’, Tennyson, the brutality of nature, and its magnificence, its inhumanity, and its power
b. the power and wonder of creation and/or God
c. Simple sensory pleasure in the beauty of nature
d. It may also be a reflection on the poet’s rural childhood.

In rare cases the animals may be symbolic as in Muir’s poem, ‘Horses’, where there’s a bit of d. and a. and even b. but mostly it’s about the Apocalypse.

[4] The poem: ‘October’, Gillian Clarke

This starts out like a pastoral poem. Months and seasons are normally symbolic. Spring normally represents new life, youthful beauty, youthful lovers, courting; Summer represents beauty in full bloom, fertility, love; Autumn can represent harvest, but also the decline into winder, and things dwindling; Winter often represents death.

In ‘October’ we have a pastoral landscape described in detail using the semantic field of decay in ‘broken’, ‘dead’, ‘tremble’, ‘tangled’ and ‘darkens’. This is our clue that the poem has a melancholy tone. The second stanza confirms this with ‘My friend dead’. Clarke is at a funeral.

With this kind of poem, it’s often a meditation on mortality, and the theme will be death, grief, loss, and perhaps also, what is a good life.

The final stanza focusses on ‘the white page’. We know we’re dealing with a poet, and sometimes poets write about writing, as in Allen Curnow’s poem Continuum. Shakespeare also refers to his own writing. He seems to say his mistress’ beauty is immortal, but really he means his own poetry is immortal and that is how she will live forever (as people will always read his poems).

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

Sonnet 18

Clarke does a similar thing here. She lists the items in the landscape in a frenzy as if time is running out and she wants to fix them.

[4] The poem: ‘Elvis’ Twin Sister’, Carol Ann Duffy

This poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by a nun, with quotations from Elvis and Latin religious incantations woven through. It’s a dramatic imagining of 1. an alternative reality where Elvis has a twin sister who becomes a nun; and 2. what it feels like to be a nun – to be an individual with quirks – beyond the stereotypical role.

The last three lines provide a strong clue. Duffy lets us see through the stereotype into the human element, of why the woman entered the nunnery ‘Heartbreak’ and ‘lonely’. The poem plays with convention, and twists dead, cliched language and lyrics into something fresh and new.

It’s so difficult to pick out a theme, though dramatic re-imaginings crop up a lot in Duffy’s poems. In ‘Havisham’, ‘Medusa’, and ‘Anne Hathaway’, she brings to life a forgotten or stale character. In others, she plays with pop culture in a typically postmodern style that resists traditional thematic interpretation.