Genres of poetry

Many poems belong to a particular genre. The word ‘genre’ means ‘type’ or ‘kind’ and most poetic genres are defined either by their form (for instance, the kind of metre they use or the number of lines they contain) or their content; in some cases, they are recognisable through the combination of their form and content combined. A sonnet, for example, consists of 14 lines which are divided up and structured in one of two ways: the ‘Italian’ or ‘Petrarchan’ way of 8+6 lines; or the ‘English’ or ‘Shakespearean’ way of 4+4+4+2 lines (both of these structures are usually reiterated in their rhyme scheme). A sonnet also, however, tends to be in some way or other about love and especially unrequited love.

If the poem you have been set to analyse belongs to a particular genre, it is important you find out more about that genre before you produce the final version of your analysis. Are there particular rules that govern its metre, rhyme scheme or length, for instance, and is there a particular set of emotions or topics with which it is usually associated? If there are, then any poem composed in that genre is likely to expect you to be aware of those conventions and associations and thus to be able to recognise when it is adheres to them and when it departs from them. One of the reasons Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock is so funny, for instance, is because it is written in the style of epic poetry, which is widely associated with the heroic deeds of gods and men. It itself, however, is about an utterly trivial incident in which all the characters and actions involved are anything but honourable or heroic. A reader who is unaware of this utter mismatch between form and content will accordingly miss out on much of its humour.

Perhaps the six most common genres in English poetry are (in alphabetical order):

  • ballads
  • dramatic monologues
  • elegies
  • epics
  • odes
  • sonnets

You will therefore find it helpful to have a basic working knowledge of each of these genres, of the themes they tend to address and/or the style in which they are composed. As a way of acquiring this knowledge, read about these six genres online and then take the short quiz below (remember to click on the button ‘view questions’ at the end to see the correct answers)

Match up each poetic genre with two of its conventional characteristics.

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