Poetry Themes: The theme is the underlying message that every artist or writer wants to convey to us. Themes can be a feature in poetry, short stories, novels, music, or any other form of art.
It can be something simple as death, love, or complexity, such as humans versus nature/environment. When you consider poetry to convey something of the human experience, you can imagine the range of possible themes.
Students can also check the English Summary to revise with them during exam preparation.
19 Different Types of Themes in Poetry
Let us think about some of the most common themes that you are sure to come across.
- New Life/Birth
- Why should you care about Themes in Poetry?
- Coming of Age
Love is one of the most commonly used themes in any form of art. It can be love for someone, love for a possession, love for animals, love for our environment, nature, or even love towards oneself. The first theme on this list is the most obvious of all.
Since writing as a form of art and expression came into being, love for another can be seen within countless poets’ work. John Keats is one such writer who is recognized for crafting some of the most memorable and beautiful love poems in the English language.
He is famous for works such as ‘Endymion’, “Modern Love”, “To Emma”, and ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art. Or one might be familiar with Lord Byron, who wrote many breathtaking poems. One such poem is ‘She Walks in Beauty.
Let us all take a look at Anne Bradstreet, a relatively lesser-known poet. ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’, One of Bradstreet’s best-known works, is also an example of love story themes. Here are the final four lines from the poem:
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
These twelve short lines of the poem show us that she has used the word “love” six times. She states that even the “whole mines of gold” or “all the riches of the East” are not as valuable as her husband’s relationship. Here, the poet expresses her devotion through simile and metaphor. The figurative language shows true passion and dedication.
Some theme of poem examples of theme statements that depict the theme of love are-
- ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day by William Shakespeare
- ‘Annabel Lee’ by Edgar Allan Poe
- ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne
- ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ by Sylvia Plath
Just like love is one of the most known themes in art, death is a pervasive theme in poetry or other art forms. In Edgar Allan Poe’s Lenore’, Poe combined these two themes.
In this poem, a lover and a bystander discuss Lenore’s life and death. The lover scolds the public for not appreciating her properly. Poe tried to express how important she was to him.
Here is the final stanza of the poem that speaks about her death-
Avaunt! To-night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,
But waft the angel on her flight with a Pæan of old days!
Let no bell toll!–lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth,
Should catch the note, as it doth float up from the damnéd Earth.
To friends above, from fiends below, the indignant ghost is riven–
From Hell unto a high estate far up within the Heaven–
From grief and groan to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven.”
This section’s first line is a wonderful expression of love, affection, and care, even after the lover is gone. The speaker tells that the bells ended ringing as they might disturb Lenore, the angel, as she makes her journey into Heaven. The love that the speaker held for her was coming through. These lines wouldn’t be necessary unless she had died, so it is essential to consider how these elements have come together.
Here are some other examples of poetry that have the same theme, death:
- ‘Died…’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- ‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath
- ‘Death is Nothing at All’ by Henry Holland
The next theme that we’re going to read is spirituality or religion.
Like in the visual arts world, some of the more critical written forms of art were done while the author considered a religion, faith, God, and often, doubt. These themes often come together into contemplating the afterlife, a higher power, and the forces that control our everyday lives. The latter could be religious or more spiritual, concerned with nature and emotional universality.
For our reference, let’s take a look at lines from Christina Rossetti’s ‘Good Friday’. ‘Good Friday’ is a devotional poem, meaning that it expresses religious worship or prayer. In this case, the speaker describes her longing to devote herself entirely to Christianity and her reluctance to do it.
Here are the first two stanzas:
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
As can be seen clearly, the speaker addresses God by way of Christ, asking if she is a “stone” because she can look at him upon the cross “And yet not weep”. The speaker compares herself to the women present at the crucifixion who “lamented” Christ adequately. They were Christ’s “sheep”, and she feels she is the only one who is a stone. By the end, she asks God to show himself as a shepherd once more and bring her into the flock.
Some other examples of poems that have a similar theme; in this case, spirituality/religion, are:
- ‘Church Going’ by Philip Larkin
- ‘The Retreat’ by Henry Vaughan
- ‘This is my play’s last scene’ by John Donne.
- ‘I saw no Way— The Heavens were stitched’ by Emily Dickinson.
Nature, undoubtedly, is one of the most commonly utilized themes of poetry in recorded history. Due to nature’s vast-ranging connotations and the impossibility of perfectly defining it, it makes it an allusive and engaging theme. Poems in this category could speak on the natural world (as we commonly think of it: trees, mountains, etc.) and its beauties or dangers.
Alternatively, one might find poetry that elegizes the landscape as we once knew it, the preindustrial revolution and the explosion of human populations. Also, in this category, one might encounter poems that have to do with human nature and human interactions of altercations with the natural world. This was summed up quite nicely by Walt Whitman in the following quote: “[Nature is] the only complete, actual poem”. Nature, he believed, contained everything.
A poem that uses nature as one of its primary themes is Elizabeth Bishop’sThe Bight’. While Bishop was living in Key West, Florida, this poem was written and observing a specific “bight,” or curved coastland.
Here are the first few lines from the poem:
At low tide like this, how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the colour of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
Here are a few examples of poems that utilize nature as one of their main themes:
- ‘Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore’ by Charlotte Smith’s,
- ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
- ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats
- ‘Winter Landscape, with Rooks’ by Sylvia Plath’s
Another wide-ranging and multitudinous theme is beauty. It comes in many forms and can be seen through natural beauty, physical human beauty, beauty in spirit or action, and an assortment of other instances. Often, poems dedicated to human beauty come inodes, such as ‘Ode to Beauty by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like ‘She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron, be written in a lyrical style to mimic the subject.
For an example of how the theme of beauty can expand beyond the physically human, one might consider ‘[London, my beautiful]’ by F.S. Flint. In this poem, Flint describes one speaker’s love for London and how he feels the city improves others and himself.
Let’s look at the first six lines:
London, my beautiful,
it is not the sunset
nor the pale green sky
shimmering through the curtain
of the silver birch,
nor the quietness;
Here are some other poems that explore the theme of beauty in different ways:
- ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty ‘by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- ‘The Rainbow’ by Christina Rossetti
- ‘Bell Birds’ by Henry Kendall
- ‘Fides, Spes’ by Willa Cather
The most potent literary themes are the ones that touch everyone’s soul. Life, death, age and tragedy are few examples of some of the universal considerations each lover of poetry must contend with.
Some of the most prominent poetic works consider the age and one’s unstoppable progression towards death. That being said, no one’s experience of aging is exact as anyone else’s. Across times, as poets understand what the real meaning of aging is, their different considerations and conclusions paint an idea of human nature and the fear, expectation, or hope that underlies one’s living days.
For example, let us take ‘Transfiguration’ by Louisa May Alcott. It is a personal poem composed from the writer’s own perspective. The poem details her strong emotions surrounding the death of Abigail Alcott, her mother. It also details attempts to paint change and death as something beautiful, not something to fear. The ageing process for her mother was not so easy. In that theme of text, she decides how once her mother died, “Age, pain, and sorrow dropped the veils they wore”. Here are the following few lines:
And showed the tender eyes.
Of angels in disguise,
Whose discipline so patiently she bore.
The past years brought their harvest prosperous and fair;
While memory and love,
Together, fondly wove.
A golden garland for the silver hair.
Here are a few other examples that consider the theme of age from different perspectives:
- ‘Age’ by Philip Larkin
- ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ by Lord Byron
- ‘You Begin’ by Margaret Atwood
- ‘Lullaby’ by W.H. Auden
Speaking of universally relatable themes, desire is undoubtedly an important one. Whether romantic, erotic, or spiritual, desire poems are expansive. Shakespeare’s sonnets to the Fair Youth come to mind.
The speaker in these works addresses a young man through a series of verses that outline his love, desire, and heartache. Some of the most famous sonnets are sonnet number 13, ‘O! That you were yourself; but love, you are’ and sonnet 116, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds.
A clear-cut example of desire can be found in John Donne’s famous poems, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’. The poem was published after the poet’s death in 1654 and details a speaker’s pleas for his lover to undress and come to bed.
Here are a few lines from the middle of the poem:
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads, the hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grows:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread.
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
Some interesting examples that speak on a variety of desires include:
- ‘Absent from thee’ by John Wilmot.
- ‘To Be in Love’ by Gwendolyn Brooks
- ‘XII’ by Sappho
- ‘The Heart asks Pleasure— first’ by Emily Dickinson.
Writings about oneself, especially in a poetic form, were most popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although, that is not to say that they don’t exist in today’s contemporary literary world. No matter what period they lived in, these writers deeply considered their own place in the world, the impact (or lack thereof) they thought they were having, who they wanted to become, or any number of other contemplative self musings. Some are inspiring and rousing, such as ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou, others, like William Wordsworth’sLines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ as more expansive and span more significant periods.
For example, let’s turn to ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes, also known as ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’. The text speaks about the lives of Harlem residents who are not experiencing the “American Dream” but instead are having their dreams deferred. Through a series of questions, one Harlem resident asks what happened to his plans, and more widely, the goals of all those like him.
Let’s look at a few lines from this short poem in which the speaker considers why and how dreams disappear and where they end up after they’re gone:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Here are a few more poems that utilize identity, or a search for one’s self, as one of their major themes:
- ‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath
- ‘Search for My Tongue’ by Sujata Bhatt
- ‘Still, I Rise’ by Maya Angelou
- ‘To My Nine-Year-Old Self’ by Helen Dunmore
When one considers this wide-ranging theme, there are many possible subjects to keep in mind. A journey can consist of just about anything. One could be moving physically, travelling from place to place, or be transforming in some significant way. The journey might be somewhere specific that can actually be listed on a map or somewhere less tangible, such as the afterlife.
The former is the subject of Billy Collins’ poem ‘Writing in the Afterlife’. It presents the reader with a fascinating depiction of the afterlife from a man who is experiencing it. Nothing is as the reader or the speaker expected. He outlines what it was like to arrive at a rive, not dissimilar from the River Styx in Greek mythology.
Here are a few lines from the poem:
Many have pictured a river here,
but no one mentioned all the boats,
their benches crowded with naked passengers,
each bent over a writing tablet.
Take a look at this list of very different approaches to the theme of travelling or embarking on a journey:
- ‘Travel’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- ‘Postcard from a Travel Snob’ by Sophie Hannah
- ‘The Road Goes Ever On’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
- ‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ by Joseph Brodsky
Throughout time, writers and non-writers have interpreted the end of the world is startlingly different ways. Some see a violent, bloody lot to the human race—others, something more straightforward, calmer, and even looked forward to. No matter the writer’s religious or cultural background, apocalyptically themed poems can be stimulating and disturbing.
For a haunting example of one poet’s interpretation of the end of the world, let’s look at ‘Holy Sonnet VII: At the round Earth’s imagin’d corners, blow’ by John Donne.
Here are the first few lines from the poem:
At the round Earth’s imagin’d corners, blow.
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise.
From death, you numberless infinities.
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;
This piece contains the speaker’s description of Judgment Day and an appeal to God to forgive him for his sins. It begins with the speaker directing angels at the corners of the Earth to blow their trumpets and wake the dead. With this action, all those who have passed away, in all their “numberless infinities”, will return to Earth and seek out their bodies.
Here are some other examples of poems that speak on the apocalypse:
- ‘Fire and Ice’ by Robert Frost
- ‘Darkness’ by Lord Byron
- ‘The Hollow Men’ by T.S. Eliot
- ‘Speaking Tree’ by Joy Harjo
Our dreams can potentially change the way we experience the world. Negative or positive, they are a reflection (and for some, a space of inspiration) of how we live our lives. Many a poet has written about nights ruined by strange and terrible dreams. Or, days improved by thoughtful, wistful imaginings. One example, ‘Dreams’ by Helen Hunt Jackson, is closer to the former.
Here are a few lines from the poem:
Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain,
Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep,
And lead us to the houses where we keep
Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain.
That we can forge and bind […]
In this text, she speaks about the negative impact dreams can have on one’s waking life. They force back into one’s conscious mind negative experiences of the past and prolong sadness.
Here are four more poems; these speak on the importance of the dream state and the various forms it can take:
- ‘A Dream Within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe
- ‘The House of Ghosts’ by Margaret Widdemer
- ‘Death in the Arctic’ by Robert Service
- ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by John Keats
In the category of celebration, there are endless reasons to be joyful among friends and family. Poets who take an interest in this theme might consider traditional holidays worth writing about, or they might revel in a personal victory or a celebration of the self. One fascinating example is ‘More Than Enough’ by Marge Piercy. This short poem celebrates a single moment in amongst the thriving liveliness of summer. Take a look at these lines as an example of how the subject matter influences a poem’s mood and a poet’s tone:
Rich fresh wine
of June, we stagger into you smeared
with pollen, overcome as the turtle
laying her eggs in roadside sand.
From speaking solely about the beautiful landscape, Piercy’s speaker in these lines moves on to discuss sharing these moments with someone specific, adding personal emotion and meaning to the celebration she’s engaging in.
Here are a few more poems that delve into the theme of celebration:
- ‘Celebrate’ by Anna Akhmatova
- ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ by James Weldon Johnson
- ‘In Praise of My Bed’ by Meredith Holmes
Whether physical or mental, in our increasingly complicated and stressful contemporary world, poems about health, inside and out, are very relevant. Like Sylvia Plath, some poets channel their own inner lives and convey their own mental health through their verses. Others are like Elizabeth Bishop, who made vaguely, not so vague, references to alcohol dependence. An apparent reference to her own struggle with health can be seen in her piece, ‘A Drunkard’.
Other interesting poems with wellness/recovery as a significant theme include:
- ‘The Soul Has Bandaged Moments’ by Emily Dickinson
- ‘Daddy ‘by Sylvia Plath
- ‘Alone by Edgar Allan Poe
- ‘The Fury of Rainstorms’ by Anne Sexton
New Life/Birth Theme
New life, whether that of spring or summer or the human/animal variety, is powerful. This theme can be taken in several different directions, and any poet considering it will understand it differently. Some of the most poignant poems on this theme are about birth. For a contemporary example, a reader should look into ‘Rosie Joyce’ by Paul Durcan. Take a look at a few lines from the latter:
I rode the waters and the roads of Ireland,
Rosie, to be with you, seashell at my ear!
How I laughed when I cradled you in my hand.
In these lines, Durcan’s speaker is addressing the birth of his granddaughter. He alternated between speaking when he met her to the time after when he grew to love her in person.
Other poems on this same theme include:
- ‘Up-Hill’ by Christina Rossetti
- ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath
- ‘The Journey by Mary Oliver
Every theme on this list will tap into a reader’s mind, memory, and emotions in some way or the other. Those lines are written in the wake of disappointment, disgust, and failure, often some of the most moving. These emotions and experiences are unifying, and reading the eloquent words of another human being who failed as you failed, can be therapeutic. For example, take ‘Loss and Gain’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem concludes with these lines:
But who shall dare
To measure loss and gain in this wise?
Defeat may be a victory in disguise;
The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.
In this short poem, he discussed how one might tally the losses and gains. He thinks about what it means to compare them to one another and decides it isn’t worth it. Life is much more complicated than it seems.
For a few more poems on this topic, take a look at:
- ‘Disenchantment’ by Emily Dickinson
- ‘Penalty’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
- ‘The Disappointment’ by Aphra Behn
War is a shameful unifier of the human race and a topic on which some of the most moving and memorable poetry has been written. An entire genre of poetry has emerged from historical wars. Naturalistic and painfully realistic, with shocking images and language, intending to show what the warlike, war poetry shows us the mud, the trenches, deaths, and sometimes even compassion for soldiers.
The overall message through such poetry is that the war is brutal, vicious, meaningless, stupid and barbarous; there was nothing honourable, glorious, or proper about the war. Soldiers’ daily experience on the front was of mental disorders, nervous breakdown caused by constant fear and pressure. Now, poets such as Edward Thomas, Siegried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen are known as “war-poets” and their poems as “war-poems “. These three writers, along with many more, chronicled the World Wars and those that have happened worldwide since.
As an example, let’s take a look at a lesser-known war poet, Vera Brittain, and her poem ‘August 1914 ‘. It is a short anti-war poem that speaks on the beginnings of conflict from a “divine” perspective.
But where His desolation trod
The people in their agony
Despairing cried, “There is no God.”
In these lines, Brittain is concluding her poem. The main character, God, has decided to rain terror (create war) down on Earth to remind everyone of his power. Rather than unifying them and bringing everyone back to their knees at God’s feet, it turns their faith to dust.
Other poems that speak on themes of war include:
- ‘May the Twenty-Third’ by Edward Thomas
- ‘The Death Bed’ by Siegfried Sassoon
- ‘The Dead ‘by Rupert Brooke
Whose mind hasn’t turned to the allure of eternal life? Whether you find the concept horrifying or entrancing, poets throughout the ages have taken the theme on. Some discuss eternal life in the context of religion, God, and the afterlife. Others engage with the topic or whimsically, employing magic realism, fantasy, and short magic. There are endless examples within the larger canon of poetic works, but let’s take a look at a few lines from one of Matthew Arnold’s most moving poems titled ‘Immortality’. Here is the last tercet of the text:
From strength to strength advancing—only he,
His soul well-knit, and all his battles won,
Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life.
In these lines, Arnold concludes his poem based on immortality as discovered through a strong, “well-knit” life. It is only “he” who faces life and all its adversity and stands up for what’s right, who is going to be able to enter into eternal life.
A few other poems that discuss the same theme include:
- ‘Tithonus ‘by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality ‘by William Wordsworth
- ‘Whispers of Immortality ‘by T.S. Eliot
Coming of Age Theme
This is one of the most popular themes in classical and contemporary poetry. The period of one’s life in which they “come of age” or grow out of childhood into adulthood is physically, mentally, and emotionally transformative. Just as it is with life itself, some poems address this period in both a positive and negative light. Often they are based around a single experience that sent a child from youth to adulthood; other times, they address a more extended period of time in which the narrator or the main character within a more powerful poem learns what it means to stop being a child and grow.
Let’s go and take a look at a few lines from one poem that explores the theme of coming of age, ‘Poem at Thirty-Nine’ by Alice Walker:
Now I look and cook just like him:
my brain light;
tossing this and that
into the pot;
seasoning none of my life
the same way twice; happy to feed
whoever strays my way.
In these lines, Alice Walker is considering the influence her father had on her. Despite him no longer being present in her life, she realized that his impact is long-lasting. She has come to understand how she’s ageing and becoming more like him as she grows closer to the age she was most familiar with him at.
He would have grown to admire the woman I’ve become: cooking, writing, chopping wood, staring into the fire. The act of seasoning is the addition of herbs or spices to add flavour. Using the verb in this way, Walker uses it as a symbol of excitement and spontaneous action.
Walker is adventurous and never seasons her life the same way twice, showing how she tries to experience different things in life all the time Symbolizes both the relaxing mindlessness of cooking and the pleasure she feels at being like her father (connotations of light) Food, as a source of life, symbolizes aid. Walker may use this as a reference to her activism and charity.
Other poems on the same theme include:
- ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks
- ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake
- ‘Flatted Fifths’ by Langston Hughes
Why Should You Care About The Themes In Poetry?
It is an excellent question and one that answers itself. We know what is a theme now, but that’s only half the answer to our two-part question. Why is the theme important in poetry, novels and writing? Simply put: If a story lacks a piece, the reader might not connect with it.
If you are interested in reading poems, you likely enjoy the way writers manipulate and play with words for a specific purpose. That purpose could be more transient, such as tapping into an appreciation for the written word itself and the art one can create with it (exemplified by movements such as Oulipo or Dadaism) or more straightforwardly emotional. Either way, without themes, most poems do not have a purpose.
Remember that the purpose theme is to connect to the protagonist’s journey. It binds the character’s passions and concerns the character’s soul to the external plot while giving the readers something to care about and root for. Without a theme, you’d have a plot that goes nowhere and readers losing interest – in other words, a story without a soul.
A theme helps a good story become a compelling one. Most importantly, the theme allows readers to relate to the characters and their struggles – and to feel invested in the outcome.
List of Some More Themes
Here is a list of some more themes you might come across while reading different poetry:
- Good versus evil (A kind of dichotomy)
- Hierarchy of nature
What are examples of themes in poems?
6 Common Themes in Literature
- Good vs. evil.
- Courage and perseverance.
- Coming of age.
What are some examples of themes?
Common Theme Examples
- Death and dying.
- Importance of family.
- Benefits of hard work.
What are the 4 main themes?
The Sign of the Four – Themes overview
- evil and justice.
- Victorian fear.
- empire and imperialism.
How do you find the theme of a poem?
Theme is the lesson about life or statement about human nature that the poem expresses. To determine theme, start by figuring out the main idea. Then keep looking around the poem for details such as the structure, sounds, word choice, and any poetic devices