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Lesson Plan

Poetry and Irony

Lesson Objective

For students to be able to define verbal irony, dramatic irony, understatement, and overstatement (hyperbole), identify their use in a poem, and write about how the poet's devices contribute to a poem of their own making.

"Poetry is one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another."

-Robert Frost


Overstatement (hyperbole): an exaggeration in order to emphasize a certain truth. For example, "I wandered lonely as a cloud" exaggerates the speaker's loneliness but serves the purpose of conveying that his lonesome feelings are beyond literal expression.

Understatement: stating less than one means or implies. For example, after describing a buck swimming across a lake toward him, Frost writes, "He landed pouring like a waterfall / And stumbled through the rocks... and that was all. "

Verbal irony: a statement in which the meaning that the speaker implies differs sharply from the meaning expressed. For example: When in "The World is Too Much With Us" William Wordsworth writes, "Great God! I'd rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn," he is using verbal irony. While the speaker laments the idea that any Christian could be forlorn while witness to natural beauty, he certainly does not want to forgo his faith and become a Pagan in order to appreciate nature. What Wordsworth means is that Christians must have faith and have their faith renewed by witnessing God's creation.

Dramatic irony: a speaker in a poem or a character in a play, story, or novel speaks but does not understand the profundity or absurdity of the statement, yet the reader does. For example, when Ros says "I wish I were dead" in Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," Ros does not understand that he will soon get his wish, but the reader does.

Example 1

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor me the weaker now;
'Tis true, then learn how false fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

-John Donne (1573-1631)

Discussion Questions

  1. What is implied about the speaker's view of the value of sexual intercourse?
    Answer: Since the whole intent of the poem is to convince this woman to have sexual intercourse with him, it is implied that the speaker values this goal.
  2. What view of the value of sexual intercourse is expressed in each stanza?
    Answer: The speaker expresses a different view of the value of sexual intercourse in each stanza.
  3. How are stanzas 1 and 2 examples of understatement?
    Answer: In the first stanza, the speaker denies the value of sexual intercourse: understates significance of sex and overstates significance of the fleabite. In stanza 2, the speaker exalts the value of sexual intercourse: overstates fleas' representation of the lovers' intimacy.
  4. How is stanza 3 an example of overstatement?
    Answer: Speaker denies value of sexual intercourse: understates significance of loss of virginity.
  5. How is "The Flea" an example of verbal irony?
    Answer: Speaker expresses that sexual intercourse is inconsequential, but implies that it is monumental to him. Therefore, the second and third stanzas are examples of verbal irony for they state the opposite of what is implied.

Example 2

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost, 1916

In an example of overstatement, the speaker exaggerates the length of the time between the moment and when he will look back upon this moment. It will not be "ages hence." He does this in order to emphasize the insincerity of the affirmation that choosing one road over another makes a difference in his life.

A further example of hyperbole, or overstatement, is how Frost's speaker expresses that a rational choice has been made between two seemingly equal paths in life which defined who he is, that "made all the difference in his life." This emphasis on "all" seems insincere.

If we read this statement as hyperbole, we recognize the verbal irony here. Since the roads were about the same, choosing one over the other was not a significant choice. This calls into question whether this decision had any influence on the direction of the speaker's life, whether the speaker has free will, and affirms that the speaker is controlled by fate; thereby denying that the decision made any difference.

Example 3

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

-Robert Frost, 1923

While stating that one must be familiar with country life in order to avoid personifying the birds as "weeping," Frost's speaker allows the birds to possess the human emotion of "rejoic(ing)." This is an example of verbal irony because he is stating the opposite of what he wants to state. By doing this he is emphasizing the difficulty or impossibility of avoiding the human tendency to personify.

Example 4

A Boundless Moment

He halted in the wind, and--what was that
Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?
He stood there bringing March against his thought,
And yet too ready to believe the most.

"Oh, that's the Paradise-in-Bloom," I said;
And truly it was fair enough for flowers
Had we but in us to assume in March
Such white luxuriance of May for ours.

We stood a moment so, in a strange world,
Myself as one his own pretense deceives;
And then I said the truth (and we moved on).
A young beech clinging to its last year's leaves.

-Robert Frost

Frost's speaker states that the tree, the "Paradise in Bloom," is in bloom, while the poem implies that the tree is not in bloom, but is holding on to its last few leaves from the previous year. The tree is still without any sign of new life, thereby carrying with it all the thoughts of death and decay associated with winter. He wishes the tree was a harbinger of spring, but it is not. In this example of dramatic irony, the speaker's desires force expression of what they know deep down is not true.

Student Worksheet

The Most of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far-distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush--and that was all.

-Robert Frost

1. What does Frost's speaker do to realize he is in "the universe alone"?

2. What emotional state is suggested by the idea of being in "the universe alone"? What do you think the speaker needs to relieve himself of this emotional state?

3. What does the speaker want from his love of life / nature? How is this similar to a desire for a spiritual sign?

4. What rises from the lake and approaches near the speaker? Cite the images that allow you to determine the speaker's reverence for what rises from the lake?

5. By first defining dramatic irony, explain how the last line of the poem is an example of dramatic irony.


  1. In the Freestyle mode on, write a PicLit that has at least two ironic lines or phrases.
  2. Write a brief paragraph on how the influence of the understatement, hyperbole, or dramatic irony assists the creation of your poem's meaning.