The function of tone in poetry is largely meant to set the mood or feel of a poem for the reader. Tone typically allows a poet to control the way in which a poem is to be read, or the attitude that the speaker in the poem takes toward the subject of the poem. Two poems could both be written about a flower, for example, but with two very different tones used to make one a very positive poem and the other a much more depressing work. The way in which a poet controls tone is typically through word choice and imagery.
Tone in poetry, much like other works of literature, refers to the overall attitude that seems to be expressed within the work and the mood that this creates. It is important to note, however, that tone and mood are not synonymous, but that tone is usually utilized as a way to set the mood in a work. Tone can be established and developed in a number of different ways, depending on how the poem is written and how well-established the speaker is within the structure of the poem.
Works by Edgar Allen Poe, for example, are renowned as examples of excellent displays of a somber or creepy tone in poetry. Poe often creates this tone by establishing a speaker within the poem, frequently using a first-person point of view, and using the speaker’s word choice and voice. Use of words like “fear,” “dread,” “panic,” revulsion,” and “horror” can all be used to quickly and unequivocally establish a sense of paranoia or terror in a work. By manipulating tone in poetry, poets like Poe are able to establish a particular mood for a poem and express that mood without actually telling the reader to feel that way.
Two poems, for example, could both be written about a flower, but the tone of each poem could be very different and create different moods for each poem. The first poem might describe the flower as “tall and radiant, with crimson petals that shimmered with the languid glow of early morning dew;” this uses a romantic tone to set a positive mood. A similar flower in another poem, however, could be described as “twisting up from the ground like the gnarled claw of some buried simian predator, its scarlet petals glistening like the floor of an abattoir;” this uses a sinister tone to set a very negative mood. Both of these statements describe a red flower, but by manipulating the tone of each example, the mood established by the description becomes quite different.