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The theme of a poem refers to the underlying subject the poem discusses. Though there are hundreds of different popular poetry themes, several concepts have proved enduring across ages, forms, and cultural divisions. Love, nature, history, religion, and death are some of the most common poetry themes in nearly every type of poetry.
Love is possibly the most popular of all poetry themes. Nearly every poet, from Sappho to Shakespeare veers into the troubled and tumultuous waters of love from time to time. Love in poetry themes has many variations, from the description of seeing a new love for the first time to the settled contentment of a long-established love. The darker side of love, such as obsession, forbidden love, and feelings of betrayal, is also fodder for poetic discourse. Some of the most popular poets for love-themed poetry include William Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, and ee cummings.
Many poets turn toward the natural world for inspiration and philosophy. Nature poems not only discuss the beauty and unpredictability of the natural world, but often make excellent use of nature imagery as metaphors for human experience. Robert Frost and Walt Whitman are two standout poets that relied heavily on nature for poetry themes. Japanese poetry, especially the delicate form of haiku, frequently uses nature or natural imagery as a dominant poetic theme.
History is a concept that lies heavy on the shoulders of poets throughout the ages. Some of the earliest forms of poetry, such as epics and bardic tales, were used to tell historical stories and myths of the gods. Personal history, world history, and cultural history are all used as poetic themes by many different poems. Maya Angelou is a poet frequently cited for her use of black history themes in much of her poetry.
Religion and spirituality are frequently used poetry themes that appear both in popular poetry and religious texts. The book of Psalms in the Bible consists of poems of praise and wonder about God. Poems that are religiously themed may cover the poet's own spirituality or lack thereof, an interpretation of religion, or a description of a religious or spiritual experience, such as a conversion. John Milton's Paradise Lost is an extensive, poetic exploration of the Garden of Eden. Khalil Gibran and Robert Browning also frequently used religious and spiritual poetic themes.
The infinite and final mystery that is death is a heady subject for many poets. Death is an excellent source of poetry themes, since it is universal to all people, and yet a mystery to many. War poetry, such as the poems of World War I poet Wilfred Owen, frequently concerns itself with the images of death, murder, and finality that are inevitable on the battlefield. Emily Dickinson, Algernon Swinburne, and Dylan Thomas used poetry themes involving death extensively.
Many times a poet will use several themes in a single poem. Recovering from the death of a loved one, for example, may require examining themes like mortality, love and grief all at the same time. Even under the umbrella of a unifying theme such as love, a poem may be more about unrequited love, or young love, or lost love. It also helps when analyzing a single poem to understand how that poet feels about many other themes besides the one in the piece. A love poem by Edgar Allen Poe, for example, is going to sound different than a love poem by Percy Shelley. It depends on the poet's overall view of the world sometimes.
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