What Is the Role of Irony in Poetry?

D. Coodin

Irony in poetry is a literary technique that uses discordance, incongruity or a naive speaker to say something other than a poem's literal meaning. There are three basic types of irony used in poetry: verbal irony, situational irony and dramatic irony. Poets will use irony for a variety of reasons, including satire or to make a political point. Irony can be difficult to detect in poetry, but it is a rhetorical device that students of poetry should always be on the lookout for.

Alexander Pope's "Rape of the Lock" is an example of verbal irony.
Alexander Pope's "Rape of the Lock" is an example of verbal irony.

One common form of irony in poetry is verbal irony, in which a poet manipulates the tone to say the opposite of what the poem actually says. This type of irony, similar to sarcasm, is particularly common in satire. A good example of verbal irony is "The Rape of the Lock," by Alexander Pope. The poem uses the tone and conventions of epic poetry to describe the mundane scenario of a woman's hair being cut off. In using a haughty tone to describe an everyday event, Pope makes fun of the pretensions of the epic poem, showing also the vanity of superficial beauty.

Irony is generally used to create a comedic situation.
Irony is generally used to create a comedic situation.

Another use of irony in poetry is in situational irony. Situational irony occurs when a poet uses a setting or metaphor that is incongruous with the poem's content, making the reader see something new about the object at hand. A famous example of this type of irony in poetry occurs in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which compares the evening to "a patient etherized upon a table." By taking a conventionally beautiful natural image and comparing it to a painful medical procedure of modernity, Eliot uses situational irony to depict the loss of natural beauty in a corrupted world.

A poem can also contain dramatic irony, a type of irony in poetry in which a naive speaker says something that carries meaning beyond his or her own knowledge. This rhetorical device is most common in poetry that uses an unreliable speaker as the voice of the poem. A famous example of this type of irony in poetry is Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." The poem is narrated by a duke describing the portrait of his former wife who died of supposedly natural causes. Throughout the poem, the duke unwittingly lets on that he had her killed because of his uncontrollable jealousies, allowing the reader to see something about the duke that he would rather keep concealed.

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Discussion Comments


Irony can also sometimes be found in the form of the poem itself. A classic example is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," which is the most famous example of a villanelle.

The interesting thing is the the villanelle is a French form, based on a lively dance, traditionally used for light subjects! And of course, Thomas's villanelle is about as dark as they come. The form is being used ironically.

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