How do you describe tone?

A common question I get from students is how to describe ‘tone’.

The first thing that comes to mind when one hears this word is probably sound or music-related, so it’s weird enough to think about it in the context of speech, let alone having to pin it down with a word. But again, like many words in the weird (but wonderful) world of literary analysis, ‘tone’ is in fact a fairly simple concept. 

First, let’s review the definition of ‘tone’: 

  1. the quality of somebody’s voice, especially expressing a particular emotion
  2. the general character and attitude of something such as a piece of writing, or the atmosphere of an event 

There are more definitions for ‘tone’, but these are the ones most pertinent to our present discussion. 

Let’s play a game of spot the keyword (I know, not your usual go-to game, but bear with me). If you were to pick out just one word – the most important or helpful word – in each of these definitions, which word would you choose? 

I’d pick “emotion” and “attitude”, because they are the easiest gateways for at least understanding what sort of adjectives we should be looking for when the question asks for an analysis of ‘tone’. Compared to a nebulous instruction like ‘describe tone’, describing how you feel (‘emotion’) about something should be a relatively easier ask. By extension, how you feel about something = your attitude towards something.

With this awareness in mind, let’s take a look at the three questions about Tennyson’s poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ below:

  1. What is the tone conveyed in the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’?
  2. How does the speaker feel in the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’?
  3. What is the speaker’s attitude towards the key topic in the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’? 

Truth be told, these questions aren’t that different from each other, at least in terms of what they’re asking for. This is because once you figure out the speaker’s attitude and feelings towards the idea of fighting for national glory (one of the poem’s key topics), your answer to questions 2 and 3 should very much be the basis for your answer to question 1. 

As such, if we understand the speaker to feel that participation in warfare for one’s national glory – no matter the personal sacrifice – is an honourable undertaking, then his attitude towards the soldiers would be one of celebratory patriotism and deep respect. So, coupled with a more contextual review of the poem’s overarching use of anaphora and a chant-like rhythm, we can then conclude that the tone in this poem is patriotic, celebratory, and even bordering on reverential (I mean, if you look at the final lines of this poem, there’s no denying that reverence isn’t in its tonal DNA…) 

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

   Noble six hundred!” 

So, there you go – the key to deciphering tone is to simply figure out the speaker’s attitude and feelings towards the poem’s main subject. 

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