SAT II Literature : Theme: Poetry

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT II Literature

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

1          How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
2          I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
3          My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
4          For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
5          I love thee to the level of everyday's
6          Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
7          I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
8          I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
9          I love thee with the passion put to use
10        In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
11        I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
12        With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
13        Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
14        I shall but love thee better after death.

What is the principal theme of this poem?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The principal theme of this poem is love, as the word "love" is mentioned 9 times.

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

Batter my heart (Holy Sonnet 14)

1          Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
2          As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
3          That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
4          Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
5          I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
6          Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
7          Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
8          But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
9          Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
10        But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
11        Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
12        Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
13        Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
14        Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

At its most basic level, the theme of this poem is                      .

Possible Answers:


erotic love



romantic love

Correct answer:



At its most basic level, the theme of this sonnet is religion (that is, the poet's wish for God's more forceful intervention in his life).

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

1   If but some vengeful god would call to me

  From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,

3    Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,

4    That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"


5    Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,

6    Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;

7    Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I

8    Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.


9    But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,

10  And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?

11  —Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,

12  And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .

13  These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown

14  Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.



Who or what is causing the speaker pain and suffering? 

Possible Answers:

All of the answers 

god (line 1) 

love's loss (line 4) 

Casualty and Time (lines 10,11) 

a Powerfuller than I (line 7) 

Correct answer:

Casualty and Time (lines 10,11) 


Casualty and Time are causing the speaker pain and suffering. They are mentioned in lines 11 and 12. In line 13, the speaker refers to them as doomsters who strew blessings as pain: "These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain." It is not a god or a "Powerfuller than I" because the first 8 lines are devoted to explaining that it would be easier to accept pain if he knew a god, even a mean one, was behind his pain, but then right after considering this idea, the speaker says, "But not so" (line 9).

(Passage adapted from "Hap" by Thomas Hardy)

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

A Late Walk

1          When I go up through the mowing field,
2          The headless aftermath,
3          Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
4          Half closes the garden path.

5          And when I come to the garden ground,
6          The whir of sober birds
7          Up from the tangle of withered weeds
8          Is sadder than any words

9          A tree beside the wall stands bare,
10        But a leaf that lingered brown,
11        Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
12        Comes softly rattling down.

13        I end not far from my going forth
14        By picking the faded blue
15        Of the last remaining aster flower
16        To carry again to you.

One theme of the poem is                   .

Possible Answers:

spring will always return

romantic habits are pointless

human beings are the only creatures burdened by time

the life of the farmer is better than the urbanite's

the passing of time is something sorrowful

Correct answer:

the passing of time is something sorrowful


One theme of the poem is the passing of time is something sorrwoful, as the poem treats the arrival of winter with weighty vocabulary ("withered weeds"), despondent imagery (such as a falling leaf), and straight-forwardly states that the business of "sober birds" is "sadder than any words."

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

Passage adapted from "To Some Ladies" (1817) by John Keats

What though while the wonders of nature exploring,
  I cannot your light, mazy footsteps attend;
Nor listen to accents, that almost adoring,
  Bless Cynthia's face, the enthusiast's friend:

(5) Yet over the steep, whence the mountain stream rushes,
  With you, kindest friends, in idea I rove;
Mark the clear tumbling crystal, its passionate gushes,
  Its spray that the wild flower kindly bedews.

Why linger you so, the wild labyrinth strolling?
 (10) Why breathless, unable your bliss to declare?
Ah! you list to the nightingale's tender condoling,
  Responsive to sylphs, in the moon beamy air.

'Tis morn, and the flowers with dew are yet drooping,
  I see you are treading the verge of the sea:
(15) And now! ah, I see it—you just now are stooping
  To pick up the keep-sake intended for me.

If a cherub, on pinions of silver descending,
  Had brought me a gem from the fret-work of heaven;
And smiles, with his star-cheering voice sweetly blending,
  (20) The blessings of Tighe had melodiously given;

It had not created a warmer emotion
  Than the present, fair nymphs, I was blest with from you,
Than the shell, from the bright golden sands of the ocean
  Which the emerald waves at your feet gladly threw.

(25) For, indeed, 'tis a sweet and peculiar pleasure,
  (And blissful is he who such happiness finds,)
To possess but a span of the hour of leisure,
  In elegant, pure, and aerial minds.

All of the following are themes evoked in the poem EXCEPT _____________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



Duplicity, while a more complex vocab word than the other answers, is not representative of the poem. It means to be false or "two-faced," a theme not explored in the poem. We can see overt reference to "the wonders of nature exploring" in the first stanza, and repeated invocations of nature imagery throughout the poem ("mountain stream rushes," "flowers with dew are yet drooping"), so nature as a theme is pretty clear. The diction throughout ("a warmer emotion" and the second person address form of the whole poem are ample evidence for "love" as a theme. The poem is image focused and obviously concerned with aesthetic and natural beauty.

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

1 They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,

2 Love and desire and hate:

3 I think they have no portion in us after

4 We pass the gate. 


5 They are not long, the days of wine and roses:

6 Out of a misty dream

7 Our path emerges for a while, then closes

8 Within a dream. 


This poem is primarily a meditation on ____________________.

Possible Answers:

the death of a friend

unrequited love

the brevity of life

waking from a dream

the emotional ups and downs of life

Correct answer:

the brevity of life


The main theme of this poem is the briefness of human life.  Both stanzas open with "They are not long..." (lines 1, 5), stating that neither our human passions nor our days spent in this world are long. Likewise, both stanzas end with references to life ending.

Passage adapted from "They are not long" by Ernest Dowson (1896)

Example Question #2 : Theme: Poetry

In pious times, e’r Priest-craft did begin,

Before Polygamy was made a Sin;

When Man on many multipli’d his kind,

E’r one to one was cursedly confin’d,

When Nature prompted and no Law deni’d   (5)      

Promiscuous Use of Concubine and Bride;

Then Israel’s Monarch, after Heavens own heart,

His vigorous warmth did, variously, impart

To Wives and Slaves: And, wide as his Command,

Scatter’d his Maker’s Image through the Land.    (10)


What is the main social structure being commented upon in this passage?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



Although slaves and monarchs are both mentioned in this passage, neither is the correct choice. The passage is mostly concerned with the king’s marriage to multiple wives, concubines, and slaves, so the social structure being critiqued is either polygamy or the lack thereof: monogamy.

Passage adapted from “Absalom and Achitophel,” by John Dryden (1681)

Example Question #2 : Theme: Poetry

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.      (5)

I said, “Is it good, friend?”

“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;


“But I like it

“Because it is bitter,

“And because it is my heart.”    (10)


The content of this passage can be said to be all but which of the following?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



Sordid, or filthy, does not apply to the passage’s contents. The creature in the desert eating its own heart is an alarming, fantastical, and somewhat surreal image (creatures can’t literally eat their own organs and survive). The creature also poses existential questions (what does it mean to eat one’s own heart?) and debatably acts as an unstable metaphor.

Passage adapted from Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert” (1895)

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

So live, that when thy summons comes to join   

The innumerable caravan, which moves   

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take   

His chamber in the silent halls of death,   

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,     (5)

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed   

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,   

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch   

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.


This passage presents an extended meditation on what subject?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The poem not only mentions death specifically but also gives the reader advice about how to prepare to meet this death. The talk of travel and sleep is simply presenting metaphors for death. The passage is not at all concerned with love or liveliness (conviviality).

Passage adapted from William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” (1817)

Example Question #1 : Theme: Poetry

Adapted from “Solitary Death, make me thine own” in Underneath the Bough: A Book of Verses by Michael Field (pseudonym of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper) (1893)


Solitary Death, make me thine own,

And let us wander the bare fields together;

          Yea, thou and I alone

Roving in unembittered unison forever.


I will not harry thy treasure-graves,

I do not ask thy still hands a lover;

            My heart within me craves

To travel till we twain Time’s wilderness discover.


To sojourn with thee my soul was bred,

And I, the courtly sights of life refusing,

            To the wide shadows fled,

And mused upon thee often as I fell a-musing.


Escaped from chaos, thy mother Night,

In her maiden breast a burthen that awed her,

           By cavern waters white

Drew thee her first-born, her unfathered off-spring toward her.


On dewey plats, near twilight dingle,

She oft, to still thee from men’s sobs and curses

           In thine ears a-tingle,

Pours her cool charms, her weird, reviving chaunt rehearses.


Though mortals menace thee or elude,

And from thy confines break in swift transgression.

            Thou for thyself art sued

Of me, I claim thy cloudy purlieus my possession.


To a long freshwater, where the sea

Stirs the silver flux of the reeds and willows,

            Come thou, and beckon me

To lie in the lull of the sand-sequestered billows:


Then take the life I have called my own

And to the liquid universe deliver;

            Loosening my spirit’s zone,

Wrap round me as thy limbs the wind, the light, the river.

Which of the following is NOT a subject treated in the poem?

Possible Answers:

The nature of loyal companionship

Solitary, internal philosophical reflection

The unjustness of early death

The origin of death

Fear of death

Correct answer:

The unjustness of early death


The only subject listed that is not treated in the poem is the unjustness of early death. While death is covered extensively, the idea of “fairness” or justice with relation to death is directly at odds with the poem's treatment of death not as an exchange or an intrusion, but a natural and philosophically fruitful part of life.

Fear of death (in others) is alluded to by “men’s sobs and curses.” The nature of loyal companionship is alluded to throughout, but especially in the second stanza. The metaphysical origin of death is said to be “mother night” (who herself “escaped from chaos”), and the poem itself functions as a philosophical reflection, in addition to referencing the speaker taking this action (“And I, the courtly sights of life refusing, / To the wide shadows fled, / And mused upon thee often as I fell a-musing.”)

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