SAT II Literature : Tone, Style, and Mood: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Poetry

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT II Literature

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Tone, Style, And Mood: 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.

The speaker's overall tone can best be described as _____________.

Possible Answers:

repressed frustration 

righteous indignation

open contempt 

plain indifference 

melodramatic romanticism

Correct answer:

melodramatic romanticism


The author uses expressive, extremely romantic language throughout the poem. The heightened tone of the language often rises to the melodramatic. This question could also have been solved by eliminating the other options. The tone of the poem can, at its most dire, be described as melancholic. All of the other options suggest a tone that is far more negative than the one seen in the poem.

Example Question #1 : Tone, Style, And Mood: Eighteenth And Nineteenth Century Poetry

Hear the mellow wedding bells, 

Golden bells! 

What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!

Through the balmy air of night

How they ring out their delight!(5)

From the molten golden-notes, 

And all in tune,

What a liquid ditty floats 

To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats

On the moon!(10)

Oh, from out the sounding cells,

What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!

What is the tone of this passage?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



Poe’s joyful descriptions of the titular bells makes “euphoric,” or elated, the best description for the passage’s tone. The work is hardly dilettantish (amateur) or diabolical (fiendishly evil). It is also not equivocal (ambiguous) or bemused (puzzled, bewildered).

Passage adapted from "The Bells" by Edgar Allen Poe (1850)

Example Question #861 : Sat Subject Test In Literature

… Come, my friends,

’T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths     (5)   

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

What is the tone of lines 1-6?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



These lines implore, urge, or exhort the audience to join the speaker on his imminent journey. They are not insinuating (suggestive), imprecating (cursing), or extorting (coercing money from). They are also not admonishing, or cautionary, lines; rather, they encourage the listeners to throw caution to the wind.

Passage adapted from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” (1842).

Example Question #1 : Tone, Style, And Mood: Poetry

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;    (5)

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;   (10)

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.


What is the tone of this poem?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The poem is optimistic in its discussion of hope and hope’s merits. The meter and rhyme scheme are also short, light, and almost nursery rhyme-esque. The poem is certainly not melancholy (sad) or intransigent (stubborn and uncompromising). It is also not maudlin (excessively sentimental) or glamorous (beautiful, luxurious).

Passage adapted from Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing With Feathers” (1886)

Example Question #1 : Tone, Style, And Mood: Poetry

Passage adapted from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Spring" (1921).

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

Beauty is not enough.

You can no longer quiet me with the redness 

Of leaves opening stickily.

I know what I know.  5

The sun is hot on my neck as I observe

The spikes of the crocus.

The smell of the earth is good.

It is apparent that there is no death.

But what does that signify?  10

Not only under the ground are the brains of men

Eaten by maggots.

Life in itself

Is nothing,

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.  15

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, 


Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

The tone of the poem can be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

didactic and objective

scathing and dissatisfied

wistful and nostalgic

sentimental and naive

remorseful and ashamed

Correct answer:

scathing and dissatisfied


The tone can be described as scathing and dissatisfied because of the harsh, critical language the poet uses to describe springtime and existence. When analyzing tone, it is important to look for key, notable words or phrases that stand out, in this case "idiot" in the last line, "an empty cup" in line 15, are clear indicators of a generally negative tone. Phrases and lines such as "it is not enough" and "But what does that signify?" suggest a sense of dissatisfaction.

Example Question #1 : Tone, Style, And Mood

1 'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
2 Appear in writing or in judging ill;
3 But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
4 To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
5 Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
6 Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
7 A fool might once himself alone expose,
8 Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
9        'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
10 Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
11 In poets as true genius is but rare,
12 True taste as seldom is the critic's share;
13 Both must alike from Heav'n derive their light,
14 These born to judge, as well as those to write.
15 Let such teach others who themselves excel,
16 And censure freely who have written well.
17 Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,
18 But are not critics to their judgment too?

The tone of this passage could be characterized as __________________.

Possible Answers:

confident and optimistic

outraged and harsh

flattering and sweet

insincere and bitter

critical and light

Correct answer:

critical and light


The tone of this passage could be described as "critical and light." The tone could be called "critical" because the speaker's main topic is criticizing critics, or poets, or quite possibly both. That is, the speaker is pointing out faults of bad critics--see for instance, lines 1, 2, and 12. The tone could also be characterized as "light" because the criticism is witty and good-natured, not harsh or angry.  

Passage adapted from Alexander Pope's poem An Essay on Criticism (1711).  

Example Question #1 : Tone, Style, And Mood: Poetry

1 Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell: 
  No god, no demon of severe response, 
  Deigns to reply from heaven or from hell. 
  Then to my human heart I turn at once--
5 Heart! Thou and I are here sad and alone; 
  Say, wherefore did I laugh? O mortal pain! 
  O darkness! darkness! ever must I moan, 
  To question heaven and hell and heart in vain! 
9 Why did I laugh? I know this being's lease--
  My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads: 
  Yet could I on this very midnight cease, 
  And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds.
13  Verse, fame, and beauty are intense indeed, 
      But death intenser--death is life's high meed.


The speaker's tone in this poem is best described as _________________.

Possible Answers:

sarcastic and detached

angry and accusing

joyful and energetic

optimistic and self-assured

awe-struck and insistent

Correct answer:

awe-struck and insistent


The tone of the poem could be described as "awe-struck and insistent."  As early as the first line--"Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell"--the speaker is expressing awe and wonderment at something he cannot understand.  Therefore the tone is "awe-struck." The tone could also be described as "insistent" because the speaker returns insistently to the same question again and again.

Passage adapted from "Why did I laugh tonight?" by John Keats (1819)

Example Question #1 : Summarizing, Describing, Or Paraphrasing Excerpts

Adapted from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in Leaves of Grass (1855)


Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.


The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others. 

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.


It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams . . .

The narrator’s tone in lines 1-3 (underlined) is best described as which of the following?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



There is a clear sense of wonder about the everyday world, emphasized through the use of exclamation marks. This suggests jubilation.

Example Question #11 : Tone, Style, And Mood: Poetry

Adapted from Life and Remains of John Clare "The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" by John Clare (1872, ed. J. L. Cherry)

I am! Yet what I am who cares, or knows?
My friends forsake me, like a memory lost.
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost.
And yet I am—I live—though I am toss'd

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise.
Into the living sea of waking dream,
Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,
But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem
And all that's dear. Even those I loved the best
Are strange—nay, they are stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod—
For scenes where woman never smiled or wept—
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie,
The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.

The author's tone in the first stanza can best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The tone in the first stanza is largely sad or “melancholy,” as the narrator mentions his or her “woes.” We can see that the narrator feels abandoned by his or her companions and that he or she is overcome by the “shadows of life.” It is not a "mocking" tone, as there is no derision or humor in it. One cannot say it is "conclusive," as there does not seem to be any conclusion or theory drawn. Likewise, we might say it is "modest," yet the modesty comes from the sadness.

Example Question #11 : Tone

Adapted from A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729)

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remains one hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, how this number shall be reared and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing, till they arrive at six years old, except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier, during which time, they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers, as I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no salable commodity; and even when they come to this age they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half-a-crown at most on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Which of the following best describes the tone of the underlined sentence?

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The best description of the tone is sarcastic, or ironic. Swift demonstrates skillful sarcasm when he "humbly offers" that a hundred thousand children be offered for sale "plump and fat for a good table." His offer is not meant to be humble or practical, but rather outrageous and ironic.

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