Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University



Prose Paraphrase



Definitions, Discussions

Original Sentence


All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:

One time it was a woman's face, or worse--

The seeming needs of my fool-driven land;

Now nothing but comes readier to the hand

Than this accustomed toil....



Anything can distract me from writing poetry: One time I was distracted by a woman's face, but I was even more distracted by (or I found an even less worthy distraction in (the attempt to fulfill what I imagined to be the needs of a country governed by idiots.  At this point in my life I find any task easier than the work I'm used to doing (writing poetry).


Paraphrase resembles translation.  Indeed, the paraphrase of Yeats is essentially a "translation" of poetry into prose.  But what good is that?  First, paraphrasing tests that you truly understand what you've read; it can be especially helpful when an author's diction and syntax seem difficult, complex, or "foreign" to you.  Second, paraphrasing can direct your attention to nuances of tone or potentially significant details.  For example, paraphrasing Yeats might help you to think about all that he gains by making himself the object rather than the subject of his sentence.  Paraphrase can also help you begin generating the kind of interpretive questions that can drive an essay. (Norton Introduction to Poetry 624; a slightly modified version with two more examples are at LitWeb)

There is no denying that the critic must sometimes resort to discursive summary statements about the meaning of a poem.  However, such plain statements are always put into question by the formal structure of the poem itself.  As Brooks puts it, "whatever statement we may seize upon as incorporating the 'meaning' of the poem, immediately the imagery and rhythm [qq.v.] seem to set up tensions with it, warping and twisting it, qualifying and revising it." (Princeton Encyclopedia 879)


Sonnet XXIX

Prose Paraphrase

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,


When shamed by fortune and other people, I cry all alone of my pitiful situation, appeal to god(s) who seem not to hear me, and look at myself and curse my fate, wishing I were like those who had more hope in life, or whose looks were not like mine, or who had more friends than I.  I wanted things that other people had because what I have now is what I am least happy with.  But as I am thinking these thoughts and despising myself, I think of you and then my situation seems better.  Like a lark, my spirits rise above the previous depression and begin to engage in happier, more uplifting thoughts.  Remembering your love brings me such richness that I would not change places with a king.

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,


Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee--and then my state,


Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

--William Shakespeare (1564-1616)



In a Station of the Metro


Prose Paraphrase

The apparition of these faces in the crowd

Petals on a wet, black bough


The sudden appearance of these faces in the group are like flower petals on a wet tree limb.

--Ezra Pound (1885-1972)



Farewell Love and all thy Laws for ever


Prose Paraphrase

Farewell love and all thy laws forever;


Farewell, Love, and farewell forever to all your laws.

Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.


Your baited hooks shall not entangle me anymore.

Senec and Plato call me from thy lore


Seneca and Plato call me away from your instruction

To perfect wealth, my wit for to endeavour.


so that I can attempt to employ my mind to fully develop [“perfect,” make perfect] my well-being.

In blind error when I did persever,


When I persisted in blind error,

Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,


your sharp rejection that always pierces so painfully [“sore”]

Hath taught me to set in trifles no store


has taught me to place no value in trivial matters

And scape forth, since liberty is lever.


and to break through [“escape forth [from]” the bonds of “love”], since freedom is more pleasing.

Therefore farewell; go trouble younger hearts


Therefore, farewell. Go trouble younger hearts

And in me claim no more authority.


and do not claim any further authority over me.

With idle youth go use thy property


Go impose your characteristic influence on young folk who have nothing else to do

And thereon spend thy many brittle darts,


and make use of your many brittle darts [of love] on them,

For hitherto though I have lost all my time,


since although up to this point I have wasted all my time,

Me lusteth no lenger rotten boughs to climb.


I no longer desire [“Me lusteth no lenger”] to climb rotten [“precarious”] limbs.

--Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)




A Study of Reading Habits

Prose Paraphrase

When getting my nose in a book

Cured most things short of school,

It was worth ruining my eyes

To know I could still keep cool,

And deal out the old right hook

To dirty dogs twice my size.







There was a time when reading was one way I could avoid almost all my troubles--except for school.  It seemed worth the danger of ruining my eyes to read stories in which I could imagine myself maintaining my poise in the face of threats and having the boxing skill and experience needed to defeat bullies who were twice my size.


Later, with inch-thick specs,

Evil was just my lark:

Me and my cloak and fangs

Had ripping times in the dark.

The women I clubbed with sex!

I broke them up like meringues.







Later, already having to wear thick glasses because my eyesight had become so poor, I found my delight in stories of sex and evil: imagining myself with Dracula cloak and fangs, I relished vicious nocturnal adventures.  I identified myself with sexual marauders whose inexhaustible potency was like a weapon wielded against women who were sweet and fragile.


Don't read much now: the dude

Who lets the girl down before

The hero arrives, the chap

Who's yellow and keeps the store,

Seem far too familiar.  Get stewed:

Books are a load of crap.







I don't read much any more because I now can identify myself not only with the flawed secondary characters, such as the flashy dresser who wins the heroine's confidence and then betrays her in a moment of crisis before the cowboy hero comes to her rescue, or the cowardly storekeeper who cringes behind the counter at the first sign of danger.  Getting drunk is better than reading--books are just full of useless lies.

--Philip Larkin (1922-1985)


In the Park

Prose Paraphrase

She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt
Someone she loved once passed by – too late





There’s a woman sitting in the park wearing tired, out of date clothes. Around her are her three children. Two of them are whining and bickering and tugging at her skirt while the other one’s just drawing patterns in the dirt with a stick, aimlessly. Along the path towards her comes a man she used to love. He nods at her and it’s too late to try to looks as if she didn’t know him or care. They have a conversation, saying things like, ‘How nice,’ and ‘Time holds great surprises.’ She imagines that he’s thinking what a close shave he’s had, how nearly he got caught up in all this domesticity. It’s getting darker, the light is flickering. They stand there while she lists for him the children’s names and birthdays. As he turns to go, she says to him, ‘It’s so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grown and thrive.’ But then when he’s gone she takes the youngest child on her lap and says to herself, ‘They have eaten me alive.’

to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon…”but for the grace of God...”





They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”






--Gwen Harwood (1920-1995)



Further Information

  • Arp, Thomas R., and Greg Johnson.  "Chapter Two: Reading the Poem."  Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense.  9th ed.  Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.  668-85.

  • McCallam, Pamela.  "Heresy of Paraphrase."  The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Eds. Alex Preminger, Terry V. F. Brogan, and Frank J. Warnke. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.  879.






Arp, Thomas R., and Greg Johnson.  Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense.  9th ed.  Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.


Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto.  A Dictionary of Literary, Dramatic, and Cinematic Terms.  2nd ed.  Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1971.


Hunter, J. Paul, Alison Booth, and Kelly J. Mays.  The Norton Introduction to Poetry.  9th ed.  New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.


McCallam, Pamela.  "Heresy of Paraphrase."  The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Eds. Alex Preminger, Terry V. F. Brogan, and Frank J. Warnke. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.  879.



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Last updated January 9, 2008