Tone is a literary device that conveys the author’s attitude toward the subject, speaker, or audience of a poem. Tone is sometimes referred to as the “mood” of the poem, and can be established through figurative language and imagery. 

All forms of writing have a tone. Tone in poetry can range from formal to informal, aggressive to defensive, sentimental to critical, and more. Tone allows the reader to better understand, and even relate to, the speaker’s attitude toward the subject of a poem. 

In “Elegy for a Gopher,” Ellen Bass establishes a tone of reverence and regret for a creature the speaker must kill:

“The pads of your paws scrabble
as I drag you from the tunnel
clamped to the shiny green trap,
a baby, hell-bent on saving
your twist of life, spun
from the same cells as I am”

The speaker describes the gopher as a baby, “spun / from the same cells,” implying a tenderness toward the gopher, and a feeling of commonality.

“I hate
that I can salvage nothing.
I can’t skin and eat you, stuff or display
your fur on the mantel.
I won’t carve a needle
from your bone. Bit of breath
I bury under a stone.”

In describing what she can’t do with the dead gopher, she cultivates a tone of regret and guilt.