Understanding a song

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am

This week Lyrics are a type of poetry. Eleanor Rigby, a Beatles song, gives us a lot to think about

Poetry - a pleasure or a pain?

Poetry can be a happy or a hard thing to study. We don't often read poetry for pleasure nowadays and it's true that some poems can be difficult to follow.

You may be able to understand all the words of a poem, but trying to understand the meaning behind them can be complicated. But there is more poetry in modern life than you might think.

Introducing Eleanor

Lyrics of songs are a type of poetry. In the 1960s, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were members of a very successful pop group called The Beatles.

Forty years later, experts of modern poetry think the lyrics Lennon and McCartney wrote for some of their best songs can be read as poetry. Let's meet Eleanor Rigby.

Peeling the onion

Find the lyrics for Eleanor Rigby online and read them. Understanding a poem is like peeling away the layers of an onion.

After the first reading, you might understand the words, but as you re-read the poem looking for different things, you peel away the different layers and experience the different parts of the poem.

Read Eleanor Rigby once. Look up the meaning of any words you don't know. Then write down your first impressions of the poem. You might have found it interesting. You might have felt happy, sad, bored or amused.


The tone of a poem is the effect the poem has on the reader.

A poet creates the tone of his poem by using certain words to develop a mood in the reader's mind.

What is the tone or mood of Eleanor Rigby? What do the words 'lonely', 'no one', 'nobody', 'died' and 'grave' make the reader feel?

The adjective 'lonely' is used eight times in the poem. What is the effect of this repetition?

Building the poem

How have Lennon and McCartney built up Eleanor Rigby? Is the structure easy or difficult to follow? How many verses does the poem have?

A chorus is a group of words that is repeated at certain times during a poem.

Have Lennon and McCartney used a chorus? How many 'telling the story' verses does the poem have?

Does the poem rhyme? Are the lines all the same length? Would you say that the structure of Eleanor Rigby is easy or difficult to read?

Read the poem aloud or listen to someone else reading it and see if the whole thing sounds natural or false.


The imagery in a poem is the pictures that the poet builds up in the reader's imagination. Make a list of the images in Eleanor Rigby.

Here are the first few:

Picking up rice after a wedding

Waiting at a window

A made-up face

Writing something that nobody will read or hear.

How do these images contribute to the overall effect of the poem?

now do this

Eleanor's story

Most poems do tell a story. Answer these questions to piece together the story of Eleanor Rigby.

1. Where is the story set?

2. What has just happened in the church?

3. Why is Eleanor picking up the rice from the floor? Why is she in the church?

4. When she has finished her job, what lonely thing does she do next?

5. What does 'wearing a face that she keeps in a jar' mean?

6. Is the church popular? Does it have a big congregation?

7. What sort of figure is Father McKenzie?

8. How many people attended Eleanor's funeral?

9. What do you feel for both Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie at the end of the poem?

And finally...

Did you enjoy Eleanor Rigby?

The song originally appeared on the Beatles album Revolver



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