British lexicographer, Henry Watson Fowler once said, "Any definition of irony - though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted - must include this: that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same". Irony can be quite a complex concept to explain clearly, as part of its purpose is to be unclear. Despite the complexity, irony, specifically in poetry, works as a way for a poet to convey deep emotions, symbolic meanings, and messages in a subliminal, indirect way. There are three forms of irony used in poetry for different effects: verbal, situational, and dramatic. Verbal irony is the gap between the literal and figurative meaning of words used, situational irony uses the contradictions of a readers' expectation versus the poem's reality, and dramatic irony contrasts the knowledge of the readers' versus the main character. Although irony can be a hard concept to grasp, three powerful poems will further distinguish and clarify each type of irony and why they are such a powerful device poets use.
Verbal irony occurs when the words or phrases used are intentionally contradicting of the true meaning or emotion the author intended. Sarcasm, understatements, and overstatements are commonly used types of verbal irony which relies on the readers' ability to explore deeper meanings implied beneath the literal surface. Poet W.H. Auden skillfully uses verbal irony in his poem "The Unknown Citizen" to convey his bitterness towards the government and it's influence on society. Meant to resemble a eulogy, the poem describes the ordinary life of a deceased man in the perspective of his government. Throughout the poem, we learn he was a loyal Union member who worked in the same factory until retirement. We are told he was married with five children, which the government Eugenist confirmed "was the right number for a parent of his generation" (27).