Close textual analysis

First impressions

When you are presented with a question asking you to analyse a particular poem, first:
  • Read the question carefully
  • Underline or highlight the ‘operative words’, that is the words that are doing the work in the question, for example: 
    • Discuss
    • Describe
    • Say how far you agree 
    • Explore
  • Identify the topic e.g. ‘the power of the imagination’ or ‘capturing the natural world’
  • Read the poem through once
  • Look back at the question
  • Read the poem again with a pencil or a highlighter pen in hand
  • Underline or star anything in the poem which you think relates to the question
  • Reconsider exactly what the question is. Write notes in the margins around the poem. Identify whatever strikes you about style and significance as long as it is answering the question.

Areas to consider

Make sure you think about the following:

The subject matter of the poem

  • What is Keats writing about/describing in the poem? 
  • Remember that the subject matter of a poem is sometimes different to the theme
  • How does the structure and versification relate to the subject matter?

The theme(s) of the poem

  • The subject matter of a poem is used by any poet to carry the message or theme s/he wishes to communicate
  • In Keats’ more philosophical poems, such as Ode on a Grecian Urn you may find that the theme is the subject matter
  • What message is Keats putting across in the poem through the subject matter? 

Who is the speaker of the poem? 

(In most cases we can assume that the voice in the poem is Keats’.)

  • Who are they addressing?
  • Do they use direct or indirect speech?
  • Why do they use certain words?
  • What emotions does their language convey?

The imagery and symbolism

  • How does it contribute to the overall tone of the poem?
  • How does it contribute to the emotion that is being expressed?
  • How does it contribute to our mental picture of the subject matter?

How rhyme and rhythm are employed

Regarding the rhyme scheme in the poem:

  • Look for full rhymes
  • What is the effect of Keats’ use of rhyme?

Regarding the metre of the poem:

  • How would you describe it?
  • Where and why does Keats alter it?
  • What overall effects does it create?

Specific poetic techniques that Keats is using in the poem

From notes to an answer

You may have made your notes by beginning at the first line and going through to the end. This chronological approach may seem obvious but it makes sure that you don’t miss anything. However, when you begin your actual answer, you will probably not want to use a completely chronological approach.
  • When you go back to your question, you might want to start with something which is really important but which comes at the end of the poem
  • It is always vital to show that you have a good sense of what is going on overall in the poem and what is being described
  • When you feel that you want to say something about a poetic device, for example rhyme schemes, ask yourself the question, ‘So what?’ If you can’t make a point about what it adds to the poem, then don’t waste time just describing it
  • Do not simply list features of style. Just saying that a verse rhymes ab ab (for example) won’t get you any marks unless you can show how Keats uses this device to create a feeling or an effect in the poem.
Read the question carefully and address what it is specifically asking for. The examiner is looking to see how well you can apply what is in the poem to the question. S/he doesn’t want to know everything you know about Keats and his poetry. S/he is looking for how you select and apply your knowledge and understanding to answering the question. If material isn’t relevant, don’t include it!
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