How do I go about analysing a poem?

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Analysing a poem may appear daunting, but by going through it methodically you can ensure that you maximise your grade potential.

Begin with the content of the poem, for example Emily Dickinson's 'I heard a fly buzz - when I died' concerns the moment of death for the speaker.

Then, the appropriate contextual information must be regarded (as this will be linked to the meaning of the poem), for instance it is important to remember that Dickinson experienced much death in own her life and that of her generation. Her religious skepticism is also important to consider here as death will either mean a spiritual life for the speaker, or the final knowledge that there is no after life, and therefore no God. 

Then, the themes and motifs of the poem can be identified, which will aid the cohesion of an essay. These are ideas that recur in the poem (or multiple poems or texts of your chosen author). In Dickinson's poem these themes may be: the moment of death; the natural world; religious skepticism; circumference versus centre.

Then, the linguistic/structural aspects of the poem may be considered with regards to how they contribute, or problematise their content. For Dickinson this would focus on her use of dashes, her use of inverted syntax, and her temporality. These features aid the immediacy of death for the speaker, as well as problematising the ultimate knowledge of death.

Finally, a knowledge of the different interpretations that the poem offers to its reader must be employed to view the full capacity of the work. For instance that Dickinson's representation of the 'fly' perhaps symbolises the speaker's opposition to death and need to return to the reality they are leaving, or it perhaps symbolises the final realistic banality of death.

The most sophisticated exam answers are able to weave these threads into an evaluative essay.

I hope this helps!

Ruth D. GCSE English Language tutor, GCSE Geography tutor, GCSE Engli...

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