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Degree: English (Bachelors) - Cambridge University
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First and foremost, it is very important that you don't panic! It can be incredibly intimidating being faced with a complex and cryptic piece of writing, and it can be very easy to give up when it seems inpenetrable. But worry not! Therein might lie your access to it. Though it is hard to do, try to embrace this complexity, question why it might be so difficult, and work slowly through it. It can be made easier to think of it as a puzzle or a riddle that you have to decode; you never know what you are going to find.
So you have been given a poem. First of all, read it more than once. Something that seems to make absolutely no sense on a first reading might suddenly present itself to you on the second or third try. Once you have decided what the poem is talking about (be that walking through the woods or the loss of a loved one, whatever it may be) you can start to look more closely, and to analyse. I'm going to give you a poem, and show you step by step how I would go through it in a basic way, and ooooo, it's a good one. (Remember, you could potentially spend years on a single poem, finding out new things about it and analysing it endlessly, so don't worry if it feels like you haven't covered everything in your small time frame! You can, at the end of the day, only do your best.)
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
BY ROBERT FROST
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
On a first reading of this, the general 'story-line' can be seen to be a man taking a walk in the woods at night. Not that interesting right? But a literal interpretation is the first step on what might be seen as a long but rewarding archealogical dig. We have pierced the first layer, and are closer to understanding this poem. Don't worry if you think it is too simple to just write down what the poem seems to be literally saying to you. It isn't wrong, because it's doing just that. But what, based on this, can we then deduce? It's time to get more technical, and interrogate more thoroughly various techniques used that might lead to a more symbolic, suggested meaning. These are, of course, more subjective than the objective surface truth, and vary depending of personal emotive responses to the poem. This means nothing you say can be wrong, but marks can only be picked up if your points are clearly explained and backed up with evidence.
The language of the poem reveals a great deal about it. You might say that "watching the woods fill up with snow" represents the ambiguous traveller reflecting on his life and the process of old age. He may have reached the winter of his long life (represented by this mysterious night-time journey we are observing) as the "snow" shows. How is this man feeling then? He describes the evening as "the darkest evening in the year." Our literal interpretation of this induces strong and beguiling imagery, but further investigation might suggest that the man is weary or depressed, and is deeply contemplating a life long lived. This is further evidenced by the elucidating final lines "the woods are lovely, dark and deep". He is enticed by them, as if they provide some ethereal slumber that he is not quite able to reach. There ether seems to slowly be luring him towards them. Do they perhaps represent death?
Or maybe not. That's up to you. The final lines, however "miles to go before I sleep" suggest a tiredness and a willingness to let go. What does the repetition suggest? Resignation? Contemplation? And what of the rhyme scheme? Does the rhythm suggest the rhythm of his life? Or the movement of the horses footsteps?
The key to analysing a poem is to give it the time and attention it needs. Though technical terms like Onomatopoaeia and enjambment etc etc might seem like technical jargon to impress the examiners (which in some ways, yes they do) they can actually be crucial tools used by a poet to express an idea or a theme that you can deduce. The more than you can pull from each line of a poem that backs up what you think it's about, the better. Just take your time and take it line by line, paying close attention to the language, the imagery, the rhyme scheme and any other linguistic manouvres that might present themselves to you.
The introduction is your prime opportunity to vigorously demonstrate your understanding of the question you have been posed. A clear and concise, though deeply considered essay, needs to be firmly rooted in an introduction that sets up the solid argument that is to follow. It's your chance to wave your proverbial sign, to say to the examiner "Hey look, over here, I know exactly what I'm talking about!" It's all about grabbing their attention whilst making your intentions clear.
It's so crucial then, that you read the question at least 3 times before you even set out to write anything. Highlight, underline, circle, do whatever you have to do. Each time you read it, another possibility may arise and offer the basis for interrogation of its nuanced terms. Though you are pursuing your own solid argument (for example, you have decided Dr Frankenstein is transgressive), a good argument will counter this with other possibilities, whilst ultimately proving itself right.(It is important to remember that offering other evidence does not weaken your argument, but can actually STRENGTHEN it.)
So, the question you have been asked is "To what extent is Dr Frankenstein transgressive?" Interrogate every. single. word. What does it mean, "to what extent?" You are obviously going to have to, at some point, reach a judgement (based solidly in evidence), that suggests what degree he is one. A balanced though forceful argument, the question suggests, will need to ensue. Secondly, what does it mean to "transgress?" In your introduction you are going to have to make it incredibly clear that you understand what this word means, or potentially might mean depending on varying introductions. If you wrongly define a word in the question, you could seriously lose marks, because your introduction is the foundation of your essay, and every paragraph should link to it.
You need to lay out the terms of your argument, even if this initially means putting "In this essay I am going to argue that yes, Frankenstein is indeed a morally trangressive character." To make this an argument, it could be altered to say "Though much evidence supports the contention that Frankenstein reaches the extremes he does out of sheer ignorance and chance, meaning he may not be accountable in the way a transgressor is, I believe that his actions suggest that he is aware he is pushing boundaries he knows he should not be", or something along those fancy lines. Hopefully you can see how, by introducing an argument in the introduction itself, you have not only given a taste of what is to come but given a direction, an opinion, that you hope to pursue throughout. A good introduction will keep your mind focused as you work through the essay, and if it is clear, referring back to it won't only help the examiner know exactly what you're talking about, but will keep you completely on track.
Don't ramble on too much, but don't worry if you go on for longer than you expected. Just do whatever it takes to demonstrate that you are taking the question very seriously, are considering it from multiple angles, that you are ready to delve deep into the question in the essay to come, and that YOU MEAN BUSINESS.