Poetry Explication Assignment Part III

Mrs. Tenney and Miss Stefaniak

English 12

Sonnet Explication Assignment

Due: Nov. 11, 2014

Analyzing Poetry

When asked to analyze or "explicate" a poem, it is a good idea to read the poem several times before starting to write about it (usually, poems are short, so it is worth the time). Remember that no one was born reading a book of poetry, but that it is a learned skill that gets easier with practice.

When I read a poem for the first time, these are the general steps I follow:

  • I read the poem once, copying down any unknown words.
  • I define any unknown words and to determine the literal meaning of the poem. The definitions will be Section 1 of your poetry project!
  • I read the poem again and then try to paraphrase it in a few sentences, in my own words. A good paraphrase is very close to what the poem says literally, without reference to the uses of figurative language or other poetic devices. The paraphrase will be Section 2 of your poetry project!
  • Next, I consider what further meaning is added by the figurative non-literal language in the poem. I think about what metaphor, simile, personification, irony of situation, and imagery add to the meaning. (There are questions below to guide you in this figurative language comprehension step.)
  • Next, I construct a "reading" or explication of the poem, based upon what I have observed. There is no one "correct" reading of a poem; many readings are possible. But there are readings that are better than others. The best readings are strongly supported by evidence gleaned while reading the text closely. The best readings take into account all of the evidence in the poem. A reading that ignores evidence that contradicts the reading is a poor reading. The Explication will be Section 3 of your poetry project! See the bottom of this page for specific instructions for organization and for example paragraphs.

When writing in response to an assignment, keep in mind the constraints put upon you by the assignment itself and the actual questions you are answering. A written analysis of a poem should not simply paraphrase it, although the analysis may include paraphrase.

Writing the explication

The explication should follow the same format as the preparation: begin with the large issues and basic design of the poem and work through each line to the more specific details and patterns.

The first paragraph

The first paragraph should contain the following information:

  1. Explain the main conflict.
  2. Identify the situation of the speaker.
  3. Go through each sentence of the poem to explain the basic message of the poem, including the meanings added by figurative language such as metaphors, similes, personification, or imagery.

Here is an example. A student’s explication of Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” might begin like this:

This poem illustrates the conflict between appearance and reality, particularly as this conflict relates to what the speaker seems to say and what he really says. From Westminster Bridge, the speaker looks at London at sunrise, and he explains that all people should be struck by such a beautiful scene. The speaker notes that the city is silent, and he points to several specific objects, naming them only in general terms: “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” (6). After describing the “glittering” aspect of these objects, he asserts that these city places are just as beautiful in the morning as country places like “valley, rock, or hill” (8,10). Finally, after describing his deep feeling of calm, the speaker notes that the “houses seem asleep” and that “all that mighty heart is lying still” (13, 14). In this way, the speaker says that London looks beautiful in the morning.

The next paragraphs

The next paragraphs should accomplish the following:

  1. Begin with a topic sentence that captures the main idea of this paragraph that will follow.
  2. Write about the form of the poem. Is it a Shakespearean or a Petrarchan sonnet or a blend of the two?
  3. Explain the rhyme scheme of the poem and the purpose for the rhyme scheme if you can identify one.
  4. Any sentence forms (like inverted sentence order) or odd word choices that change the emphasis of the speaker.
  5. Talk about any rhetorical patterns like parallel structure or repetition.
  6. If you are good at figuring out rhythms, you may talk about meter here. If you are NOT good at meter, do NOT write about it. It is NOT NECESSARY for our class.
  7. Divide these paragraphs in places that make sense. The paragraph divisions usually follow the poem’s topic divisions / shifts: one paragraph per quatrain or a paragraph for the octave and a paragraph for the sestet, for example.

The student’s explication continues with a topic sentence that directs the discussion of the first five lines:

However, the poem begins with several oddities that suggest the speaker is saying more than what he seems to say initially. For example, the poem is an Italian sonnet and follows the abbaabba cdcdcd rhyme scheme. Ironically, the poet chooses to write a sonnet about London in an Italian form. This suggests that what he says may not be actually praising the city. Also, the rhetoric of the first two lines seems awkward compared to a normal speaking voice: “Earth has not anything to show more fair. / Dull would he be of soul who could pass by” (1-2). The odd syntax continues when the poet personifies the city: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning” (4-5). Here, the city wears the morning’s beauty, so it is not the city but the morning that is beautiful …

The conclusion??

Your conclusion is not really a conclusion. There should be NO SUMMARY of what you have written!

  1. If you have any comments about the sound effects of the poem (onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, consonance), this is the place to write about that and the author’s purpose for the sound effects.
  2. If the poem has a visual pattern, you write about it here.
  3. If you have nothing more to say about the sound or the pattern of the poem, just end with the “next paragraphs!” Do not write about this section unless you REALLY have something to say.

Here, the writer chooses to stop writing when he or she reaches the end of the poem:

The poem ends with a vague statement: “And all that mighty heart is lying still!” In this line, the city’s heart could be dead, or it could be simply deceiving the one observing the scene. In this way, the poet reinforces the conflict between the appearance of the city in the morning and what such a scene and his words actually reveal.

Tips to keep in mind

  1. Refer to the speaking voice in the poem as the speaker” or “the poet.” For example, do not write, “In this poem, Wordsworth says that London is beautiful in the morning.” However, you can write, “In this poem, Wordsworth presents a speaker who…” We cannot absolutely identify Wordsworth with the speaker of the poem, so it is more accurate to talk about “the speaker” or “the poet” in an explication.
  2. Use the present tense when writing the explication. The poem, as a work of literature, continues to exist!
  3. To avoid unnecessary uses of the verb “to be” in your compositions, the following list suggests some verbs you can use when writing the explication:





Portions of the assignment are used with permission from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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