Developing paper 1: literary commentary

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Developing paper 1: literary commentary

Also keep in mind that the literary commentary (paper 1) and oral commentary (IOC) are similar in content, though obviously different in delivery format. You could use/adapt any of these strategies for the IOC.

Assignment specifics

Read the whole document and, in writing, complete each exercise (1-5).

  • Read “Providing an Argument [literary commentary].”

    • Complete exercise 1.

  • Read “Commentary Skills—Thesis, Introduction, Conclusion.”

  • Read “Introductions and Conclusions [paper 1].”

    • Complete exercise 2.

    • Complete exercise 3.

  • Read “Introduction and conclusion practice.”

    • Complete exercise 4 (and 5).

You are not required to type this. If you type this, you may email it to me or submit it to Edmodo. If you choose to do that, you need to make sure you get it done before the start of class. Any technical difficulties must be handled beforehand. Again, you are not required to type this.


Tyson, Hannah and Mark Beverley. English A: Literature for the IB Diploma. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print. Oxford IB Skills and Practice Ser.

Tyson, Hannah and Mark Beverley. IB Course Companion: English A Literature. Oxford University Press: 2011. Print.

More resources on Introductions and Conclusions:

  • Seven Ways to Write an Introduction

  • Writing Effective Lead-Ins

  • Strategies for Writing a Conclusion

  • Conclusions

Providing an Argument [literary commentary]

The best [literary commentaries] are organized in such a way as to develop a particular line of interpretation, evaluation, or 'reading'. One way of doing this is to foreground one of the main areas of significance, for example: the most important idea to emerge, a key opposition or contrast, or a point about the way the extract develops. This is a bit like fixing up a washing line from which to hang the rest of your main points in order to provide a sense of focus and direction for them.

Read the poem:



The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden

Hardens and grows cold,

We cannot cage the minute

Within its nets of gold,

When all is told

We cannot beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,

We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron

Siren and what it tells:

The earth compels,

We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too

For sunlight in the garden.

Louis MacNeice

Sample commentary on “The Sunlight in the Garden”

Introduction: In this poem, Louis MacNeice focuses on 'sunlight' and a literal garden through which to explore concerns with the past, the nature of loss and the passing of time. He makes extensive use of figurative, natural imagery and sound to create a lyrical, but quite melancholic mood, but this is redeemed in the final stanza when the speaker appears to be more accepting of the problem of change.

  1. The opening of the poem contrasts the beauty of the garden with the impact of time.

  2. In stanza two the theme of the inevitability of time is brought to bear on the notion of freedom.

  3. Imagery in the third stanza introduces the notion of things having passed and there is recognition of the finality of death.

  4. The poem concludes with a shift in tone, however, as the speaker emphasizes love as a means to overcome the problem of time.

  5. The poem's use of sound and rhythm is key to its atmospheric quality and the sense of a 'natural' speaking voice.

Conclusion: Language and form are therefore essential to this poem. Whilst it is concerned, ultimately, with loss and suffering as inevitable consequences of the problem of time and death, MacNeice makes use of figurative imagery and musical elements of sound and rhythm to highlight the transformative power of the imagination. In this way, love is shown to be something that can be preserved and, in a sense, the problem of time something that can be overcome.

Exercise 1

Above you will see how the student has organized her commentary on the poem. Answer the following questions:

  1. What has she chosen to include in her introduction? Do you think it is effective?

  2. What kind of structure has she chosen to adopt? Discuss whether you think it works.

  3. From the notes she made above, what key ideas has she chosen to focus on? What does selecting ideas in this way indicate to the examiner?

  4. What do you think of her conclusion?

  5. In what sense has she provided an argument, or 'reading'?

Commentary Skills – Thesis, Introduction, Conclusion

How do I come up with a line of interpretation - a ‘thesis’?
There is no easy answer to this but try to think of a thesis as the washing line on which the rest of your points are going to hang. Hopefully, the following might provide you with some starting points:

  • Identify the most important feature of content and ask yourself what is being suggested about that feature of content.

  • Alternatively, what is the most important aspect of style? In two of the statements in the previous activity, imagery and structure are highlighted as features of literary craft that arguably contribute a great deal to the way a particular theme is presented.

  • Look for contrasts. More often than not, short extracts will make use of significant oppositions - whether between ideas, sections of the text or perhaps such things as strands of imagery.

  • Development: is there an underlying sense of transition in the poem or extract - whether in terms of its ideas, the content, or its language and style?

  • Conflict: our interest in prose, poetry and drama very frequently comes from the establishment of some kind of central tension, whose resolution (or lack of it) is often responsible for maintaining our interest.

  • Why, in essence, do you think this is a good piece of writing?

By now, you will have come to understand the interactive nature of the reading process. The text presents itself in the form of black shapes on the page, and you find meaning in those black shapes by responding to the denotations of the words, their connotative implications and the various literary features through which everything is crafted. What you bring to the text is every bit as important as the way the text works on its own. Indeed, it is perhaps true to say that the text wouldn't ‘mean’ anything without you there to make sense of it - just as the tree in the forest can't make any noise unless there is someone there to hear it.


  • Visual appearance on the page

  • The title (if included)

  • First impressions

  • Content

  • Style


  • Identify the most important aspects

  • Develop a unifying argument

How should I approach the introduction and conclusion to my commentary?
Students often find writing introductions and conclusions quite a challenge and, although it is important not to treat them as all the same, you could consider a number of things that might help.
Samples will be in reference to the following poem:

What matters more than practice

is the fact that you, my audience,

are pulling for me, want me to pull

it off – this next sleight. Now

you see it. Something more than

whether I succeed’s at stake.
This talk is called patter. This

is misdirection – how my left

hand shows you nothing’s in it.

Nothing is. I count on your mistake

of caring. In my right hand your

undoing blooms like cancer.

But I’ve shown you that already –

empty. Most tricks are done

before you think they’ve started – you

who value space more than time.

The balls, the cards, the coins – they go

into the past, not into my pocket.

If I give you anything, be sure

it’s not important. What I keep

keeps me alive – a truth on which

your interest hinges. We are like

lovers, if you will. Sometimes even

if you don’t will. Now you don’t.

Gary Miranda


Getting introductions right can be one of the hardest but most significant things in your commentary. Partly because it is the first this that is heard/read, but also because it is the place in which your essay is provided with a clear sense of direction.

Your introduction might want to include:

  • A statement of the subject of the passage and some brief comment about on the way the passage develops the subject

  • A reference to one or two key features of language and style

  • A “signpost” that indicates the direction, the line of argument and/or interpretation the commentary is going to follow

Introduction 1

Introduction 2

Introduction 3

'Magician', by Gary Miranda, is a poem in which the mental processes of a magician are being explored immediately before, during and after he has performed a magic trick for an audience. While this task would seem to be quite innocent, Miranda is able to make the task appear quite sinister by setting a tone that evokes both fear and uncertainty in the reader. This is done primarily through the controlling of pace with caesurae and enjambment, and also by Miranda's choice of menacing vocabulary.

The poem 'Magician' is as clever and deft as the tricks it describes. Through the use of concealed metaphor, combined with terse and logical language, Miranda exposes the human desire to hide from the harsh realities of life and conveys to the reader that people cannot turn to 'magic' for answers - we must discover them for ourselves.

This poem, 'Magician', by Gary Miranda, focuses on the relationship between a magician and his audience. He compares this relationship to that of 'lovers' and in doing so explores the tension between truth and deception. The first-person narrative is important to the poem as we gain a glimpse into both the public identity of this entertainer, as well as the somewhat disturbing exploration of his private thoughts and feelings.

Although the three introductions are fairly different in nature, the second being quite ‘personal’ in its reading, the first and third a little more objective, perhaps, they seem nevertheless to include similar things.

It would be wrong to suggest that you should always adopt the above formula in your approach to writing introductions to commentaries, but at least you now have a sense of the kinds of things which might be considered appropriate.


In the past, you may have been told to treat your conclusion as a summary of your main ideas. While there is an element of truth in this, just to repeat the things you have already said seems rather pointless and repetitive. Try to think of your conclusion as a means to address some of the following:

  • In summary, what is the most important thing your commentary has attempted to say? For instance, take us back to your basic line of argument: what have you tried to argue in this commentary?

  • What has the poem or prose extract in essence suggested about its central subject?

  • What do you feel is the most significant strength of the poem or prose extract? Is there a key component/stylistic feature from which it gains its main effect?

  • Does the poem or prose extract have any kind of 'message'? What does it fundamentally say about human experience or the human condition? In what way does it connect to real life?

  • What's the main effect of the poem or prose extract in terms of the reader?

Read through the following three concluding paragraphs of a commentary written in response to the poem 'Magician'. What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of each conclusion?

Conclusion 1

Conclusion 2

Conclusion 3

The poem, 'Magician', by Gary Miranda, is one of rising and falling tension as the sinister inner-thoughts of a performing magician are explored. The very clever way in which Miranda associates fear with the magician is highlighted by his use of structuring to affect tone. The excitement created throughout the initial stanza enthralls the reader into a poem that at first sight seems shallow. The depth of the poem is however made clear by the final message presented in the last lines. This message being of the importance of understanding that which is happening around us, not just in the physical world that we can see but also in regard to those important things we cannot always see.

Ultimately, it is the absence of poetry in 'Magician' that makes its message so effective, and shows the reader that God does not exist. Miranda's deft and adroit language both exposes human weakness and points to where the real answers can be found.

To conclude, 'Magician' ends up being a poem concerned with the nature of human flaws - the willingness of people without power to be manipulated and controlled, and the weakness of those in power who depend on commendations given to them for their sense of security. The apparent simplicity of the language and form of the poem reinforces its basic theme: it is in fact quite a complex work, and so the reader - like the audience has also been deceived.

Introductions and Conclusions [paper 1]

The most important thing, perhaps, is to demonstrate…a sense of being in control, that you have a reading of the poem or extract that you want to persuade us the validity of.
Read the poem:





In the Rear-View Mirror
Thinking about them as you saw them last,

you see them standing there behind your back,

leaning out into the road to wave goodbye,

lingering even as growing speed and distance

diminish them until they neatly fit

head to foot in the mirror-strip you glance at.

Tiny in your lengthening wake, still waving,

they could be nameless people on a postcard,

too far away for you to make out faces.

Then, at the first turn, they’re lost completely,

places taken by someone’s windbreak pines,

a split-rail fence, and then, as the wheel straightens,

nothing but empty road. Ahead of you

are towns where you will never know a soul,

exits following exits you will pass

and never take, amassing a stiff toll

finally to make good on. Fortunately

you carry along with you that higher-powered

reflective instrument that you can use

no matter how far down the road you’ve gone

to bring them back in view as large as life,

putting yourself in the picture, too, which makes

thinking about them as you saw them lasting.
Robert Shaw, Below the Surface (1999)

Exercise 2

Read through the following introductory paragraphs, each written by a different student but in response to the above poem. In writing, discuss the different ways in which they fulfill the suggestions made above about the role/s of an introduction. Be sure to address both.
Introduction 1:

The poem 'In the Rear- View Mirror' by Robert Shaw explores the common experience of having to say goodbye to people you are close to. The speaker of the poem suggests that this experience is inevitable in life, as we keep having to say goodbye to our loved ones. The poet creates a sense of nostalgia by using mirrors both literally and figuratively and makes use of the structure of the poem to say something about the inevitability of time passing and the present always moving into the past.

Introduction 2:

'In the Rear-View Mirror' by Robert Shaw is a poem about a car journey away from a familiar place into the unknown, through which a more metaphorical journey is implied. In response to the possibility of an empty, unknown future, the speaker seems concerned with the importance of memory and the security we often find in preserving the past. The poem's intimate, informal voice draws the reader into the poem so that, alongside the speaker, we are also invited to think about the relationship between absence and presence.

Exercise 3

Read through the following concluding paragraphs from the same students. In writing, discuss the different ways in which they fulfill the suggestions made above about the role/s of a conclusion. Be sure to address both.
Conclusion 1:

Overall, 'In the Rear-View Mirror' by Robert Shaw effectively portrays the importance of the past and the role of memory as a figurative journey through life, represented by a mundane car journey To me, the greatest significance of the poem is the message that memories can affect feelings of both loss and nostalgia and in this sense can be both positive and negative. We want to remember people and events but sometimes experience pain in that they are no longer with us. In this way, the final effect of the poem for me is quite ambiguous.

Conclusion 2:

In conclusion, this poem explores the power of memory. Whilst the first section of the poem portrays a sense of loss, the second provides a degree of balance through ideas of return. Metaphors to do with distance and journeys are used throughout, ultimately pointing out the whereas [sic] actual experience diminishes, memory is unlimited and in that way, timeless.

Introduction and conclusion practice

Read the prose extract:







The room was full of people, young black men and women, even a few children. As her apprehension grew into a sudden shyness, Devi reassured herself that this was just like India-the throng of voices competing with the loud, blaring music, the high-pitched voices of excited children in the background.

They spoke to each other, over the music, in a shorthand that fascinated Devi, but she could not bring herself to play impostor and speak like them.

The more serious conversations, carried out in little huddles in various corners of the room, were about being black in white America. Devi leaned forward to listen to an intense young woman with a spectacular head of a hundred little plaits. Her frizzy, snake-like braids were held in place with blue and green beads at regular intervals.

"So this nurse-all polite and freezing cold-I had paid for the hospital room, see-said, 'I'll take the baby to the nursery for the night, you get some rest alone.' She didn't want me to be disturbed by my baby. 'Disturbed!' I screamed into her icy face. 'When are you people going to learn that black love is black wealth?'"

Devi saw the principle of the thing, she admired this beautiful spitfire who was so sure of her rights, and of the inevitable chorus of confirmation she would draw out of her audience. But Devi also found she had less and less to say, and she spent the entire evening quiet, watching. The music throbbed in her head, and she listened to snatches of conversation, words that drifted by and that she recognized, but separate, fragmented, like words in a foreign language she had recently learnt, but still could not put together to make sense.

Devi sat surrounded by people, in increasing isolation, terrified of drawing attention to herself, but aching for any means to do just that.

Hours later, her eyes watering in the smoke-filled room, she remembered she had brought the host an Indian gift, a wall hanging of cotton cloth, hand-printed with vegetable dye. The host held it up for them all to see, and they looked at the blue, baby-faced man on the cloth, bare-chested and crowned with a peacock feather, dancing as he played the flute. For the first time, the image struck Devi as almost grotesque: a grown man, practically naked, wearing a perpetual baby-mask.

"That's Krishna, the dark god who loved milk, butter and women," said Devi.

"They couldn't bear to have a black god, so they made him blue, huh?" said the intent young woman Devi had earlier admired. She smiled, but her voice was edged with contempt.

Devi laughed with the rest of them, but she knew she had brought the wrong gift. A brass goddess holding a lamp could have been used as an ethnic ashtray. Or safer still, a bottle of wine. It would have been less original, but it would not have set her apart from the others with such finality.

Githa Hariharan, The Thousand Faces in Night

Exercise 4 (and 5)

Below is a student response to passage. The introduction and conclusion have been removed. Your job is to write them.
The emotional journey that Devi undergoes is emphasized by the continuous change of feelings and emotional states that take place within her. Initially the situation is chaotic as she finds herself "in a room…full of people" and her "shyness" is evident as she tries to convince herself "that this is just
like India". As the passage develops however, she realizes that she is not part of this culture and everything about it seems unfamiliar. The "words ... drifted by': "separate", "fragmented" which reflect her internal emotions of confusion and uncertainty as she is unable to make sense of the situation around her. Devi’s "increasing isolation" is shown as she cannot "draw attention to herself" as she is overpowered by the dominant black culture characterised by "loud voices" and "music ". By the end of the extract Devi’s separation becomes permanent as she "sets" herself "apart from the other". Therefore her emotional development is paralleled by a development in her relationship with the people surrounding her as well as dramatizing the contrast between the dominating black culture and her inability to fit in as she remains in a paradoxical situation "surrounded by people" yet "in increasing isolation".

A particularly powerful element through which this cultural hierarchy is established is through the use of dialogue, as the black woman s voice predominates. Devi seems to remain passive as she hears all their "conversations" about "being black in white America". This is ironic as they themselves are effectively outsiders in a white culture but yet they are unable to accept Devi as she is different to them. Devi is fascinated by this "intense young woman" who embodies the black culture with her "spectacular head of a hundred plaits". Everything that she says has an aggressive undertone, when she describes the "nurse" with the "polite and freezing" manners and her "icy face". The sense of coldness is juxtaposed with the "black love" which the woman refers to as being "black wealth" showing how proud she is of her own roots and cultures. Even when Devi offers them her gift, the woman reads it as an attack and immediately mocks Devi by stating that "they couldn't bear to have a black god, so they made him blue, huh?" The use of the personal pronoun "they", further emphasized the sense of separation between Devi and the other people as she is not a part of them. This also shows that the woman is aware of the wider social context and prejudices surrounding her but she is still able to be "sure of her rights" and speak up, whilst Devi in opposition remains "quiet" and is merely a passive observer.

The notion of loneliness and isolation is further explored through the presentation of cultural identity. Devi initially recalls her own country as a means of reassuring herself but by the end she is embarrassed by it. She leans "forward", she "listens" and throughout the passage she identifies the woman as something "spectacular", something exotic with her "frizzy, snake-like braids". On a literal level she is able to "admire this beautiful spitfire" but on a more metaphorical level, it reflects her longing to be accepted and her suffering because of her inability to integrate. She feels like an "impostor" and she realizes that she cannot pretend to be something that she is not. The climax of this cultural tension is reached when she presents the "Indian gift" to the "host", effectively sharing a small part of her own culture with them and she suddenly exposes herself. Her own perspective changes and for the first time she sees the "blue, baby-faced man on the cloth, bare-chested and crowned with a peacock feather" become a "grotesque figure" of a "grown man, practically naked wearing a perpetual baby mask". This transformation parallels the development in Devl's feelings as she is herself trying to put up a "mask" and be someone that she is not, by the end of the passage she is ashamed of her own identity as her desire to integrate intensifies. The mask is "perpetual" it is everlasting; this adjective also builds up to the concluding sentence which establishes the finality of her separation within this community.

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