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Practical criticism

Home > Subject areas > Studying English > Practical criticism

You have probably heard this phrase many times before, but have you ever asked
yourself - What is practical criticism? In this section, you can learn more about this skills
and have a go at it yourself by taking part in it by finding a way into a poem by finding a
theme.

What is practical criticism?

“One of the things you will almost certainly have to do as a student of literature is
‘practical criticism’. Practical criticism is that exercise in which you are given a poem, or
a passage of prose, or sometimes an extract from a play, that you have not seen before
and are asked to write a critical analysis of it. Usually you are not told who wrote the
poem or passage, and usually, too, you are not given any indication of what you might
look for or say. We can sum it up, then, as criticism based on close analysis of a text in
isolation.”

This content has been taken from Practical Criticism by John Peck & Martin Coyle

Finding a way into a poem by finding a theme

The process of studying a poem can be divided into three main steps. Once you are
familar with these steps, try the study trail.

1. Think about the text


When you have finished reading a text, think about it and ask yourself what common
experiences it is dealing with: is it about love, war, marriage or revenge? By thinking
logically and positively, use this step to help you overcome the first problem, I have read
the text, now I should study it: how do I start? This step helps you find a way into
understanding the text.

2. Analyse the text


First, identify words and phrases which led you to choose your theme. Now look at these
closely, analysing in detail to see exactly how they portray the theme you are studying. In
this step your ideas become more precise and detailed because you concentrate on finding
the complexity of different elements which make up the major theme you are interested
in.

3. Relate the part you have studied to the text as a whole


Finally, work out how the part you have studied in detail fits into the text as a whole. This
step should confirm that the detailed ideas you have found are an important part of the
whole work; and because you broaden your outlook again, you develop an understanding
of how the complexity of the theme lives and develops through the whole extent of the
text.

Exercise: Now try out a study-trail

You can practise these three steps for yourself using the study-trail below. As you work,
you can compare your developing analysis with Nicholas Marsh's, author of How to
Begin Studying English Literature, at each stage. Your ideas will probably be different
because you are developing your own train of thought. This does not matter - the
individuality and variety of approaches in studying poetry is part of the excitement. Keep
following the trail, developing ideas others have not thought of, or suddenly finding that
you are on the same track.

This study-trail is about a short poem, so you can try it straight away by clicking on the
following:

A Prayer for Old Age, by W.B. Yeats

• Step 1: Think about the poem

What is a theme of this poem? Think of a big subject which is an important issue in every
person’s life, which is a subject of this poem. (Remember, there can be more than one
answer to this question).

If you want to see the theme the author, Nicholas Marsh chose click here, otherwise carry
on to Step 2.

• Step 2: Analyse the poem

There will have been a phrase, or phrases, or some words, which led you to realise that
the subject you have chosen as a theme is a theme of this poem. What are they?

If you want to see the words and phrases which led the author to choose his theme at this
stage, click here . Otherwise, carry on.

Now look in detail at each of the phrases or words you have written in the box above, and
make notes on each one. For each one, ask:

• What is the meaning (what does it say about the theme)?


• What is the ‘tone of voice’ (or the speaker’s ‘attitude’)? What kind of language is
it (it may be legal language, or colloquial slang; it may be soft-sounding or
clipped and harsh: try to describe the kind of language)?
• Is there an image, metaphor, simile, or symbol - which expresses or develops the
meaning?

Re-read your notes. What conclusions can you formulate about the theme?
If you want to see the author’s notes and analysis, at this stage click here , otherwise,
carry on.

• Step 3: Relate the part you have studied to the text as a whole

Re-read the poem. You will find that some phrases and ideas which were not clear when
you first read it, now have a clear meaning. Think about the part your theme plays in the
whole poem, and how the conclusions you reached in Step 2 contribute to the main
subject and impetus of the poem. Write an explanation of how your theme relates to the
whole poem.

If you want to see the author’s Step 3 explanation, click here.

This content has been taken from How to Begin Studying English Literature by Nicholas
Marsh.

William Butler Yeats - A Prayer For Old Age


God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone;

From all that makes a wise old man


That can be praised of all;
O what am I that I should not seem
For the song's sake a fool?

I pray -- for word is out


And prayer comes round again --
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.

Studying poetry
Home > Subject areas > Studying English > Studying poetry

A poem makes its impact because of the special way in which the poet says what he has
to say. It follows from this that we cannot just talk about the meaning of a poem, but that
we must also look at its language and structure. Indeed, we are unlikely to grasp fully the
content of a poem without considering its form. Unfortunately, examiners know all too
well from the experience of reading hundreds of examination answers, technical analysis
of poetry often amounts to little more than a rather pointless listing of the devices the
poet uses, such as rhyme, alliteration and assonance. Study of form need not, however, be
approached in such an arid way.

You can learn more about various different approaches to studying poets and poetry in:
How to Study a Poet by John Peck

Like other forms of literature though, there are many different types of poetry that have
been produced in different eras. This section helps point you in the right direction
whatever poetry you are studying.

• Modern poetry
• Romantic Poetry
• Chaucer

Modern poetry

Faced by a modern poem that we haven’t seen before, we may begin by posing the
question, ‘What makes this piece of writing a poem?’ The ready answer is an obvious
one, especially if you are a student, for the piece of writing will have been called a poem
on the examination paper, or in the anthology in which it appears; or it may have been
presented in the poetry class.[…] And yet, despite those reassuring contexts, both
students and general readers time and again find themselves unconvinced that modern
poetry really is ‘poetry’. Confronted by a ‘poem’ which does not rhyme, which does not
have a regular metre and which therefore does not sound like a ‘poem’, how are we fully
to accept that piece of writing as poetry?

Tony Curtis explores these issues in depth in How to Study Modern Poetry.

He also provides helpful critical readings of many of the major poems of the post-war
years, by poets such as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Seamus
Heaney, R S Thomas, Dannie Abse and William Carlos Williams.

Romantic Poetry

“Romantic poetry deals with the tensions, hopes and fears of the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries, as felt by a disparate group of men and women. How, though, do
you approach a Romantic poem? What are useful ways to discuss Romantic poetry, and
what if anything do the poets have in common?”

Find out more in Paul O'Flinn' s book How to Study Romantic Poetry.

Chaucer

Who or what is "Chaucer? “If you are just starting a Chaucer text, a quick answer to
this question may help. Otherwise, you may see only the details in front of you and never
see the whole picture. In fact, ‘Chaucer’ is a handy way of referring to a number of rather
different things. It is convenient to distinguish four. First there is Chaucer the man, who
lived and died in the late-fourteenth century: the courtier, soldier, diplomat,
administrator, Knight of the Shire and, of course, poet. Secondly, there is Chaucer the
works, the Chaucer we know from the things he wrote, the texts rather than the man. A
third Chaucer is Chaucer the narrator, the image of himself that Chaucer chose to project
in his poetry - a kind of amiable and artful mask ‘Chaucer the man’ put on when he
appeared in his own works. And finally (alas!) there is Chaucer the exam.” [from How to
Study Chaucer by Rob Pope, chapter 1]

Find out more about all of these Chaucer’s in How to Study Chaucer, in which Rob Pope
helps students get to grips with Chaucer - all the way through from the first tentative
encounters with the language to sophisticated critical and historical engagement with
Chaucer's narrative art in context.

Studying novels
Home > Subject areas > Studying English > Studying novels

One of the most common experience of students of English Literature is to read a novel
and thoroughly enjoy it, but to be at an almost total loss to say what the book is really
about or what things in it are most worthy of note. The natural tendency is then to rely on
guidance from teachers or critics, but this is a poor substitute for constructing a personal
response. developing an individual reading can, however, seem extraordinarily difficult
to the average student, even to the student who is ‘good at English’.

How to Study a Novel by John Peck takes the reader through a set of logical steps that
show you how to respond to, interpret and develop your own view of a novel and how to
present that response in an effective essay.

Ever wanted to get to grips with some of the famous novelists to see what books can help
you with your studies:

• Jane Austen
• Charles Dickens
• E.M. Forster

Jane Austen

If you are reading Jane Austen for the first time the peculiarity and limited social scope of
her world can be off-putting and her concern with the fairly uneventful progress of her
heroine can seem rather unimportant. Yet you quickly find that critics and teachers claim
that these novels offer subtle and incisive social and moral analysis. What can seem far
from clear is just how that is achieved and what form it takes. What makes these novels
different from other enjoyable romantic fiction? Or, for those who don’t find this kind of
fiction particularly appealing anyway, what makes them more than expressions of a
narrow snobbery with no obvious relevance to a modern reader?
Vivien Jones explores these and other questions in How to Study a Jane Austen Novel.
Click here for more general information about Jane Austen.

Charles Dickens

…The broadest pattern that can be observed in a novel is some kind of conflict between
society and one or more individuals within that society. In Dickens’s novels, that conflict
tends to be expressed as a tension between two opposed ideas: on the one hand we find a
broad panorama of lust, greed, desire, show and affectation, and on the other, a sense of
natural simplicity of spirit, of goodness and love for our fellow humans. This opposition
can be simplified even further to the basic conflict between money on the one side, and
love on the other.

Find out more in How to Study a Charles Dickens Novel by Keith Selby

E.M. Forster

It is clear that Forster’s novels are marked by pressures and conflicts that extend beyond
his personal life to his class and his time. They both conform to accepted literary
expectations and beliefs about social reality inherited from the great Victorian novelists
while simultaneously challenging them.

Find out more in How to Study an E. M. Forster Novel by Nigel Messenger

Forster's novels have always given great pleasure to the general reader but they do
present particular problems for those who wish to study them in a more systematic way.
The elusiveness of Forster's irony, the complexity of his symbolism and the formal
ambiguities in structure that are such a marked feature in all his novels, make any
analysis surprisingly challenging. In this book, Nigel Messenger shows you how to set
about this task.

Studying plays
Home > Subject areas > Studying English > Studying plays

Studying plays is another exciting insight into the world of English Literature. There are
many resources out there to help you with your studies, so read on!

• Shakespeare
• Modern drama
• Renaissance drama

Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s four major tragedies are Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. They
are generally recognised as Shakespeare’s finest plays. To understand why, it helps if we
start by thinking about tragedy as a specific form of drama. The pattern of all the plays is
that some action takes place or a character does something that throws life into turmoil.
To express this in the simplest terms, social order prevails at the beginning of the play,
but very quickly we see society in a state of disorder . The effect of this is that a play
makes us think about the complex nature of people and the world we live in; we see the
gap between our ideal notions of a peaceful society and the reality of a world where
people are unruly.

Find out more in How to Study a Shakespeare Play by John Peck & Martin Coyle. This
includes five chapters that illustrate the nature and impact of the new approaches to
Shakespeare that have swept through literary studies in recent years: structuralism, post-
structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, new historicism and cultural materialism.

Modern drama

The precise meaning of the term ‘modern’ caries according to its context. If I were to
drive a 1930s car or to wear clothes that were fashionable only ten years ago you
certainly wouldn’t describe my tastes as modern; yet we usually describe as modern any
play written since 1877! In this particular year the great Norwegian dramatist Ibsen
turned from writing plays in verse to create a series of plays in everyday language dealing
with important social and moral issues. It was the impact of these and similar plays on the
European theatre of the late nineteenth century and the rapid spread of their influence to
Britain, Russia and the United States of America that began the era of ‘modern drama’.

Find out more in Studying Modern Drama by Kenneth Pickering, John Peck and Martin
Coyle

You may also want to go to the Studying modern drama section of this site, which has
been written bt the same author and contains a step by step guide to studying drama, a
quiz, workshop ideas and more useful resources.

Renaissance drama

What does the term Renaissance actually mean? It means ‘rebirth’, and is the word used
to describe the widespread cultural developments which happened all over Europe during
the sixteenth century. These changes occurred as a rather static medieval world yielded to
a more dynamic, energetic modern world built around business, commerce and
exploration. Old values were giving way to new, and the arts found different ways of
expressing these changes and responding to them. Certainly the greatest glory of the
English Renaissance was the unprecedented growth of professional stage drama.

Find out more in How to Study a Renaissance Play by Chris Coles which covers
Marlowe, Jonson and Webster. Coles starts with the basic problem of understanding what
a play is about, and then shows you how to discuss such matters as themes, language
characters and staging.
Language and linguistics
Home > Subject areas > Studying English > Language and linguistics

If you are new to Linguistics as a subject you may well be unsure what it involves. In this
section you can read about how to study linguistics and about some linguistics terms and
concepts so you can get a head start!

How to study linguistics

“One of the extraordinary things about language is the way in which we take it for
granted as though it were a given fact of life like being able to breathe. In a sense this is
inevitable and to a certain extent, perhaps, even desirable. If every time we spoke or
wrote anything we were struck not only by the strangeness or oddness of the words we
were using, but also by the fact that we had the capacity to speak or write at all we should
probably never get anything done. Knowledge advances by making certain processes
automatic, but in so doing it also hides from us their nature and operation, and even their
very existence. “ [from How to Study Linguistics by Geoffrey Finch, chapter 2]

Find out more about these hidden processes in How to Study Linguistics by Geoffrey
Finch. Chapters discuss strategies for studying phonology, syntax and semantics, and for
pursuing branches of linguistics, such as sociolinguistics, stylistics and psycholinguistics,
as well as practical advice on writing essays.

Linguistic terms and concepts

Phoneme / Phonologist
Phonologists examine the systematic relationships between sounds within the grammar of
the language. Of central importance here is the concept of the PHONEME. Phonemes are
abstract units of sound which are part of the mental apparatus of native users of the
language, and which constitute our essential competence as speakers and listeners.
Having said that, however, not all linguists accept their existence. Some prefer to see the
structural relationships between sounds in terms of their distinctive features.

Semantics
Semantic investigation of language operates at two grammatical ranks: word rank, and
sentence rank. At word rank semanticists explore the relationships which words have
with each other within the language as a whole. This constitutes their SENSE, that is, the
meaning which a word has by virtue of its place in the linguistic system.

Stylistics
Stylistics is concerned with using the methodology of linguistics to study the concept of
‘style’ in language. Every time we use language we necessarily adopt a style of some
sort: we make a selection from a range of syntactic and lexical possibilities according to
the purpose of the communication.
These sample definitions are taken from Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics by
Geoffrey Finch

An invaluable glossary full of significant liguistic terms and concepts, the book also
provides a very useful overview of the subject as well as covering principal figures in
linguistic criticism and their contribution to the subject. An ideal companion to How to
Study Linguistics.