HSC English Advanced – T.S. Eliot Study Guide

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HSC English Advanced – T.S. Eliot Study Guide

Introduction

A renowned Modernist poet, T.S. Eliot may be one of the most recognisable names in the world of literature. Critics have claimed that his works are able to simultaneously appeal to the audience of his time while touching on themes that are universally experienced. Not only is the exploration of the prominent themes in his poems incredibly poignant and relevant, but most agree this Eliot’s mastery over the English language makes him one of the greats. For these reasons, Eliot’s poetry demonstrates a strong sense of textual complexity to audiences and was hence selected as one of the prescribed texts for Module B, or Critical Study of Literature. The role of the student in this module is to analyse in great depth a single text or body of work and evaluate its cultural significance. Note that, in this case, we refer to all five prescribed poems – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Preludes, Rhapsody on a Windy Night, The Hollow Men and Journey of the Magi – as one, single text. It is extremely important that the student knows this text well enough that they can take on the role of a critic and be able to contribute an original idea about their personal interpretation of the prescribed text.

In this study guide, we will deconstruct the key aspects of the Critical Study of Literature rubric and how they relate to Eliot’s poetry. Then, the key prominent themes of the text will be explored. Lastly, we will look at what to expect when sitting Paper 2, as well as a general guide to writing responses for this module.

Initial considerations

No matter which text you are assigned as your prescribed text, it must be analysed in terms of the Critical Study of Literature rubric. Some initial considerations you should deliberate before writing a response in order to consolidate your understanding of the poems and the module include:

  • Your personal response to the text – again, the most important aspect of this rubric is your ability to convey to the marker what you think of the text
    • What are the poems about?
    • What are the poems trying to say?
    • Are the poems attempting to influence audiences to react in a certain way?
    • How do your personal experiences affect the way in which you interpret the poems?
  • Eliot’s purpose(s) in creating the poems – is it to provide commentary on social and political issues, spark a certain emotion in responders, challenge cultural beliefs and stereotypes, create art for art’s sake or a culmination of all of the above?
  • The literary significance of the poems (awards, accolades, critical and commercial reception) – what do the broader responses mean? Why does society regard the text as being important or notable?
  • Responses to the poems and how they have changed over time
  • How form, structure, genre and style deeply influence the ways in which messages, themes and ideas are depicted by the composer and interpreted by the responder
  • Consider why Eliot chose to tell this story through the medium of poetry, rather than a play, novel or film

 

An evaluation of some key terms

In Module B, you may come across various terms that will be central to the unit of study. They may initially seem very vague and confusing. This is partially because these terms have various definitions – none of which are unanimously agreed upon. It would therefore be a good idea to familiarise yourself with what each term means and ask how it can apply to Eliot’s poetry.

  • Cultural significance – the aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value of a text
    • What makes your text interesting, unique or important?
    • Would the world be the same if this text had never been created? Why/why not?
  • Literary canon – the body of texts considered to be ‘high culture’ or have achieved the status of being ‘classics’
    • What texts do you think belong in the literary canon? Why/why not?
    • At what point does a text become a classic?
    • What issues of diversity come with the literary canon? Is it good to take an elitist attitude towards texts in this way?
  • Textual integrity – the ability of a text to unify content, form and purpose into one coherent message
    • Why is it important to consider all aspects of the text when analysing it?
    • Do you think these three elements complement each other in Eliot’s poetry?

Background to T.S. Eliot

Composer’s context

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in Saint Louis, Missouri on 26th September 1888. The youngest of the seven children, Eliot was born into a family that emphasised the importance of achievement and history. Unsurprisingly, he was educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Merton College, Oxford, eventually settling in London. It was around this time that he converted to the Anglican faith, which would go on to influence the subtext of many of his works.

Beyond his personal context, the fact that Eliot wrote during the Modernist period was of great significance to his works. Modernism occurred around the late 1800s and mid 1900s. Put simply, this was a global movement that grew from society’s reactions to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of World War I, amongst other major historical events. Generally speaking, individuals were feeling a great sense of dramatic change, which led them to want to branch away from ‘realistic’ portrayals of the human condition and try to approach the issue in a more experimental way. Modernism also saw a great sense of conflict in many senses – there was both eagerness to move towards the future and nostalgia for the past; a desire to find one’s purpose and a growing realisation that life is meaningless; rejecting social norms whilst wanting to fit into society. These are all themes that are extremely prominent in the five prescribed poems.

As a result, understanding the composer’s history and context is relevant to the close study of the play as you can make more informed linked about what choices the composer made, and why. For example, the Modernism movement and other Modernism composers like Ezra Pound undoubtedly influenced the experimental style of Eliot’s poetry, which often rejects traditional meaning and narrative structure. Hence, you should consider undertaking further research regarding Eliot’s personal and historical context to truly understand the poems in an in-depth fashion.

Literary significance

Eliot’s poetry has had undeniable critical success and recognition. Amongst other works, these poems won Eliot some of the most prestigious awards possible, including:

  • Order of Merit (1948)
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964)
  • The Legion of Honour (1951)
  • Nobel Prize in Literature (1948)

 

Clearly, these Eliot’s works and these poems have had a profound cultural impact on audiences. The fact that Eliot’s poetry has been so critically acclaimed suggests that everyday people use it as a medium through which they can better understand the human condition. That is, it is important to consider how the poetic suite has established itself as being a ‘significant’ literary text through its exploration of complex themes using complex techniques, devices and stylistic choices.

Deconstructing the rubric

As with any text, we must first look to the Critical Study of Literature rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric, so it is imperative that we study the links between Eliot’s poetry and the major points in the Critical Study of Literature rubric. The rubric is as follows:

‘In this module, students develop detailed analytical and critical knowledge, understanding and appreciation of a substantial literary text. Through increasingly informed and personal responses to the text in its entirety, students understand the distinctive qualities of the text, notions of textual integrity and significance.

Students study one prescribed text. Central to this study is the close analysis of the text’s construction, content and language to develop students’ own rich interpretation of the text, basing their judgements on detailed evidence drawn from their research and reading. In doing so, they evaluate notions of context with regard to the text’s composition and reception; investigate and evaluate the perspectives of others; and explore the ideas in the text, further strengthening their informed personal perspective.

Students have opportunities to appreciate and express views about the aesthetic and imaginative aspects of the text by composing creative and critical texts of their own. Through reading, viewing or listening they critically analyse, evaluate and comment on the text’s specific language features and form. They express complex ideas precisely and cohesively using appropriate register, structure and modality. They draft, appraise and refine their own texts, applying the conventions of syntax, spelling and grammar appropriately.

Opportunities for students to engage deeply with the text as a responder and composer further develops personal and intellectual connections with the text, enabling them to express their considered perspective of its value and meaning.’

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will deconstruct what the statement actually means and, most importantly, how you can apply it to the poems.

Understanding and appreciating a substantial literary text

  • Potential question: ‘Without the ability to appreciate art, we lose the ability to feel truly connected to the universe.’ Explore this statement in relation to T.S. Eliot’s poetry. In your response, focus on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and at least ONE other prescribed poem of your choice.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students develop detailed analytical and critical knowledge, understanding and appreciation of a substantial literary text.’

Essentially, what this rubric statement means is you will be tested on how well you know the poems and are able to engage in meaningful discussions about them. Although it is necessary in every module for you to know your text in great detail, Module B is perhaps the most important when it comes to this.

There are various ways in which you can become informed about your text. Make sure you employ as many as techniques as you can, if not all of them:

  • Read/view the poems more than once and write good notes about it
  • Engage with critic readings
  • Discuss the text with teachers and peers
    • Try to understand or listen to others’ opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. Then, ask yourself why you disagree – precisely what evidence from the poems makes you believe what you believe?
  • Keep notes throughout the term so that you can reflect on how your understanding of the poems has changed
  • Research the composer’s personal and historical context, as well as the form of the text
  • Ensure that your work is read by as many people as possible, whether that be teachers, peers or tutors

It should also be noted that there is a difference between understanding and appreciating a text. Understanding a text is quite straightforward – what is the text about? What are its main themes, messages and textual features? What techniques did Eliot use to get his point across? Attempting to understand each poem should be the first thing you do.

However, to elevate your responses to a Band 6 response, you must learn how to also appreciate the text. Here, you must apply that knowledge you have about the poems and evaluate it. Explain to the marker why you think the text is significant to society. Discuss the cultural impact of the text, whether that be its ability to provide a nuanced commentary on the effects of city life on individuals or touch on universal themes like despair in order to reach a wide audience. Consider the different perspectives of the text that exist, and then form your own.

The distinctive qualities of a text

  • Potential question: In your opinion, what aspects of your prescribed text make it unique, distinctive and memorable?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students understand the distinctive qualities of the text, notions of textual integrity and significance.’

Every text is unique and different. This should be obvious to any person. In regards to this rubric statement, try to think about what makes Eliot’s poetry memorable. This may be its iconic personas like Prufrock or its clever interpretations of themes such as religion. However, you might start to realise that texts are unique beyond their content (e.g. themes, characters). The poems’ personal styles, genre, tone, rhythm, musicality, structure and techniques make it distinctive from other texts with similar themes.

Your job, as the student, is to identify features like this that separate Eliot’s poetry from others. Then, you must examine why Eliot chose to subvert expectations this way and what kind of implications it has on the text’s reception by audiences. It may be helpful for you to go through this checklist:

  • How are the poems similar to other texts?
  • What was surprising to you about the poems?
  • What were the most memorable aspects of the poems to you?
  • What purpose do the poems serve by subverting expectations?
  • Were there any aspects of the form that were unique?
  • Was there something about the poems that hadn’t been done before?
  • What relevance does this have to Eliot’s context (hint: consider the Modernist era and what that entailed)

Overall, you may look to both the ideas within the poems as well as their structural features and forms. After all, you must be able to analyse the connection between the ‘construction, content and language’ of the text. This is where the concept of textual integrity becomes extremely important. Refer to the earlier definition in part 1.3 if you need a reminder of what this term means. Ultimately, when you write your response in Module B, you must consider and incorporate all elements of the poems in order to provide a meaningful analysis.

Textual form and language features

  • Potential question: Discuss the significance of form and how it can be manipulated by composers to portray important themes. In your response, make close reference to THREE of T.S. Eliot’s prescribed poems.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Through reading, viewing or listening students critically analyse, evaluate and comment on the text’s specific language features and form.’

As mentioned before, the form of a text – that is, features of the text that relate to its structure, style, genre or techniques – is an extremely important feature that should not be dismissed. After all, a really interesting, clever story idea would not matter if the author does not know how to tell the story in an engaging way. Discussing form in an answer is certainly ideal, but not essential unless the question specifically asks for it. Even still, it should always be considered whilst undertaking a study of the texts and explored whenever possible. Common features or tropes that can be found in Eliot’s poetry include, but are not limited to:

  • Poetic conventions
    • Musicality and sound devices
      • Rhyme
      • Rhythm
      • Metre
      • Alliteration
      • Assonance
    • Figurative language
      • Symbolism
      • Metaphor
      • Personification
      • Simile
    • Context
      • Modernism
        • Experimentation
        • Themes about change, industrialisation and purpose
        • Conflict and the fracturing of society
        • Stream of consciousness

It is not enough to simply state these aspects of the poems. You must analyse its genre and context and understand how every sequence of the work is a deliberate choice made by Eliot to contribute to these features (or, perhaps, challenge or pioneer them). Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as decisions made in order to most effectively tell the message Eliot wanted to tell. These techniques aid composers in exploring universal themes as a medium through which they can communicate with the responder.

Your personal response

  • Potential question: Write a series of three or four reflections that detail how your personal response and connection to T.S. Eliot’s poetry has evolved over time. You will base your essay on The Hollow Men and ONE other prescribed poem of your choice.
  • Rubric statements from which the question is derived from: ‘Central to this study is the close analysis of the text’s construction, content and language to develop students’ own rich interpretation of the text … They evaluate notions of context with regard to the text’s composition and reception; investigate and evaluate the perspectives of others; and explore the ideas in the text, further strengthening their informed personal perspective … Opportunities for students to engage deeply with the text as a responder and composer further develops personal and intellectual connections with the text, enabling them to express their considered perspective of its value and meaning.’

What separates Module B the most from other units of study is the fact it requires you to form your own, personal opinion about whichever text you are studying. With every other module, you are still required to analyse and become familiar with your prescribed text. However, Critical Study of Literature is unique in that you are allowed and encouraged to convey your personal response to the text’s themes, message and impact.

Think of how Eliot’s poetry has challenged you personally, or how it has made you feel. What parts of the text did you enjoy? It may be the fact that the five poems offer a progression of sorts of Eliot’s personal religious journey. Perhaps, it is Eliot’s ability to convey contrasting, paradoxical ideas simultaneously. Or, most likely, your personal enjoyment of the text stems from a combination of various aspects of the poems.

Draw on your own experiences, memories and values to evaluate how the poems have impacted you as an individual. By doing so, you are showing to the marker that you have established a personal connection to the text in a unique way that could not have been achieved with any other student. Note that the rubric also states the importance of developing an ‘intellectual connection’ with the text, meaning you must be able to express to the marker what the text has taught you. Perhaps, it may have even made you a better writer. Regardless, the notion of forming a personal response to the play is arguably the most important, defining aspect of Module B.

Prominent themes

Conflict and the fracturing of society

Arguably, the most prominent theme that can be found in all five poems is that of conflict and the fracturing of society. What these terms mean is, essentially, Eliot held the view that humanity was at its breaking point, which is reflected in both the inner psyches of the personas and their external world. Even the structural aspects of each poem suggest this sense of conflict or fracturing. For example, in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, there is a lack of coherent narrative structure. Similarly, Preludes is structured in a way that each stanza shifts persona, creating a fractured tone. Eliot’s use of these devices is also embedded subtly and artfully throughout Rhapsody on a Windy Night. By reducing the modern world to a ‘broken spring // Hard and curled and ready to snap,’ not only does the metonymy suggest that, at our core, we are little more than impersonal and expendable objects, but the polysyndeton climaxing towards the plosive consonant of ‘snap’ suggests that humanity will inevitably break. This is therefore a musically and conceptually jarring idea that Eliot confronts his audience with – the reason society seems so fractured and disillusioned in the fact of modernity is because it forces humanity on an ambiguous tightrope, the verge of ‘snapping’ at any, unknown point.

Likewise, Prufrock sees a broken persona that zoomorphises himself to a ‘pair of ragged claws.’ The metonymy asserts that Prufrock sees himself like a crab and can therefore only move sideways but never progress. More importantly, his sense of self is fractured to the point that he can only understand it in dissected parts, much like a ‘patient etherised on a table.’ By appealing to his audience’s fractured view of the world, however, Eliot is able to connect and engage with the individuals of his context more effectively.

Change

As mentioned earlier, Eliot’s Modernist context saw a great deal of change in various respects. While this was, at times, welcomed and celebrated, there was also an inner conflict towards the negative effects of this change on humanity.

Effects of industrialisation on individuals and communities

The Industrial Revolution was a period of rapid technological advancements, many of which we owe current technology to. This paved the way for a clearly defined cityscape, and with the establishment of cities came the deterioration of agrarian life small communities. Consequently, many criticised the Industrial Revolution, including Eliot. These people believed that the feeling of connectedness and belonging that once defined the human spirit had died in the face of modernisation. Individuals begun to feel more isolated and communities more fractured.

This is clearly reflected in Eliot’s works, as each poem makes several references to the vast, empty and soulless cityscape. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Preludes are even set against the distinct backdrop of skyscrapers, concrete pavements and businessmen. Commentary on the effects of industrialisation is further seen in The Hollow Men, which depicts the downfall of humanity in the midst of the Modernist era. The anaphora and desert imagery in ‘This is the dead land // This is the cactus land’ could be interpreted as literal depiction of ‘Death’s kingdom’ in its barren futility. However, many argue it can similarly be seen as a criticism of the fact that the age of modernity incited a society that was directionless, impersonal and, ultimately, ‘dry.’

This notion resonates throughout all of his poems, including Journey of the Magi, which is particularly pessimistic about the sudden change in modern society that thrusted humanity into an age of doubt and fear. Focusing on distinctly alienating cityscape in ‘The cities hostile and the towns unfriendly,’ the unusual syntax of such statements emphasise quite subtly the wayward nature of modern society as they continue to become decreasingly personal and increasingly unfamiliar to the individual.

Time

Another aspect of change that coincided with that of the Industrial Revolution was time. This concept is masterfully portrayed as a constant façade that all humankind incessantly partakes in, despite knowing that no amount of time will make their impact on the world worthwhile. The dramatic monologue that is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock captures the very essence of this dilemma that Modern man faces. The persona fears his relationship with society will be disrupted by the lack of time to prove his worth, as seen by the internal monologue of ‘[They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’],’ another clear example of the use of the stream of consciousness to provide an insightful portrayal of the individual’s psyche. Yet, he then continues to tell himself that ‘indeed, there will be time,’ a clear indication that the Eliot’s audience consistently lie to themselves by asserting that their existences will, eventually, be meaningful and impactful on the external world—hence, the repeated lyrical motif/refrain punctuating the poem.

This relationship between mankind and time as ultimately a façade is similarly portrayed in Preludes, where Eliot artfully dubs it a ‘masquerade // that time exists.’ The metaphor likens how we approach the external world to nought more than a perpetual pretence, particularly in consideration to the impersonal and routine ‘trampling feet’ that defines the ‘grimy’ world created in the poem. Thus, this exploration of the fractured relationship between the individual and the external ‘reality’ of time is one that is able to engage extremely well with a specific audience which, in turn, allows it to be appreciated time and time again.

Purpose, meaning and Nihilism

Eliot also explores thematic notions of agency, autonomy and purpose. He ultimately adopts a rather Nihilistic (the belief that nothing in life matters) tone. Indeed, both The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Preludes rely on Eliot’s distinctly urban settings at the time to portray this notion. However, the impersonal external world is nought more than a physical manifestation of the alienated internal psyche and sense of identity, meaning the poetry’s engagement with audiences is not restricted to Eliot’s immediate context — it is effective in that it has a universal appeal. When Prufrock, who represents the everyman, asks, ‘How should I begin // To spit out the butt-ends of my days and ways,’ the rhetorical questioning, an example of Eliot’s consistent use of the stream of consciousness, depicts a distinctly urban setting in which the individual feels as though their purpose and impact on the world is essentially negligible, able to be discarded as easily as a cigarette butt. However, it is important to also note the irony in this and in Prufrock’s persona—Eliot criticises the fallibility of all mankind as they, despite their awareness that they have little agency over themselves and the world, continue to live lives that can be metaphorically ‘measured out in coffee spoons.’

This fractured relationship can similarly be seen in Preludes, where Eliot explores the notion that, ultimately, individual actions have no purpose in consideration of the grand scheme of existence. ‘Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh [at the infinitely suffering thing],’ he orders, the use of black humour artfully making light of this reality. Eliot asserts to his ‘infinitely’ responding readers that attempting to repair the fractured relationship between the individual psyche and the external world is futile—an ironically humorous meta-awareness that his own poetry strives to do exactly that. As such. Eliot artfully explores various complex and conflicting questions of purpose, meaning and Nihilism.

Religion

Although this theme is not as prominent as some of the other concepts discussed in this section, religion still plays an important role in helping us understand Eliot’s poetry. This is, undeniably, most clearly seen in Journey of the Magi, which literally reimagines the story of the Three Wise Kings from the Bible. In this poem, Eliot somewhat subverts notions he previously held – the tone of this piece is surprisingly optimistic, at least compared to the others. After all, it came at a time in Eliot’s personal journey with religion where he was rediscovering his Christianity. Nonetheless, the rewarding journey that the persona undergoes (a reflection of Eliot’s own personal journey back to Christianity) is similarly shrouded in doubt. ‘Were we led all that way for // Birth or Death,’ the Magus questions, revealing that even reaching this newfound sense of growth does not give us immediate gratification or wholeness. The persona is greatly surprised at the bittersweet nature of this journey and how this renaissance can, in fact, feel quite like a ‘death.’ In other words, Eliot, despite reverting back to Christianity, did not believe that religion was necessarily the ‘answer’ to life’s questions.

Writing a Critical Study of Literature response

What to expect from Paper 2

Now that you have familiarised yourself with precisely what NESA is asking of you in this module and in the poems, you should know what to expect from Paper 2. The following is a summary of key points about Paper 2:

  • Paper 2 consists of three sections
    • Section I – Module A response
    • Section II – Module B response
    • Section III – Module C response
  • It will be 2 hours of writing time, with an additional 5 minutes reading time (you will not be able to mark your page in any way during this time)
    • This means you should be devoting approximately 40 minutes to each section. While you don’t have to evenly divide time between the three modules, we recommend that you stick to this guideline as much as possible
  • All parts are out of 20 marks each
  • You must only write in blue or black pen

 

Being a guide to Module B, this study guide will focus on Section II. This section is relatively straightforward in that you are given one question only. However, you may be expected to write in a variety of forms, such as a full essay with an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion, personal reflection, a creative response or any other type of persuasive form. Another note to keep in mind is that you will typically be asked to focus on two or three poems in a single essay, which are sometimes specified. Regardless, all questions will draw from any aspect of the Critical Study of Literature rubric (including specifying form!), though it may sometimes include quotes and extracts or rewrite statements from the rubric in a different way. You must come prepared having studied Eliot’s poetry in great depth. After all, Module B essentially evaluates how much you know about a single work of literature.

 

Constructing an essay

In any English essay, the following structure should generally be followed.

  • Introduction: 6 sentences maximum, approximately 150 words
    • General statement about the module (e.g. ‘Literature has the ability to make its mark on the world in more ways than one.’)
    • Thesis statement that defines key terms of the question and makes a judgement on the question asked
    • Introduction of the text
      • Text and composer (T.S. Eliot’s poetry), date of publication and form (Modernist poem)
      • Clearly specify which poems you will focus on in the following response
    • Brief explanation of 3 – 4 arguments
      • What idea you will use to centre your body paragraphs around – this may be a specific theme, poem or structural feature
    • Conclude using an evaluative adverb to demonstrate how you will develop a thoughtful response
  • 3 – 4 body paragraphs: 200 – 300 words
    • Topic sentence: explicitly reference language from the question, restate your thesis in terms of your theme
    • Context/elaborate sentence(s): emphasise more specifically what you mean by the topic sentence, especially in terms of what happens in the play. Two sentences maximum
    • Analysis: using evidence to support your topic and elaboration sentences—there must be a direct link or progression of logic made between the analysis and the argument. Deconstruct at least two quotes, but ensure that you are focused on quality over quantity
    • Concluding sentence: use an evaluative adverb such as purposefully, cleverly, insightfully (e.g. Significantly, this text projects the necessity of … ) in order to assess the question and your argument as a whole
  • Conclusion
    • Re-address main ideas/topic sentences of body paragraphs
    • Make an overall judgement about the poems in terms of the question
    • Optional: finish with an insightful afterthought about the role of texts in allowing us to better understand the human condition

Of course, this is only a general guide to writing a sound essay. As frustrating as it can be to hear, there is simply no single scaffold you can follow to impress a marker, as each module will have different requirements, every student’s writing style will differ, and markers will have different tastes.

The most important advice to keep in mind when writing an essay is to have a strong thesis. Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is, not simply a restatement of the question. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the play. If you state this thesis at throughout your body paragraphs (not simply the topic and concluding sentences), your essay will have a strong argument and persuade the marker that you are confident in your case. It is similarly important to ensure that your arguments always come back to Critical Study of Literature. That is, you should be able to clearly explain how your quotes or ideas are relevant to the themes in your prescribed text.

Personal reflections

Over the course of this study guide, the notion of ‘personal responses’ have been emphasised a lot. In fact, this aspect of the module is so important that it is very possible that you will be asked to write a personal reflection of your text. When writing in this form, you must remember that it is not the same thing as an essay – the structure, tone and purpose of personal reflections are completely different.

 

Firstly, there is no strict introduction-body-conclusion structure that you should follow. You may choose to simply write your response in normal paragraphs. Your paragraphs can be in chronological order – that is, they detail the progression of your learning over time – or they can be grouped thematically like you would in an essay. You still need quotes, examples and analyses, but you do not have to follow PEEL or any other paragraph structure. Above all, write what feels natural to you.

The tone of the personal reflection should be, obviously, quite personal. You may use first-person pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘my,’ which you should avoid when writing formal essays. The way in which you discuss the text should also be more intimate. Instead of describing what the text is about, you should focus more on how it made you personally think and feel. This style of response can also invite colloquial language! Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

These two aspects tie into the purpose of personal responses. Unlike formal essays, which attempt to present the ‘facts’ about a text in a cold, hard way, personal responses should only be used to present how you feel about the prescribed text. You are not just persuading the audience of something (although your response should still serve this purpose!), you are putting forward your own thoughts and perspectives. Hence, your response should reflect this purpose.

Creative response

Creative writing is a skill that is difficult to learn, mostly because of the fact that good stories do not take one form. For example, a saga set in space that deals with questions of morality and justice is not inherently better than a simple story that takes course over an average businessman’s lunch break. Instead, good writing is judged on the overall effectiveness and cohesiveness of a story rather than its specific parts. That is to say, there is no ‘formula’ or scaffold in which you can follow in writing a story as there might be when writing an essay. Each writer will inevitably have different writing styles, quirks and nuances – it is up to you to capitalise on and focus on your strengths, whilst still working on improving your weaknesses, to create an effective piece of writing.

Regardless of the fact that all short stories are extremely different in their plot, style and themes, there are some features that will assist you in writing a more effective story. Firstly, one of the most important characteristics of any good story is having a convincing purpose. That is, though you may not think essay writing and creative writing are the same in any way, both forms actually have a thesis/argument that you are attempting to prove that you are trying to prove to the reader. A short story is, in essence, an essay in action. Your very first step in writing a story is choosing a purpose – in other words, the moral of your story.

Secondly, every engaging story must have a sense of development in either the world or the characters. Without this change, there is no story to be told. A character or a society must have had their values or perspectives on the world challenged, an obstacle to overcome or an event that confronts their fears, beliefs, etc. Your character/world should never be the same from start to finish.

Above all, make sure that you are following the stimulus given instead of simply rewriting a memorised story. Think of what the stimulus inspires in you, as well as how it might be relevant to your prescribed text.

Conclusion

Eliot’s poetry, despite being written a century ago, are works that continue to permeate the opinions, beliefs and thoughts of individuals today. The poet artfully captures what it means to be human in a time of great change and distress. He looks at issues that are relevant to audiences of his era through his distinctly Modernist tone while remaining universally relevant. As a student learning about this module and this great artist’s works, it is not only important to understand the text well, but to explore it through the lens of the Critical Study of Literature rubric. Above all, it is extremely important to maintain a focused attitude and show to markers your personal ideas and beliefs about the poetic suite.

Final tips

  • Avoid writing memorised responses. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay or a creative response
  • Write lots and lots of practise responses. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing responses out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference
  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the texts could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between theme and form
  • When writing a creative response, try to limit your story to 2 – 4 characters, with the main plot not exceeding 24 hours. This way, your story is more manageable and therefore more detailed
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