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HOW TO READ AND COMMENT ON A LITERARY TEXT IN ENGLISH

1. Introduction: the aim of a literary commentary


The aim of a literary commentary is not to reproduce your class notes
about the author, the text or the literary period analysed. Rather, it is to
present your personal reflections upon the text, using your own words
and formulating, if possible, your own hypothesis and conclusions. New
ideas and approaches will be most welcomed!
This does not mean that class notes should be neglected: they will be
extremely useful to contextualise the text or identify and explain the style
of the author, etc. If you have been given any additional bibliographical
references, work with them and incorporate them within your commentary:
this will make your essay look academic, and since you are philologists,
this is essential.
The commentary must focus on the text chosen, which must be fully
exploited. When writing academic essays, many students include lots of
information about the literary period, the author and the main features of
his/her style, but they completely forget to apply this information to the
text. Remember that your teachers know all that theory: they want to see
how you respond to that particular text!
A commentary is not an outline, however detailed it may be. It must
show that your writing is mature, and that you can express yourself
properly in English: you have to write full paragraphs, use connectors, and
avoid telegraphic style. YOU ARE PHILOLOGISTS.
Do not worry about writing too much. The quality of a literary commentary
does not have anything to do with its length!
2. The first stage: READING
A basic assumption
Being a Philologist entails loving language and literature, so I take it that
you will not find it difficult to follow these simple pieces of advice:
2.1. Relaxed reading or reading for pleasure:
The first time you face a literary text, you must read it for pleasure, in a
relaxed why. Do not try to understand every single word and stick to the
dictionary from the very first moment. Do not start looking for literary
figures, biographical data, etc. Just try to penetrate into its essence. You
should ask yourselves questions like these: What is the text about? What is
its message? What do I find most attractive? Is there anything especially

noticeable? Can it be connected in any way with what I do or what I feel as


a human being?
After this first reading, try to summarise in three or four lines the message
of the text on a piece of paper. It is very important to use YOUR OWN
WORDS. We shall use this paragraph as an introduction to our commentary,
so make it personal and attractive.
2.2. Reading to find relevant information:
In the second reading, which marks the beginning of our philological work,
we must start to note down the most relevant information contained in the
text. Normally, your teachers will give you a text with numbered lines or
paragraphs. If they have not done so, I strongly recommend you to do it,
since this will facilitate reading and marking your commentaries.
Obviously, the first question would be: what is relevant information? Here
you are some examples:
Are there any lines or paragraphs that could be considered key or
central? There are some occasions in which just three words
epitomise everything and contain the message of the text! Explain
why you consider them important.
Biographical data: does the author refer to his/her life at some point,
whether directly or indirectly? Why are these biographical data
important?
Contextual information: do we find some references to the historical
period in which the text was written? Can we find something typical
of the political, cultural, artistic or social sensibility of the period to
which the text belongs?
Make a list of all the literary resources, figures of thought, etc. that
appear in the text. At the same time, try to explain why the author
uses them. Imagine that you find alliteration of the phoneme /s/ in a
poem. The corresponding explanations could be S/he wishes to
create a poem which appeals to our senses/to imitate the sound of
the wind/to convey a sensation of quietude or peace/ etc.
Whenever you note down relevant information, specify between brackets
the line of the text in which it appears, i. e. (l. 7). Now you have a draft. It
is time to exploit and enrich it.
3. The commentary:
3.1. About the presentation of information:
Information must be presented in a very clear and ordered way: for
example, you cannot start to speak about a metaphor which conveys a
feeling of melancholy without having mentioned first that the topic
addressed by the poem or the fragment is melancholy. Which order should
be followed, thus?

3.2. A proposal for ordering information:


3.2.1. An attractive introduction:
Begin by specifying what the message or the topic addressed by the text is.
Go to the lines you wrote after your first reading, polish them and
incorporate them as an introduction. Make it as attractive as you can.
Remember that the first impression that teachers get when reading a
commentary is really important.
3.2.2. Characterisation and placement of the text within the works
by the author analysed and the historical period in which it was
written:
a) Characterisation of the text:
If you are analysing a poem, and you have identified the type of
stanza used by the poet, comment on it (i.e., this is a sonnet, which
was a favourite stanza in the Elizabethan period). If you are dealing
with prose, specify its genre and explain whether we are facing a
description, a key narrative moment within a novel, etc.
b) Placement of the text within the works by the author analysed:
To which work does the fragment selected belong? Why is this work
important or significant? Characterise it briefly. If you think that any
biographical data of the author discussed could be useful to
understand the text, this is the moment to incorporate them, but do
not insert a summary of the authors life, because we can find this in
the anthologies and encyclopaedias. You have to be original and
critical. For example, imagine we are analysing a fragment of John
Miltons Paradise Lost where we find many invocations to light. It
would be useful to mention that Milton was a blind man when he
wrote Paradise Lost and, for that reason, light had a very special
significance for him.
c) Contextual information:
Does the text reflect some key aspects of the historical, social,
cultural or artistic sensibility of the period in which it was written? You
can use your class notes and the bibliography provided by your
teachers, but, as I have previously recommended, select key aspects
which might be relevant to understand the text analysed. We do not
need a whole description of the period! If there was a very important
war at the time, and it is mentioned in the poem or the novel, just
expand on that idea.
3.2.3. Textual analysis
This is a very important part of the commentary. As philologists, we need to
prove that we know how to establish a good relationship between form and
content. Your teachers will have provided you with a list of important
literary resources used by writers. Use it, but always in connection with the
main idea of the text analysed, because a list of isolated literary resources,
without a corresponding interpretation of their use, is useless.

Let us clarify this point: imagine that we are analysing a poem which deals
with love seen as a painful experience. Which literary resources or figures
convey that feeling? If there is a metaphor in which, for example, love is
identified with a dark cloud, incorporate it into your commentary, and
explain that it helps convey the authors view on love as a painful feeling.
Try to do the same with every literary figure. If you consider that there is
one literary figure which is especially important or noticeable, comment on
it. Finally, if there are any metrical conventions, figures of thought, etc.
typical of the period in which the text was written, put them all together
and explain that they were fashionable at the time.
Literary figures are important, but we may also find other aspects worth
commenting on. This is not Maths, so there is no magic formula, but you
can also speak about things like these:
Does the text appeal to our senses? Is it visual? Does it encourage
readers to imagine and create their own personal images?
Are there any images/moments which are especially noticeable,
lyrical or beautiful?
What about the vocabulary used? Is it clearly related to a specific
semantic field which intensifies the meaning of the text?
What else? Everything that, from a formal point of view, you consider
relevant, attractive, memorable or important.
3.2.4. The conclusion:
There is no choice: a good conclusion must appear at the end of the
commentary. This position is dangerous, because we tend to write our
conclusions in a hurry. Yet, the conclusion is extremely important. In most
occasions your teachers will remember your commentary by the last words
you wrote. So, what can we do to write a good conclusion? Here you are,
some golden rules:
The conclusion must never be a repetition of things which you have
previously written. This would make your essay redundant and
monotonous, and the general impression would be negative.
The conclusion must summarise your critical opinion about the text.
That is, you should explain whether you consider the text important
or relevant for English literary history, for the period in which it was
written or for your present reality (remember that negative opinions
about the text are also welcomed providing that, like positive
judgments, they are adequately justified and supported by textual
evidence).
Does the text contain a philosophy or a message which is useful for
you as a human being?
You can also discuss whether the text has enriched your world view in
any way. As Hillis Miller has pointed out, a literary work is not, as
many people may assume, an imitation of words of some pre-existing
reality but, on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new,
supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality. This new world is

an irreplaceable addition to the already existing one (2002: 18). 1


Has the text created something new in you?
Do you think that the formal features of the text contribute to
intensifying its meaning?
These are only some simple ideas. You can write brilliant conclusions if you
take into account your feelings and impressions and present them in an
attractive way. You can also finish with a memorable sentence, for example:
In sum, Oroonoko, written in a century of imperialist conquests,
dramatises the unfairness of slavery and encourages us to fight against
oppression and social injustice. We cannot feel indifferent.
4. About the language and the style of the commentary:
A literary commentary must, above all, be academic. Which aspects make
the style of a commentary academic?
Colloquial expressions must be avoided. For example, do not write a
metaphor is when the author uses the words in a figurative way.
Write instead a metaphor is a literary figure used to.
Do not try to write very long or very complicated sentences because
they may give rise to grammatical mistakes. Pay attention to
punctuation (commas and semicolons DO EXIST!!!).
Use linkers and avoid repetitions of the same structures or formulas.
If you have used for example three times, change to for instance.
Once you have written your essay, re-read it and correct any serious
grammatical mistakes you might have made (see the list of serious
mistakes attached).
Indent the first line of every paragraph.
Avoid using the personal pronoun I too much. There will be
occasionsfor example in the conclusionwhere it will be necessary,
but a slightly impersonal style is preferred. Instead of writing I can
say that write it can be argued that.
5. On the use of bibliographical references:
The incorporation of the ideas and opinions of some literary critics within
your commentary will be really appreciated, since it will show that you have
worked with the bibliographical references suggested by your teacher and
deepened into the study of the author analysed. This means that you are
critical and that class notes are not everything for you!
There are two places where bibliographical references can be included:
within the main body of the text (quotations and in-text citations) and
immediately after the conclusion, in the Works Cited list.

Hillis Miller, J. 2002. On Literature. London: Routledge.

In-text citations must appear between inverted commas (). If you


are copying textually (quotations) but need to suppress some of the
original words, use the following convention []. After the quotation
include the following information between brackets: (Authors
surname Year of publication: page number in which the words quoted
appear).
Shakespeares works are [] open to reality in its
widest sense: to all five senses and all faculties
comprised by man []. Here the homo sapiens dwells
deeply in the homo somnians, man of dreams. Dreams
(fiction, myths) overlap with the real, but still transcend
the real we know, to open new horizons. (Talvet 2003:
138)

Works Cited list:


Have you worked with a book? Use, for example, the following format:
Barth, J. 1982. The Literature of Exhaustion and the Literature of
Replenishment. Northridge: Lord John Press.
With a chapter within a book?
Beer, G. 1997. Representing Women: Re-presenting the Past. The
Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary
Criticism, edited by C. Belsey and J. Moore. Houndmills: Macmillan.
77-90.
With an article?
Benedict, B. M. 1995. Reading Faces: Physiognomy and
Epistemology in Late Eighteenth-Century Novels. Studies in Philology
92: 311-328.
With an electronic source (internet)?
Bernstein, M. 2002. "10 Tips on Writing The Living Web." A List
Apart: For People Who Make Websites 149 (4 May 2006):
<http://alistapart.com/articles/writeliving>.
Very important:
Avoid plagiarism. Honesty is essential. If you have taken some ideas or
quoted some words from a given author, do not make them appear as if
they were your own making: you should add the parenthetical information
we have previously discussed.