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Analysing Literary Techniques in English Poetry

In primary school, English literature teachers often ask us to find literary techniques in a poem or story. An example of a literary technique is imagery, which is any description that appeals to our five senses (e.g. a rattling drum = hearing, a slippery, sharp icicle = touch).

In secondary school, English literature teachers usually want us to do more than find the techniques. We need to answer harder questions. These can be vague ones like ‘Analyse the use of imagery in William Blake’s The Tiger.’ This can be hard to do well. Look at The Tiger below and follow the instructions that follow it. This will show you how to answer a question about imagery.

 

The Tiger

by William Blake

 

TIGER, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal¹ hand or eye

Could frame² thy* fearful³ symmetry?

 

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine* eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire⁴?

What the hand dare seize⁵ the fire?

 

And what shoulder and what art⁶

Could twist the sinews⁷ of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread⁸ hand and what dread feet?

 

What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace⁹ was thy brain?

What the anvil¹⁰? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

 

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water’d heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

 

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

1   immortal  living forever, something that cannot die

2   frame   make, create, contain

3   fearful   likely to cause fear, also meaning extreme, great

4   aspire   hope, dream, literal meaning go higher

5   seize   take, grab

6   art  here refers to skill, technique

7   sinews  parts of muscle tissue

8   dread   great fear, also meaning something great to fear, sublime

9   furnace   hot oven used to smelt steel and iron to make metal, also meaning fire

10 anvil   heavy metal block used for shaping metal (usually with a hammer)

 

*Thy, thine and thee are all Old Middle English words for ‘your’ and ‘you’

 

When writing about the use of imagery in a poem, it is important to remember that the point is to explain what the poet is trying to say, rather than simply list the literary techniques they have used.

A good analysis of imagery will include:

  • What effect the technique has on you as a reader
  • How it combines with other techniques (you’ll need to include this if writing an essay as it can be hard to write more than one paragraph about a single technique)
  • What does it add to the poem? For example, does it change the tone or contribute something to the meaning?

Below is an example of what a short commentary on imagery could look like and how we can divide it into several parts:

Using a metaphor in stanza 4, Blake describes the creator of the tiger as a blacksmith wielding heavy metal tools by a hot and burning furnace, forging the powerful tiger as if it were made of steel. A blacksmith can be associated with the making of weapons; the use of this description and the imagery surrounding it adds to the reader’s understanding of the tiger as a dangerous, fearful creature. It also tells the reader something important about the creator of the tiger who is able to wield these tools with a “dread grasp” to create and “clasp” the “deadly terrors” of the tiger. The creator must to some extent be fearful and powerful too. The strong imagery supports the significant metaphor to create a powerful depiction of the tiger.

what technique is used

+

what is the effect

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what does it add to the meaning of the poem

 

You can practise writing about imagery by answering this question: Look at lines 1-2 of the poem. Describe the image that Blake is trying to evoke in the first two lines. What is the effect?

 

This article is an extract of The i-Learner Poetry Workbook: Daffodil Level. Discover 9 more classic poems and learn techniques to analyse them in this book. Collect the whole set of workbooks for guided questions on 40 poems along with answers and audio recordings to aid understanding. For hands-on poetry teaching, join i-Learner’s Critical Reading and Writing, Voyage and Discovery courses.