BlogStudyHow to Analyse a Poem for HSC English

How to Analyse a Poem for HSC English

“Oh I’ve only got a poem for HSC English, poems are so much shorter and easier to analyse –I’m going to ace it!”

Think again, if this is what you are thinking when analysing HSC English poems! Look at the ‘analysis’ you have just written and ask yourself:

“Is this really going to separate me from 70,000 other students and give me a Band 6?”

Although it is true that poems are much shorter to analyse than novels, there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done in order for you to have the top band quality of analysis.

In this article, we’ll walk you through step by step as to how to analyse HSC English poems effectively!

Step 1: Read Your Poem
Step 2: Research the Context
Step 3: Analyse, Analyse, Analyse
Step 4: Be Critical

Step 1: Read and Be Familiar With Your Poem

The most important part is to actually READ the poem. It would be even better if you could memorise it! (although, forget about that if it’s 50 lines).

HSC English poems can be slightly difficult to read due to their abstract nature. As a result, it’s important to first have your own interpretation and highlight the parts which you think are important to use, just like below!

At this stage, don’t worry too much about looking for literary techniques –just try to find things that will be useful when it comes to analysing the poem later and have a brief interpretation of what you think the poem is about.

After reading the poem several times, it’s time to get started with the real thing!

Step 2: Research the Context of the Poet and the Poem

A great sentence which summarises the entire HSC English syllabus is the following:

‘A composer uses forms and features with interaction of context to manipulate our perception and shaped meaning on characters, situation, themes and ideas’.

Note: (This sentence was taught by my amazing English teacher during HSC and I can confirm that this is the actual bible for HSC English)

Context Is What Shapes Every Text

In other words, context is the catalyst which propels the composer to construct their text.

A composer then utilises certain language techniques and forms in order to convey the purpose of their text to us.

Thus, knowing the context for your HSC English poems/poets is extremely important as it tells you the poet’s experiences at the time in which the poem was constructed.

Consequently, context has a tremendous impact on the ways in which poems are constructed.

Thus, researching the context could help you understand what the poem might actually be talking about and reveal some interesting insights.

For example, if you are studying ‘Among School Children’ by William Butler Yeats as your HSC English poem, the following context would be relevant.

The poem was written in 1928, when Yeats was almost sixty years old. At the time, he was confronted by degrading health and was facing the inevitable fate of death. His inspiration of writing the poem comes from his visit to St.Otteran’s School during 1926.

Here’s an example of analysis you could write about this stanza, which incorporates discussion of Yeats’ context:

From this first stanza, we can see that the poem begins by using blunt and direct language.

Yeats’ response to his ageing can be directly referenced through the euphemism in “a sixty year old smiling public man”. Yeats refers to himself using the euphemism “public man” to not only emphasise his current status, but to superimpose his age which ultimately underlines his realisation of the fleeting nature of life.

Such poetic contemplation is accentuated through Yeats’ employment of ottava rima style in the poem, as well as the rhythm scheme of ABABACC. The ottava rima style was commonly utilised for heroic and epic poetry during Yeats’ contextual paradigm. Inevitably, such style is adapted by Yeats here as his medium which communicates his innate poignancy over his epic reflection upon the real value of life. Furthermore, the regular rhythm scheme of ABABACC is connotative of his current inner contemplation. This creates a direct juxtaposition against the inconsistent rhythm scheme of ‘The Second Coming” and “Easter 1916”.

This notion is again heightened through the figurative connotation of “walk through the long schoolroom questioning” in which the use of the connotative “walk” emphasises that Yeats was perhaps reflecting in the “schoolroom” the notion of ageing. When this is coupled with the tension set at “Wild Swans At Coole”, it demonstrates an obvious similarity upon the poetic process of realisation.

See how I’ve also referenced several of Yeats’ previous poems? This is something else you could consider doing for your Module B (English Advanced) essay as this shows you are analysing his poetry critically.

By incorporating his previous poems, you can also highlight some noticeable change in the style of his poetry which could be an implication of his changing context.

Step 3: Analyse, Analyse, Analyse

If I could repeat this word 1000 more times in this article, I totally would! This is what you are required to do for every single essay at the HSC English exams. Yet, still 75% of the students sitting the exams fail to do it!

Make sure you’re understanding what the question is asking of you with our key verbs guide!

First of all, let’s find out what a good analysis actually looks like in an essay:
Type of Body ParagraphDescriptionShould You Do This In Your Essay?
Summary- None to very little textual reference.
- Simply recounting the plot of the story, which is often used to support the argument.
- Paragraphs are usually 3-4 sentences.
Commentary- Mentions textual reference and attempts to list language devices to back up the argument.
- No explanation/critical analysis on how the language techniques convey meanings/manipulation to the audience in a way that backs up your argument.
- Usually employs language techniques which are too commonly used. E.g. descriptive language, alliteration etc.
- 5-7 sentences per paragraph.
Analysis- Makes explicit utilisation of textual references which are often well-chosen and RELEVANT in the context of your argument.
- Tears the quotes apart by interrogating them and examining in great detail on how every single device, word could change your manipulation.
- Analysis should not contradict your argument; should be consistent to what you are arguing.
- 9-12 sentences per paragraph.
Hell yeah!
So, how exactly do you do it? Follow these steps!

Step 1: Identify the technique being used.

Step 2: Give a quote to support the technique.

Step 3: Analyse how that technique and quote backs up your argument –how does it manipulate your own perception?

Step 4: Relate to the essay question.

Let’s look at an example, using stanza 1 from ‘Among School Children’ again to see this in action:

‘Explain how time and place are used in “Among School Children” to shape the reader’s understanding of the search for truth. ‘

Lets begin by first using a simple T.E.E Table to help us with the analysis:
Interrogative tone

Low modality of ‘walk’
"..walk through the long schoolroom questioning"- The emblematic usage of ‘schoolroom’ as a setting suggests Yeats is seeking the purpose of life
- The school which he questions is symbolic for the dominant stage of life where children learn ‘to cut and sew, be neat in everything’
- The use of cumulative listing in the aforementioned quote suggests the importance of education as a basic foundation in a child’s life
Euphemism"sixty year old smiling public man"- The euphemism of “sixty year old smiling public man” refers to himself and the realisation of his morbid reality, including his degrading health which is portrayed through the use of numerology as well as the connotation of “smiling”
- Yeats is able to reflect upon his rejuvenation, but also his acceptance of ageing and the truth of his reality

If you need some help with your TEE Tables, check out this amazing article here!

So, now we have identified our quotes, techniques and analysed them to some extent…

The only thing left to do is turn this table into an essay!

The best way to integrate a whole lot of examples is to follow a linear progression, showing how one example introduces a point, then the following example proves it. Put a statement at the beginning explaining your overall point or theme, and a sentence at the end that links everything back to the question, and you’re just about done!

The emblematic usage of school as a setting reinforces Yeats’ seeking upon the purpose of life. The “school” becomes a symbol for the main stage of life where the children learn to “study reading books and history, to cut and sew, be neat in everything”. The usage of accumulative listing emphasises the important of the foundation of school on one’s life. 

However, such listing of benefits one receives from school is deliberately interrogated when Yeats “walked through the long schoolroom questions”. The “long schoolroom” not only is symbolic of Yeats’ old age, but also an indication of Yeats’ imbued acceptance of the mortality of life. The symbolic use of the interrogative verb “questioning” directly insinuates Yeats’ doubt upon these things children are taught at school and whether this knowledge is helpful in life. Thus, Yeats has already established his poetic contemplation of life at the very beginning of the poem. 

Notice how in the first paragraph I have directly used the quotes from the poem to help me reach my analysis by incorporating the quote in my sentences. This method is called ‘segueing’ and it’s a great way of constructing your body paragraph when writing essays.

This shows that you have an extensive understanding of the poem and are able to use quotes from the poem to argue your point effectively.

Step 4: Be Critical

The beauty of analysing poems is that you are given the freedom to interpret what’s in front of you in any way you want. This is the section of English where you can use the ambiguous language in your essay.

An example could be ‘perhaps Yeats was mourning upon the fleeting nature of life’. The word ‘perhaps’ could tell the marker that this is directly derived from your personal interpretation. Ultimately, this shows you are ‘critically analysing’!

So, this is the simple guide on how to powerfully analyse a HSC English poem. Look back at your own analysis and see if you are doing it right!

Looking for a specific poem by T.S Eliot? Check out our Rhapsody on a Windy Night analysis here!

Looking for some extra help with HSC English?

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Yifan Shen completed his HSC in 2014 and is currently studying a Bachelor Of Economics/Advanced Mathematics at UNSW. Apart from nutting out equations and helping out students with their academic pursuits, you will find him either reading thriller novels or introducing a range of new people to the intricate and mysterious world of mathematics as the marketing representative of UNSW MathSoc. When he is drained from all of his work, you might see him hiking, planking or even water bending in his recovery mode.

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