Emily Dickinson poetry
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Poetry – AS: Paper 2, Section B The Language of Literary Texts
A Level Paper 2, Section A The Language of Poetry and Plays
At both AS and A Level, this examined unit asks students to analyse the use and impact of poetic and stylistic techniques, demonstrating how meaning and effects are created.
Topic: Emily Dickinson, selected poems
- Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a substantial poetry collection.
- Apply relevant methods for textual analysis, drawing on linguistic and literary techniques.
- Explore how linguistic and literary approaches can inform interpretations of texts.
- Identify how meanings and effects are created and conveyed in texts.
- Analyse the ways in which a poetry text draws on its literary, cultural and stylistic contexts.
At AS Level the exam asks the students to compare two named poems from the collection they have been studying.
At A Level the exam asks the students to compare the named poem with one or two others of their choice from the collection they have been studying
This examined unit requires the students to read the following fifteen poems written by Emily Dickinson: “Going to Heaven!” (67), “There’s a certain slant of light” (258), “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (280), “The Soul selects her own Society” (303), “He fumbles at your Soul” (315), “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (341), “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” (465), “This World is not Conclusion” (501), “It was not Death, for I stood up” (510), “The Soul has Bandaged moments” (512), “I like to see it lap the Miles” (585), “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted” (670), “Because I could not stop for Death” (712), “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” (754), “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (986).
In this Language and Literature specification, the students will analyse how meanings are shaped in poetry, exploring how the poet uses poetic and stylistic techniques to present ideas. They will focus on the way in which meaning is created through the use of pattern making and pattern breaking, (deviation) and through repetition.
This analysis will require the students to have an awareness of phonology, lexis and semantics, grammar and morphology, pragmatics and discourse.
They will also analyse the connections between the poems, and explore the influence of context on the poems. The context may be the literary context (the way in which the poem uses the conventions of a particular genre, for example), or the broader social or historical context.
Conceptual links to other parts of the specification
In common with AS Paper 2, Section A (The Language of Prose), and A Level Paper 3, Section A (Reading as a Writer, Writing as a Reader), this paper requires the students to think about how the texts are constructed, rather than simply analyse the themes, for example. The focus might be on how the choice of first person narrator shapes the meaning of the poem, for instance, rather than on who that narrator actually is.
The students closely analyse the language of poetry through poetic and stylistic techniques, and this is a useful skill that can be applied to other AS and A Level units. The knowledge they gain about the way in which language works, the effects that it creates, and the way in which it can be used, is also an excellent basis for the students’ own A Level written work and for any analysis that they do of either spoken or written texts in almost any genre.
An understanding of the relevance of context is essential to any study that requires students to think about the purpose or audience of the text (particularly relevant in the exploration of the texts in the anthology in AS and A Level Paper 1, for example).
In this unit, the students are already required to make connections between two named poems (AS) or between one named poem and one or two poems of their choice (A Level), and this process of finding connections is part of thinking contextually. The students are exploring the poem in the light of at least one other poem in the collection, and are therefore thinking about the patterns that emerge or the patterns that are broken in terms of the poet’s choice of lexis, syntax etc.
An awareness of the broader context of other genres is also required in order that the students can see how the poet breaks or follows those conventions.
Some knowledge of wider social or historical context may be useful, if that context affects the grammatical or lexical choices made by the poet.
The following activities in this guide are examples of the way in which the context of the poems can be explored:
Activity 1 – overview of poems and themes, with an introduction to the ways in which editors have organised the poems over the years.
Activity 2 – creation of a ‘found poem’ from one of Dickinson’s letters, with a focus on “Going to Heaven!”.
Activity 3 – analysis of Dickinson’s manuscripts (her alternative word choices and use of the dash), with a focus on “I felt a Funeral in my Brain”.
Activity 4 – introduction to hymn metre and to Dickinson’s knowledge of the hymns of Isaac Watts, with a focus on “It was not Death for I stood up”.
This activity encourages the students to begin to think about characteristics of Dickinson’s poems, as they analyse the titles both in terms of theme and also in terms of narrator, verbs, sentence types etc. They build on these initial responses, as they work on grouping quotes taken from the poems. It would then be possible to represent these ideas in a diagrammatic form for a wall display, to which the students could add as they learn more about Dickinson’s poetry.
For a useful overview of Dickinson’s poetry see a study guide written by Dr Coghill entitled “Major Characteristics of Dickinson’s Poetry”.
This activity could lead to Activity 2, (an activity that involves the students creating a ‘found poem’ from one of Dickinson’s letters), that requires the students to think about the characteristic style of her poetry.
In this activity the students look at a letter in order to identify what they consider to be ‘poetic’ images. This stimulates interesting debate about the nature of ‘poetic’, while also encouraging the students to recognise certain characteristics of Dickinson’s poetry. In their comparison of their own found poem and “Going to Heaven!” they think about Dickinson’s use of punctuation and the voice that emerges in this poem. They complete the activity in a discussion about the choice of persona.
For further access to Emily Dickinson’s letters, (in which many of the subjects of her poems are evident) see The Internet Archive.
This activity naturally leads to Activity 3 in which the students begin to think in more depth about the lexis and punctuation used in Dickinson’s poetry.
Here, the students look at Manuscript 280, and are asked to make a choice between the two words that Dickinson offered as alternatives. In the process of choosing, the students are encouraged to think about the function of the word, and what qualities and connotations one word has over another. They then go on to analyse Dickinson’s use of the dash, in an activity that could as easily be applied to another poem as to this one. They culminate their exploration of this poem in an analysis of some of the word classes.
All the manuscripts are available to see online.
This activity could be used before Activity 4 (one that brings the strands of analysis together, but still with some support and guidance).
In a performance of three contrasting songs, the students learn about the syllable count and stress rhythms of hymn metre. They can then apply their initial thoughts to a hymn written by Isaac Watts (whose work was well-known by Dickinson). Having discussed the differences between the common hymn metre and the ballad form, and thought about how each is relevant to Dickinson’s poetry, the students then divide into groups to analyse one aspect of the poem.
For further examples of Isaac Watt’s work click on the Resources link.
This activity is a precursor to Activity 5: it asks the students to analyse metre, structure, form, imagery, symbolism, lexis, voice, context, grammar and rhyme of a single poem. Activity 5 asks the students to do the same, but in a comparison of two poems.
In addition to the activity offered in Learner resource 5, these two tables could be used in many ways in the classroom. They could be used after the students have done their own analysis, the students annotating the tables to add in their own ideas. The students could use them to help to think about the structure for their essay, numbering the boxes and discussing whether they agree as a class.
They could work in groups, taking the notes as a starting point in order to produce a presentation on one of the poems, or on a comparison of the poems, to the rest of the class. They could be encouraged to do further research as PowerPoint slides for their presentations. They might decide to look in more depth into context (see Resources link).
This activity is designed to be done later on in the study of Dickinson, as it presumes that the students have an understanding of the terminology and of her characteristic use of language.
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