Some thoughts towards an answer

There’s no one right way of answering such a big question about the fundamental elements of literary writing. There are in fact at least as many right ways as there are students. In deciding which route to follow yourself, you will need to trust to the knowledge you have already. Resist the temptation to google. By the time students reach the third year of the Cambridge English course they will have both read and forgotten some seventeenth century writing, will probably know more than you already know about the contexts – intellectual, literary, theological, scientific – from which both these discussions emerged. But you’re not being asked for a summary of attitudes to words and books in the seventeenth century. You’re being asked to compare and contrast two discussions.

Try to find your own way of starting a conversation between two discussions which Joanna Bellis thinks are interestingly connected. And in doing this you are expected to be rigorous, selective, and honest. If you’re struggling, say so. If you know at once the questions you want to pursue, great. But you may well not know this. So don’t be tempted to devote half your time to elaborating conceptual frameworks for an essay which you then spend more than half your essay exploring. Introductions can easily become bland, circular, and too large. Keep yours to no more than ten lines, at most.

Instead, learn from Milton and Bacon: use your own prose to think, as you are writing.  Learn from Eliot: it’s natural, perhaps inevitable, both to feel an emotion and then to reflect upon it. If the emotion you initially feel is one of fear or bafflement, say so – but in a way that acknowledges that this is an initial response, and one which will subsequently enable you, over the course of the time you spend writing, to refine that initial rather inchoate response into an articulate argument.

The shape that argument will take will depend, mostly, on your first and second reading of each passage. So trust your initial responses, and work with them. Find points – no more  than three or four at most, from each discussion, ideally at the beginning, in the middle and at or near the end of the text – that strike you, on first reading, as, well, striking: whether fun, or perplexing, or provocative, or, better still, applicable to the terms of the question or to the other passage. Highlight those points. And then, if you can’t think of a general observation or statement that doesn’t sound bland or circular, dispense with an introductory statement altogether. Pay one of those points you’ve just identified the ultimate compliment, and start by quoting it.

Then reflect on what and how it might mean. In doing so, you’ll be practising criticism, ‘articulating what passes in your mind when you read’ that quotation ‘and feel an emotion about it.’ See whether that emotion, or your articulation of its consequence for the way you think, is challenged or refined either by one of the later points you’ve highlighted in your initial reading, or by one of the points you’ve highlighted in the other passage. Remember: you don’t have to begin with passage a). But in a comparison you should give roughly equal weight, over the course of your essay, to both passages.

Every text has its own distinctive tone and structure, and every author works in his or her own distinctive way to communicate thoughts and feelings to the reader. That makes the business of criticism varied and exciting, but it also poses particular challenges for you. When Eliot talks about reading a poem and feeling an emotion about it, he takes our intuitive response as a starting point, but he’s also thinking about more complex mental manoeuvres. Poets are readers too; they read the world around them, and transform its textures into text. This process includes feelings and emotions, of course, but for Eliot feeling is most perfectly expressed, paradoxically, in highly crafted structures of thought (yes, he was a difficult writer, and, by all accounts, an even more difficult man).

One way of explaining this is to remember that Eliot’s favourite poet was Donne, the writer who thought that the relationship between two lovers was perfectly captured by the movement of a pair of ‘stiff twin compasses’.  In ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’, Donne’s speaker argues that true love is immune to physical separation; he says that as long as we are ‘Inter-assured of the mind’, we ‘Care lesse, eyes, lips, hands to misse’. We’re a long way from simple emotion once we’ve started comparing the perfect relationship to a mathematical instrument, and the phrase ‘Inter-assured of the mind’ is hardly a romantic declaration of love. But the whole point of the poem is that it’s trying very hard to convince itself that physical absence doesn’t really matter; this is why it tries – and fails (and wants you to notice how it fails) – to banish physicality even from its language.  ‘Assured’ is an abstract-sounding word, made more abstract by the Latinate ‘inter’ that Donne has put at the start of the line (‘inter’ means ‘between’), for instance; and if you read the whole poem, you will notice that the line ‘Care lesse, eyes, lips, hands to misse’ is actually missing a syllable. So even while the speaker ostensibly insists that missing someone physically isn’t important, his own language is staging a partial break-down of that argument. This, you might say, is thinking-feeling in action: complex thought and emotion expressed in minute linguistic and structural detail.  When a text invites you to feel with it, then, it asks you to be analytically rigorous precisely in order to unlock these complex forms of emotion.  (And sometimes, as in the sample question, texts even ask you to adjudicate carefully between the competing demands of emotion and thought.)

One more piece of advice. You’ll likely be writing at high speed. But it’s more important that you are feeling and thinking intensely, and that your writing reflects this, than that you cover too much ground. (It’s certainly possible to write too much and say too little.) So don’t worry if you don’t have time for a conclusion. Conclusions, like introductions, can easily become formulaic. If you can think of a way of bringing the two pieces together, or if the exercise of mind and muscle you’ve just been put through prompts you to ask a final question, or if one of the points you initially identified seem to encapsulate your thoughts, finished or not, better than you could, end with a question or a quotation. Readers of your work know when they’re embarking on your last paragraph. They, like you, need what Milton calls ‘a vigiliant eye’.

So: print or highlight the next couple of pages. And then, once you’ve read it, read and think about the answer that follows.

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