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Advanced Placement (AP)


If you're planning to take the AP English Literature and Composition exam, you'll need to get familiar with what to expect on the test. Whether the 2023 test date of Wednesday, May 3, is near or far, I'm here to help you get serious about preparing for the exam.

In this guide, I'll go over the test's format and question types, how it's graded, best practices for preparation, and test-day tips. You'll be on your way to AP English Lit success in no time!

AP English Literature: Exam Format and Question Types

The AP Literature Exam is a three-hour exam that contains two sections in this order:

  • An hour-long, 55-question multiple-choice section
  • A two-hour, three-question free-response section

The exam tests your ability to analyze works and excerpts of literature and cogently communicate that analysis in essay form.

Read on for a breakdown of the two different sections and their question types.

Section I: Multiple Choice

The multiple-choice section, or Section I of the AP Literature exam, is 60 minutes long and has 55 questions. It counts for 45% of your overall exam grade .

You can expect to see five excerpts of prose and poetry. You will always get at least two prose passages (fiction or drama) and two poetry passages. In general, you will not be given the author, date, or title for these works, though occasionally the title of a poem will be given. Unusual words are also sometimes defined for you.

The date ranges of these works could fall from the 16th to the 21st century. Most works will be originally written in English, but you might occasionally see a passage in translation.

There are, generally speaking, eight kinds of questions you can expect to see on the AP English Literature and Composition exam. I'll break each of them down here and give you tips on how to identify and approach them.


"Pretty flowers carried by ladies" is not one of the question types.

The 8 Multiple-Choice Question Types on the AP Literature Exam

Without further delay, here are the eight question types you can expect to see on the AP Lit exam. All questions are taken from the sample questions on the AP Course and Exam Description .

#1: Reading Comprehension

These questions test your ability to understand what the passage is saying on a pretty basic level . They don't require you to do a lot of interpretation—you just need to know what's going on.

You can identify this question type from words and phrases such as "according to," "mentioned," "asserting," and so on. You'll succeed on these questions as long as you carefully read the text . Note that you might have to go back and reread parts to make sure you understand what the passage is saying.


#2: Inference

These questions ask you to infer something—a character or narrator's opinion, an author's intention, etc.—based on what is said in the passage . It will be something that isn't stated directly or concretely but that you can assume based on what's clearly written in the passage. You can identify these questions from words such as "infer" and "imply."

The key to these questions is to not get tripped up by the fact that you are making an inference—there will be a best answer, and it will be the choice that is best supported by what is actually found in the passage .

In many ways, inference questions are like second-level reading comprehension questions: you need to know not just what a passage says, but also what it means.


#3: Identifying and Interpreting Figurative Language

These are questions for which you have to either identify what word or phrase is figurative language or provide the meaning of a figurative phrase . You can identify these as they will either explicitly mention figurative language (or a figurative device, such as a simile or metaphor ) or include a figurative phrase in the question itself.

The meaning of figurative phrases can normally be determined by that phrase's context in the passage—what is said around it? What is the phrase referring to?

Example 1: Identifying


Example 2: Interpreting


#4: Literary Technique

These questions involve identifying why an author does what they do , from using a particular phrase to repeating certain words. Basically, what techniques is the author using to construct the passage/poem, and to what effect?

You can identify these questions by words/phrases such as "serves chiefly to," "effect," "evoke," and "in order to." A good way to approach these questions is to ask yourself: so what? Why did the author use these particular words or this particular structure?


#5: Character Analysis

These questions ask you to describe something about a character . You can spot them because they will refer directly to characters' attitudes, opinions, beliefs, or relationships with other characters .

This is, in many ways, a special kind of inference question , since you are inferring the broader personality of the character based on the evidence in a passage. Also, these crop up much more commonly for prose passages than they do for poetry ones.


#6: Overall Passage Questions

Some questions ask you to identify or describe something about the passage or poem as a whole : its purpose, tone, genre, etc. You can identify these by phrases such as "in the passage" and "as a whole."

To answer these questions, you need to think about the excerpt with a bird's-eye view . What is the overall picture created by all the tiny details?


#7: Structure

Some AP Lit questions will ask you about specific structural elements of the passage: a shift in tone, a digression, the specific form of a poem, etc . Often these questions will specify a part of the passage/poem and ask you to identify what that part is accomplishing.

Being able to identify and understand the significance of any shifts —structural, tonal, in genre, and so on—will be of key importance for these questions.


#8: Grammar/Nuts & Bolts

Very occasionally you will be asked a specific grammar question , such as what word an adjective is modifying. I'd also include in this category super-specific questions such as those that ask about the meter of a poem (e.g., iambic pentameter).

These questions are less about literary artistry and more about the fairly dry technique involved in having a fluent command of the English language .


That covers the eight question types on the multiple-choice section. Now, let's take a look at the free-response section of the AP Literature exam.


Keep track of the nuts and bolts of grammar.

Section II: Free Response

The AP Literature Free Response section is two hours long and involves three free-response essay questions , so you'll have about 40 minutes per essay. That's not a lot of time considering this section of the test counts for 55% of your overall exam grade !

Note, though, that no one will prompt you to move from essay to essay, so you can theoretically divide up the time however you want. Just be sure to leave enough time for each essay! Skipping an essay, or running out of time so you have to rush through one, can really impact your final test score.

The first two essays are literary analysis essays of specific passages, with one poem and one prose excerpt. The final essay is an analysis of a given theme in a work selected by you , the student.

Essays 1 & 2: Literary Passage Analysis

For the first two essays, you'll be presented with an excerpt and directed to analyze the excerpt for a given theme, device, or development . One of the passages will be poetry, and one will be prose. You will be provided with the author of the work, the approximate date, and some orienting information (i.e., the plot context of an excerpt from a novel).

Below are some sample questions from the 2022 Free Response Questions .


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Essay 3: Thematic Analysis

For the third and final essay, you'll be asked to discuss a particular theme in a work that you select . You will be provided with a list of notable works that address the given theme below the prompt, but you can also choose to discuss any "work of literary merit."

So while you do have the power to choose which work you wish to write an essay about , the key words here are "literary merit." That means no genre fiction! Stick to safe bets like authors in the list on pages 10-11 of the old 2014 AP Lit Course Description .

(I know, I know—lots of genre fiction works do have literary merit and Shakespeare actually began as low culture, and so on and so forth. Indeed, you might find academic designations of "literary merit" elitist and problematic, but the time to rage against the literary establishment is not your AP Lit test! Save it for a really, really good college admissions essay instead .)

Here's a sample question from 2022:


As you can see, the list of works provided spans many time periods and countries : there are ancient Greek plays ( Antigone ), modern literary works (such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale ), Shakespeare plays ( The Tempest ), 19th-century English plays ( The Importance of Being Earnest ), etc. So you have a lot to work with!

Also note that you can choose a work of "comparable literary merit." That means you can select a work not on this list as long as it's as difficult and meaningful as the example titles you've been given. So for example, Jane Eyre or East of Eden would be great choices, but Twilight or The Hunger Games would not.

Our advice? If you're not sure what a work of "comparable literary merit" is, stick to the titles on the provided list .


You might even see something by this guy.

How Is the AP Literature Test Graded?

The multiple-choice section of the exam comprises 45% of your total exam score; the three essays, or free-response section, comprise the other 55%. Each essay, then, is worth about 18% of your grade.

As on other AP exams, your raw score will be converted to a score from 1-5 . You don't have to get every point possible to get a 5 by any means. In 2022, 16.9% of students received 5s on the AP English Literature test, the 14th highest 5 score out of the 38 different AP exams.

So, how do you calculate your raw scores?

Multiple-Choice Scoring

For the multiple-choice section, you receive 1 point for each question you answer correctly . There's no guessing penalty, so you should answer every question—but guess only after you're able to eliminate any answer you know is wrong to up your chances of choosing the right one.

Free-Response Scoring

Scoring for multiple choice is pretty straightforward; however, essay scoring is a little more complicated.

Each of your essays will receive a score from 0 to 6 based on the College Board rubric , which also includes question-specific rubrics. All the rubrics are very similar, with only minor differences between them.

Each essay rubric has three elements you'll be graded on:

  • Thesis (0-1 points)
  • Evidence and Commentary (0-4 points)
  • Sophistication (0-1 points)

We'll be looking at the current rubric for the AP Lit exam , which was released in September 2019, and what every score means for each of the three elements above:

To get a high-scoring essay in the 5-6 point range, you'll need to not only come up with an original and intriguing argument that you thoroughly support with textual evidence, but you’ll also need to stay focused, organized, and clear. And all in just 40 minutes per essay!

If getting a high score on this section sounds like a tall order, that's because it is.


Practice makes perfect!

Skill-Building for Success on the AP Literature Exam

There are several things you can do to hone your skills and best prepare for the AP Lit exam.

Read Some Books, Maybe More Than Once

One of the most important steps you can take to prepare for the AP Literature and Composition exam is to read a lot and read well . You'll be reading a wide variety of notable literary works in your AP English Literature course, but additional reading will help you further develop your analytical reading skills .

I suggest checking out this list of notable authors in the 2014 AP Lit Course Description (pages 10-11).

In addition to reading broadly, you'll want to become especially familiar with the details of four to five books with different themes so you'll be prepared to write a strong student-choice essay. You should know the plot, themes, characters, and structural details of these books inside and out.

See my AP English Literature Reading List for more guidance.

Read (and Interpret) Poetry

One thing students might not do very much on their own time but that will help a lot with AP Lit exam prep is to read poetry. Try to read poems from a lot of eras and authors to get familiar with the language.

We know that poetry can be intimidating. That's why we've put together a bunch of guides to help you crack the poetry code (so to speak). You can learn more about poetic devices —like imagery and i ambic pentameter —in our comprehensive guide. Then you can see those analytical skills in action in our expert analysis of " Do not go gentle into that good night " by Dylan Thomas.

When you think you have a grip on basic comprehension, you can then move on to close reading (see below).

Hone Your Close Reading and Analysis Skills

Your AP class will likely focus heavily on close reading and analysis of prose and poetry, but extra practice won't hurt you. Close reading is the ability to identify which techniques the author is using and why. You'll need to be able to do this both to gather evidence for original arguments on the free-response questions and to answer analytical multiple-choice questions.

Here are some helpful close reading resources for prose :

  • University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center's guide to close reading
  • Harvard College Writing Center's close reading guide
  • Purdue OWL's article on steering clear of close reading "pitfalls"

And here are some for poetry :

  • University of Wisconsin-Madison's poetry-reading guide
  • This guide to reading poetry at (complete with two poetry close readings)
  • Our own expert analyses of famous poems, such as " Ozymandias ", and the 10 famous sonnets you should know

Learn Literary and Poetic Devices

You'll want to be familiar with literary terms so that any test questions that ask about them will make sense to you. Again, you'll probably learn most of these in class, but it doesn't hurt to brush up on them.

Here are some comprehensive lists of literary terms with definitions :

  • The 31 Literary Devices You Must Know
  • The 20 Poetic Devices You Must Know
  • The 9 Literary Elements You'll Find In Every Story
  • What Is Imagery?
  • Understanding Assonance
  • What Is Iambic Pentameter in Poetry?
  • Simile vs Metaphor: The 1 Big Difference
  • 10 Personification Examples in Poetry, Literature, and More

Practice Writing Essays

The majority of your grade on the AP English Lit exam comes from essays, so it's critical that you practice your timed essay-writing skills . You of course should use the College Board's released free-response questions to practice writing complete timed essays of each type, but you can also practice quickly outlining thorough essays that are well supported with textual evidence.

Take Practice Tests

Taking practice tests is a great way to prepare for the exam. It will help you get familiar with the exam format and overall experience . You can get sample questions from the Course and Exam Description , the College Board website , and our guide to AP English Lit practice test resources .

Be aware that the released exams don't have complete slates of free-response questions, so you might need to supplement these with released free-response questions .

Since there are three complete released exams, you can take one toward the beginning of your prep time to get familiar with the exam and set a benchmark, and one toward the end to make sure the experience is fresh in your mind and to check your progress.


Don't wander like a lonely cloud through your AP Lit prep.

AP Literature: 6 Critical Test-Day Tips

Before we wrap up, here are my six top tips for AP Lit test day:

  • #1: On the multiple-choice section, it's to your advantage to answer every question. If you eliminate all the answers you know are wrong before guessing, you'll raise your chances of guessing the correct one.
  • #2: Don't rely on your memory of the passage when answering multiple-choice questions (or when writing essays, for that matter). Look back at the passage!
  • #3: Interact with the text : circle, mark, underline, make notes—whatever floats your boat. This will help you retain information and actively engage with the passage.
  • #4: This was mentioned above, but it's critical that you know four to five books well for the student-choice essay . You'll want to know all the characters, the plot, the themes, and any major devices or motifs the author uses throughout.
  • #5: Be sure to plan out your essays! Organization and focus are critical for high-scoring AP Literature essays. An outline will take you a few minutes, but it will help your writing process go much faster.
  • #6: Manage your time on essays closely. One strategy is to start with the essay you think will be the easiest to write. This way you'll be able to get through it while thinking about the other two essays.


And don't forget to eat breakfast! Apron optional.

AP Literature Exam: Key Takeaways

The AP Literature exam is a three-hour test that includes an hour-long multiple-choice section based on five prose and poetry passages and with 55 questions, and a two-hour free-response section with three essays : one analyzing a poetry passage, one analyzing a prose passage, and one analyzing a work chosen by you, the student.

The multiple-choice section is worth 45% of your total score , and the free-response section is worth 55% . The three essays are each scored on a rubric of 0-6, and raw scores are converted to a final scaled score from 1 to 5.

Here are some things you can do to prepare for the exam:

  • Read books and be particularly familiar with four to five works for the student-choice essays
  • Read poetry
  • Work on your close reading and analysis skills
  • Learn common literary devices
  • Practice writing essays
  • Take practice tests!

On test day, be sure to really look closely at all the passages and really interact with them by marking the text in a way that makes sense to you. This will help on both multiple-choice questions and the free-response essays. You should also outline your essays before you write them.

With all this in mind, you're well on your way to AP Lit success!

What's Next?

If you're taking other AP exams this year, you might be interested in our other AP resources: from the Ultimate Guide to the US History Exam , to the Ultimate AP Chemistry Study Guide , to the Best AP Psychology Study Guide , we have tons of articles on AP courses and exams for you !

Looking for practice exams? Here are some tips on how to find the best AP practice tests . We've also got comprehensive lists of practice tests for AP Psychology , AP Biology , AP Chemistry , and AP US History .

Deciding which APs to take? Take a look through the complete list of AP courses and tests , read our analysis of which AP classes are the hardest and easiest , and learn how many AP classes you should take .

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literary analysis essay ap lit

How to Write the AP Lit Poetry Essay

What’s covered:.

  • How to Write the AP Literature Poetry Essay
  • Tips for Writing The AP Lit Poetry Essay

To strengthen your AP Literature Poetry Essay essay, make sure you prepare ahead of time by knowing how the test is structured, and how to prepare. In this post, we’ll cover the structure of the test and show you how you can write a great AP Literature Poetry Essay.

What is the AP Lit Poetry Essay? 

The AP Literature exam has two sections. Section I contains 55 multiple choice questions, with 1 hour time allotted. This includes at least two prose fiction passages and two poetry passages. 

Section II, on the other hand, is a free response section. Here, students write essays to 3 prompts. These prompts include a literary analysis of a poem, prose fiction, or in a work selected by the student. Because the AP Literature Exam is structured in a specific, predictable manner, it’s helpful to prepare yourself for the types of questions you’ll encounter on test day. 

The Poetry Essay counts for one-third of the total essay section score, so it’s important to know how to approach this section. You’ll want to plan for about 40 minutes on this question, which is plenty of time to read and dissect the prompt, read and markup the poem, write a brief outline, and write a concise, well-thought out essay with a compelling analysis. 

Tips for Writing the AP Lit Poetry Essay

1. focus on the process.

Writing is a process, and so is literary analysis. Think less about finding the right answer, or uncovering the correct meaning of the poem (there isn’t one, most of the time). Read the prompt over at least twice, asking yourself carefully what you need to look for as you read. Then, read the poem three times. Once, to get an overall sense of the poem. Second, start to get at nuance; circle anything that’s recurring, underline important language and diction , and note important images or metaphors. In your annotations, you want to think about figurative language , and poetic structure and form . Third, pay attention to subtle shifts in the poem: does the form break, is there an interruption of some sort? When analyzing poetry, it’s important to get a sense of the big picture first, and then zoom in on the details. 

2. Craft a Compelling Thesis

No matter the prompt, you will always need to respond with a substantive thesis. A meaty thesis contains complexity rather than broad generalizations , and points to specifics in the poem.

By examining the colloquial language in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool”, we can see the tension of choosing to be “cool”. This raises important ideas about education, structure, and routine, and the consequences of living to be “real cool”.

Notice how the thesis provides a roadmap of what is to follow in the essay , and identifies key ideas that the essay will explore. It is specific, and not vague. The thesis provides a bigger picture of the text, while zooming in the colloquial language the speaker uses. 

A good thesis points out the why as much as the what . Notice how in the above example, the thesis discusses language in the poem as it connects to a bigger message about the poem. For example, it’s not enough to discuss Emily Dickinson’s enjambment and hyphens. A good thesis will make a compelling argument about why those infamous Dickinson hyphens are so widely questioned and examined. Perhaps a good thesis might suggest that this unique literary device is more about self-examination and the lapse in our own judgement. 

3. Use Textual Evidence 

To support your thesis, always use textual evidence . When you are creating an outline, choose a handful of lines in the poem that will help illuminate your argument. Make sure each claim in your essay is followed by textual evidence, either in the form of a paraphrase, or direct quote . Then, explain exactly how the textual evidence supports your argument . Using this structure will help keep you on track as you write, so that your argument follows a clear narrative that a reader will be able to follow. 

Your essay will need to contain both description of the poem, and analysis . Remember that your job isn’t to describe or paraphrase every aspect of the poem. You also need lots of rich analysis, so be sure to balance your writing by moving from explicit description to deeper analysis. 

4. Strong Organization and Grammar

A great essay for the AP Literature Exam will contain an introduction with a thesis (not necessarily always the last sentence of the paragraph), body paragraphs that contain clear topic sentences, and a conclusion . Be sure to spend time thinking about your organization before you write the paper. Once you start writing, you only want to think about content. It’s helpful to write a quick outline before writing your essay. 

There’s nothing worse than a strong argument with awkward sentences, grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Make sure to proofread your work before submitting it. Carefully edit your work, paying attention to any run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, commas, and spelling. You’d be surprised how many mistakes you’ll catch just by rereading your work. 

Common Mistakes on the AP Literature Poetry Essay 

It can be helpful to know what not to do when it comes time to prepare for the AP Literature Poetry Essay. Here are some common mistakes students make on the AP Literature Poetry Essay:

1. Thesis is not arguable and is too general 

Your thesis should be arguable, and indicate the central ideas you will discuss in your essay. Read the prompt carefully and craft your thesis in light of what the prompt asks you to do. If the prompt mentions specific literary devices, find a way to tie those into your thesis. In your thesis, you want to connect to the meaning of the poem itself and what you feel the poet intended when using those particular literary devices.

2. Using vague, general statements rather than focusing on analysis of the poem

Always stay close to the text when writing the AP Literature Poetry Essay. Remember that your job is not to paraphrase but to analyze. Keep explicit descriptions of the poem concise, and spend the majority of your time writing strong analysis backed up by textual evidence.

3. Not using transitions to connect between paragraphs

Make sure it’s not jarring to the reader when you switch to a new idea in a new paragraph. Use transitions and strong topic sentences to seamlessly blend your ideas together into a cohesive essay that flows well and is easy to follow. 

4. Textual evidence is lacking or not fully explained 

Always include quotes from the text and reference specifics whenever you can. Introduce your quote briefly, and then explain how the quote connects back to the topic sentence after. Think about why the quotes connect back to the poet’s central ideas. 

5. Not writing an outline

Of course, to write a fully developed essay you’ll need to spend a few minutes planning out your essay. Write a quick outline with a thesis, paragraph topics and a list of quotes that support your central ideas before getting started.

To improve your writing, take a look at these essay samples from the College Board, with scoring guidelines and commentary. 

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5 Tips for Writing a Great AP Lit Essay

Nervous about the 'free response prompt' on AP Lit? Don't be. We broke it down into manageable steps!

Lisa Speransky

This year, if you’re taking the AP English Literature exam, you’ll be responsible for responding to three questions, which the College Board calls “free response prompts.” First , you’ll write a literary analysis of a poem. Second, you’ll write a literary analysis of a piece of fiction, which could be an excerpt from a play. Third , you’ll analyze a major literary aspect—a theme or a literary device, for example—of a literary work of your choosing.

The last of these prompts attracts perhaps the most attention and, by extension, produces the most anxiety among students. Anyone would admit that such a capacious (‘open, roomy’) question is challenging, especially when a year of AP Lit has taught you to focus on the details of the book you’re reading. And it certainly doesn’t help that this question comes at the very end of the essay, and you and your fingers are about as tired as they could possibly be!

But if you approach the prompt with enthusiasm, it can be the cherry on top of your exam, not the straw that breaks the camel’s back (getting creative with metaphors is always important in AP Lit!).

Here are five tips to help you write a great essay response to the third prompt on the AP Lit exam.

1. Select the perfect work.

Wait a minute—you can write about anything under the sun, as long as the College Board defines it as “a work of literary merit?” How is that even possible? In truth, your evaluators are using this prompt as a way to gauge your analytical abilities no matter the text. You’re not going to be judged for the work you select, as long as it’s substantial enough to ensure your analysis can be rich and meaningful. A good rule to live by: if a work pops into your head and you don’t immediately have at least a few different ideas for how to answer the prompt with it, toss it out of your brainstorming process. You want to find a work that is challenging and complex in order to show that you’re capable of effectively analyzing such works.

You have two main options for selecting the perfect work, both equally effective. The first is probably the most common: choose a book, play, or other literary work you read in AP Lit. Because you read it in class, you will almost surely be familiar with its themes and literary devices. Your second option is to pick a work you’ve read on your own, which could be anything from a novel you adored over summer break or the Shakespeare play you starred in at school. We recommend creating a short list of works you’d like to write about before you take your AP Lit exam, just to have your options at hand. As you’ve learned to do in class, consider each work’s rhetorical situation. This way, if you’re on the fence about whether a work is really “of literary merit,” you can ask your teacher or someone else in the know for an expert second opinion!

2. Practice really does make perfect.

You don’t know what the third free-response prompt will be, but you know that it will be! The College Board’s AP Lit exam page is only one of a gazillion easily accessible resources online that compile prompts from past years and devise hypothetical ones, too. These are great places to look. In the weeks leading up to the exam, we recommend selecting three to seven prompts—the more diverse in content, the better—and practicing with your list of works of literary merit. We recommend practicing with a work no more than two or three times—it’s great to know a text inside and out, but you don’t want to be a one-trick pony in case the prompt on the exam doesn’t lend itself to an essay about that text.

3. Outline, outline, outline!

Whether for AP exams , the SAT , or the ACT , you’ve heard the dictum a million times—outlines make better essays, even when your time feels extremely limited! When it’s time for the test, this can feel a little bit trite, but we challenge you to find one soul in the grand history of the AP English Literature exam who hasn’t benefited from creating even a rough outline. This is the place where your reasoning and organization come alive. We recommend devoting 5-7 minutes to your outline—the lower end if you’re confident you know the text inside and out and just need to nail down your claims and evidence, and the higher end if you need to jog your memory and give your thesis a bit more time to gestate.

What should your outline include? Keep it clear and concise. You definitely want to write your thesis; plan the topics of your body paragraphs, including potential topic sentences; and—a helpful, oft-forgotten third part—remind yourself why the work you’ve chosen is the best for the prompt. This last part won’t be formally integrated into your essay, but it’s extremely helpful as you try to stay focused and pointed while writing what can feel like an impossible broad essay.

Student holding pencil

4. Each paragraph is a new opportunity to be creative

The third free-response prompt, and the AP Lit exam in general, is extremely structured. It can feel downright constricting. The little-known truth about the last essay is that it’s the most creative part of the whole exam. You not only get to choose the prompt, but within the roughly five-paragraph structure of the essay you’re penning, you get to be quite creative with what you say in each paragraph. There are so many ways to explain to your readers how, say, a symbol illuminates an important theme in a text. We find this knowledge incredibly liberating; paired wisely with the organization that the outline and the essay require, this creative approach can lead to a top-notch essay.

Person marking paper

5. Proofread, but not just for the sake of proofreading.

We’ve all been there—time is nearly up, you’ve put the period at the end of your conclusion, and now it’s time to make sure you haven’t written an incoherent jumble of nothingness. This is the last, crucial step before handing in your AP Lit exam and never reading again (just kidding!)

Because you’re so exhausted from hours of test-taking, proofreading your third free-response essay can feel like a chore—a hurdle you have to jump to reach the finish line. But it can also be an opportunity to make sure your argument, your analysis, and your claims and evidence are coherent . We don’t mean that you should restructure your thesis—there isn’t time for that, and we’re sure it’s great, anyway!—but we encourage you to make sure that every sentence is as clear, concise, and (reasonably) creative as possible. Proofreading is the time to read every sentence with a fundamental question in the back of your head: What is this sentence doing, and what are the words that form it doing? If something feels like it’s not pulling its weight, don’t hesitate—change or delete it. Now that you’ve nailed the bigger picture, you must demand only the best from the details.



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  • How to write a literary analysis essay | A step-by-step guide

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay | A Step-by-Step Guide

Published on January 30, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on August 14, 2023.

Literary analysis means closely studying a text, interpreting its meanings, and exploring why the author made certain choices. It can be applied to novels, short stories, plays, poems, or any other form of literary writing.

A literary analysis essay is not a rhetorical analysis , nor is it just a summary of the plot or a book review. Instead, it is a type of argumentative essay where you need to analyze elements such as the language, perspective, and structure of the text, and explain how the author uses literary devices to create effects and convey ideas.

Before beginning a literary analysis essay, it’s essential to carefully read the text and c ome up with a thesis statement to keep your essay focused. As you write, follow the standard structure of an academic essay :

  • An introduction that tells the reader what your essay will focus on.
  • A main body, divided into paragraphs , that builds an argument using evidence from the text.
  • A conclusion that clearly states the main point that you have shown with your analysis.

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Table of contents

Step 1: reading the text and identifying literary devices, step 2: coming up with a thesis, step 3: writing a title and introduction, step 4: writing the body of the essay, step 5: writing a conclusion, other interesting articles.

The first step is to carefully read the text(s) and take initial notes. As you read, pay attention to the things that are most intriguing, surprising, or even confusing in the writing—these are things you can dig into in your analysis.

Your goal in literary analysis is not simply to explain the events described in the text, but to analyze the writing itself and discuss how the text works on a deeper level. Primarily, you’re looking out for literary devices —textual elements that writers use to convey meaning and create effects. If you’re comparing and contrasting multiple texts, you can also look for connections between different texts.

To get started with your analysis, there are several key areas that you can focus on. As you analyze each aspect of the text, try to think about how they all relate to each other. You can use highlights or notes to keep track of important passages and quotes.

Language choices

Consider what style of language the author uses. Are the sentences short and simple or more complex and poetic?

What word choices stand out as interesting or unusual? Are words used figuratively to mean something other than their literal definition? Figurative language includes things like metaphor (e.g. “her eyes were oceans”) and simile (e.g. “her eyes were like oceans”).

Also keep an eye out for imagery in the text—recurring images that create a certain atmosphere or symbolize something important. Remember that language is used in literary texts to say more than it means on the surface.

Narrative voice

Ask yourself:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How are they telling it?

Is it a first-person narrator (“I”) who is personally involved in the story, or a third-person narrator who tells us about the characters from a distance?

Consider the narrator’s perspective . Is the narrator omniscient (where they know everything about all the characters and events), or do they only have partial knowledge? Are they an unreliable narrator who we are not supposed to take at face value? Authors often hint that their narrator might be giving us a distorted or dishonest version of events.

The tone of the text is also worth considering. Is the story intended to be comic, tragic, or something else? Are usually serious topics treated as funny, or vice versa ? Is the story realistic or fantastical (or somewhere in between)?

Consider how the text is structured, and how the structure relates to the story being told.

  • Novels are often divided into chapters and parts.
  • Poems are divided into lines, stanzas, and sometime cantos.
  • Plays are divided into scenes and acts.

Think about why the author chose to divide the different parts of the text in the way they did.

There are also less formal structural elements to take into account. Does the story unfold in chronological order, or does it jump back and forth in time? Does it begin in medias res —in the middle of the action? Does the plot advance towards a clearly defined climax?

With poetry, consider how the rhyme and meter shape your understanding of the text and your impression of the tone. Try reading the poem aloud to get a sense of this.

In a play, you might consider how relationships between characters are built up through different scenes, and how the setting relates to the action. Watch out for  dramatic irony , where the audience knows some detail that the characters don’t, creating a double meaning in their words, thoughts, or actions.

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Your thesis in a literary analysis essay is the point you want to make about the text. It’s the core argument that gives your essay direction and prevents it from just being a collection of random observations about a text.

If you’re given a prompt for your essay, your thesis must answer or relate to the prompt. For example:

Essay question example

Is Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” a religious parable?

Your thesis statement should be an answer to this question—not a simple yes or no, but a statement of why this is or isn’t the case:

Thesis statement example

Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” is not a religious parable, but a story about bureaucratic alienation.

Sometimes you’ll be given freedom to choose your own topic; in this case, you’ll have to come up with an original thesis. Consider what stood out to you in the text; ask yourself questions about the elements that interested you, and consider how you might answer them.

Your thesis should be something arguable—that is, something that you think is true about the text, but which is not a simple matter of fact. It must be complex enough to develop through evidence and arguments across the course of your essay.

Say you’re analyzing the novel Frankenstein . You could start by asking yourself:

Your initial answer might be a surface-level description:

The character Frankenstein is portrayed negatively in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein .

However, this statement is too simple to be an interesting thesis. After reading the text and analyzing its narrative voice and structure, you can develop the answer into a more nuanced and arguable thesis statement:

Mary Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as.

Remember that you can revise your thesis statement throughout the writing process , so it doesn’t need to be perfectly formulated at this stage. The aim is to keep you focused as you analyze the text.

Finding textual evidence

To support your thesis statement, your essay will build an argument using textual evidence —specific parts of the text that demonstrate your point. This evidence is quoted and analyzed throughout your essay to explain your argument to the reader.

It can be useful to comb through the text in search of relevant quotations before you start writing. You might not end up using everything you find, and you may have to return to the text for more evidence as you write, but collecting textual evidence from the beginning will help you to structure your arguments and assess whether they’re convincing.

To start your literary analysis paper, you’ll need two things: a good title, and an introduction.

Your title should clearly indicate what your analysis will focus on. It usually contains the name of the author and text(s) you’re analyzing. Keep it as concise and engaging as possible.

A common approach to the title is to use a relevant quote from the text, followed by a colon and then the rest of your title.

If you struggle to come up with a good title at first, don’t worry—this will be easier once you’ve begun writing the essay and have a better sense of your arguments.

“Fearful symmetry” : The violence of creation in William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The introduction

The essay introduction provides a quick overview of where your argument is going. It should include your thesis statement and a summary of the essay’s structure.

A typical structure for an introduction is to begin with a general statement about the text and author, using this to lead into your thesis statement. You might refer to a commonly held idea about the text and show how your thesis will contradict it, or zoom in on a particular device you intend to focus on.

Then you can end with a brief indication of what’s coming up in the main body of the essay. This is called signposting. It will be more elaborate in longer essays, but in a short five-paragraph essay structure, it shouldn’t be more than one sentence.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a stable representation of the callous ambition of modern science throughout the novel. This essay, however, argues that far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as. This essay begins by exploring the positive portrayal of Frankenstein in the first volume, then moves on to the creature’s perception of him, and finally discusses the third volume’s narrative shift toward viewing Frankenstein as the creature views him.

Some students prefer to write the introduction later in the process, and it’s not a bad idea. After all, you’ll have a clearer idea of the overall shape of your arguments once you’ve begun writing them!

If you do write the introduction first, you should still return to it later to make sure it lines up with what you ended up writing, and edit as necessary.

The body of your essay is everything between the introduction and conclusion. It contains your arguments and the textual evidence that supports them.

Paragraph structure

A typical structure for a high school literary analysis essay consists of five paragraphs : the three paragraphs of the body, plus the introduction and conclusion.

Each paragraph in the main body should focus on one topic. In the five-paragraph model, try to divide your argument into three main areas of analysis, all linked to your thesis. Don’t try to include everything you can think of to say about the text—only analysis that drives your argument.

In longer essays, the same principle applies on a broader scale. For example, you might have two or three sections in your main body, each with multiple paragraphs. Within these sections, you still want to begin new paragraphs at logical moments—a turn in the argument or the introduction of a new idea.

Robert’s first encounter with Gil-Martin suggests something of his sinister power. Robert feels “a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him.” He identifies the moment of their meeting as “the beginning of a series of adventures which has puzzled myself, and will puzzle the world when I am no more in it” (p. 89). Gil-Martin’s “invisible power” seems to be at work even at this distance from the moment described; before continuing the story, Robert feels compelled to anticipate at length what readers will make of his narrative after his approaching death. With this interjection, Hogg emphasizes the fatal influence Gil-Martin exercises from his first appearance.

Topic sentences

To keep your points focused, it’s important to use a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph.

A good topic sentence allows a reader to see at a glance what the paragraph is about. It can introduce a new line of argument and connect or contrast it with the previous paragraph. Transition words like “however” or “moreover” are useful for creating smooth transitions:

… The story’s focus, therefore, is not upon the divine revelation that may be waiting beyond the door, but upon the mundane process of aging undergone by the man as he waits.

Nevertheless, the “radiance” that appears to stream from the door is typically treated as religious symbolism.

This topic sentence signals that the paragraph will address the question of religious symbolism, while the linking word “nevertheless” points out a contrast with the previous paragraph’s conclusion.

Using textual evidence

A key part of literary analysis is backing up your arguments with relevant evidence from the text. This involves introducing quotes from the text and explaining their significance to your point.

It’s important to contextualize quotes and explain why you’re using them; they should be properly introduced and analyzed, not treated as self-explanatory:

It isn’t always necessary to use a quote. Quoting is useful when you’re discussing the author’s language, but sometimes you’ll have to refer to plot points or structural elements that can’t be captured in a short quote.

In these cases, it’s more appropriate to paraphrase or summarize parts of the text—that is, to describe the relevant part in your own words:

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The conclusion of your analysis shouldn’t introduce any new quotations or arguments. Instead, it’s about wrapping up the essay. Here, you summarize your key points and try to emphasize their significance to the reader.

A good way to approach this is to briefly summarize your key arguments, and then stress the conclusion they’ve led you to, highlighting the new perspective your thesis provides on the text as a whole:

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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By tracing the depiction of Frankenstein through the novel’s three volumes, I have demonstrated how the narrative structure shifts our perception of the character. While the Frankenstein of the first volume is depicted as having innocent intentions, the second and third volumes—first in the creature’s accusatory voice, and then in his own voice—increasingly undermine him, causing him to appear alternately ridiculous and vindictive. Far from the one-dimensional villain he is often taken to be, the character of Frankenstein is compelling because of the dynamic narrative frame in which he is placed. In this frame, Frankenstein’s narrative self-presentation responds to the images of him we see from others’ perspectives. This conclusion sheds new light on the novel, foregrounding Shelley’s unique layering of narrative perspectives and its importance for the depiction of character.

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AP® English Literature

How to get a 9 on prose analysis frq in ap® english literature.

  • The Albert Team
  • Last Updated On: March 1, 2022

how_to_get_a_9_on_prose_analysis frq in AP® English literature

When it’s time to take the AP® English Literature and Composition exam, will you be ready? If you’re aiming high, you’ll want to know the best route to a five on the AP® exam. You know the exam is going to be tough, so how do prepare for success? To do well on the AP® English Literature and Composition exam, you’ll need to score high on the essays. For that, you’ll need to write a competent, efficient essay that argues an accurate interpretation of the work under examination in the Free Response Question section.

The AP® English Literature and Composition exam consists of two sections, the first being a 55-question multiple choice portion worth 45% of the total test grade. This section tests your ability to read drama, verse, or prose fiction excerpts and answer questions about them. The second section, worth 55% of the total score, requires essay responses to three questions demonstrating your ability to analyze literary works. You’ll have to discuss a poem analysis, a prose fiction passage analysis, and a concept, issue, or element analysis of a literary work–in two hours.

Before the exam, you should know how to construct a clear, organized essay that defends a focused claim about the work under analysis. You must write a brief introduction that includes the thesis statement, followed by body paragraphs that further the thesis statement with detailed, thorough support, and a short concluding paragraph that reiterates and reinforces the thesis statement without repeating it. Clear organization, specific support, and full explanations or discussions are three critical components of high-scoring essays.

General Tips to Bettering Your Odds at a Nine on the AP® English Literature Prose FRQ

You may know already how to approach the prose analysis, but don’t forget to keep the following in mind coming into the exam:

  • Carefully read, review, and underline key to-do’s in the prompt.
  • Briefly outline where you’re going to hit each prompt item — in other words, pencil out a specific order.
  • Be sure you have a clear thesis that includes the terms mentioned in the instructions, literary devices, tone, and meaning.
  • Include the author’s name and title of the prose selection in your thesis statement. Refer to characters by name.
  • Use quotes — lots of them — to exemplify the elements and your argument points throughout the essay.
  • Fully explain or discuss how your examples support your thesis. A deeper, fuller, and more focused explanation of fewer elements is better than a shallow discussion of more elements (shotgun approach).
  • Avoid vague, general statements or merely summarizing the plot instead of clearly focusing on the prose passage itself.
  • Use transitions to connect sentences and paragraphs.
  • Write in the present tense with generally good grammar.
  • Keep your introduction and conclusion short, and don’t repeat your thesis verbatim in your conclusion.

The newly-released 2016 sample AP® English Literature and Composition exam questions, sample responses, and grading rubrics provide a valuable opportunity to analyze how to achieve high scores on each of the three Section II FRQ responses. However, for purposes of this examination, the Prose Analysis FRQ strategies will be the focus. The prose selection for analysis in last year’s exam was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge , a 19th-century novel. Exam takers had to respond to the following instructions:

  • Analyze the complex relationship between the two characters Hardy portrays in the passage.
  • Pay attention to tone, word choice, and detail selection.
  • Write a well-written essay.

For a clear understanding of the components of a model essay, you’ll find it helpful to analyze and compare all three sample answers provided by the CollegeBoard: the high scoring (A) essay, the mid-range scoring (B) essay, and the low scoring (C) essay. All three provide a lesson for you: to achieve a nine on the prose analysis essay, model the ‘A’ essay’s strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the other two.

Start with a Succinct Introduction that Includes Your Thesis Statement

The first sample essay (A) begins with a packed first sentence: the title of the work, author, named characters, and the subject alluded to in the prompt that will form the foundation of the upcoming argument — the strained relationship between father and daughter. Then, after summarizing the context of the passage — that tense relationship — the student quotes relevant phrases (“lower-class”, “verbal aggressions”) that depict the behavior and character of each.

By packing each sentence efficiently with details (“uncultivated”, “hypocritical”) on the way to the thesis statement, the writer controls the argument by folding in only the relevant details that support the claim at the end of the introduction: though reunited physically, father and daughter remain separated emotionally. The writer wastes no words and quickly directs the reader’s focus to the characters’ words and actions that define their estranged relationship. From the facts cited, the writer’s claim or thesis is logical.

literary analysis essay ap lit

The mid-range B essay introduction also mentions the title, author, and relationship (“strange relationship”) that the instructions direct the writer to examine. However, the student neither names the characters nor identifies what’s “strange” about the relationship. The essay needs more specific details to clarify the complexity in the relationship. Instead, the writer merely hints at that complexity by stating father and daughter “try to become closer to each other’s expectations”. There’s no immediately clear correlation between the “reunification” and the expectations. Finally, the student wastes time and space in the first two sentences with a vague platitude for an “ice breaker” to start the essay. It serves no other function.

literary analysis essay ap lit

The third sample lacks cohesiveness, focus, and a clear thesis statement. The first paragraph introduces the writer’s feelings about the characters and how the elements in the story helped the student analyze, both irrelevant to the call of the instructions. The introduction gives no details of the passage: no name, title, characters, or relationship. The thesis statement is shallow–the daughter was better off before she reunited with her father–as it doesn’t even hint at the complexity of the relationship. The writer merely parrots the prompt instructions about “complex relationship” and “speaker’s tone, word choice, and selection of detail”.

literary analysis essay ap lit

In sum, make introductions brief and compact. Use specific details from the passage that support a logical thesis statement which clearly directs the argument and addresses the instructions’ requirements. Succinct writing helps. Pack your introduction with specific excerpt details, and don’t waste time on sentences that don’t do the work ahead for you. Be sure the thesis statement covers all of the relevant facts of the passage for a cohesive argument.

Use Clear Examples to Support Your Argument Points

The A answer supports the thesis by qualifying the relationship as unhealthy in the first sentence. Then the writer includes the quoted examples that contrast what one would expect characterizes a father-daughter relationship — joyous, blessing, support, praise — against the reality of Henchard and Elizabeth’s relationship: “enigma”, “coldness”, and “open chiding”.

These and other details in the thorough first body paragraph leave nothing for the reader to misunderstand. The essayist proves the paragraph’s main idea with numerous examples. The author controls the first argument point that the relationship is unhealthy by citing excerpted words and actions of the two characters demonstrating the father’s aggressive disapproval and the daughter’s earnestness and shame.

The second and third body paragraphs not only add more proof of the strained relationship in the well-chosen example of the handwriting incident but also explore the underlying motives of the father. In suggesting the father has good intentions despite his outward hostility, the writer proposes that Henchard wants to elevate his long-lost daughter. Henchard’s declaration that handwriting “with bristling characters” defines refinement in a woman both diminishes Elizabeth and reveals his silent hope for her, according to the essayist. This contradiction clearly proves the relationship is “complex”.

literary analysis essay ap lit

The mid-range sample also cites specific details: the words Elizabeth changes (“fay” for “succeed”) for her father. These details are supposed to support the point that class difference causes conflict between the two. However, the writer leaves it to the reader to make the connection between class, expectations, and word choices. The example of the words Elizabeth eliminates from her vocabulary does not illustrate the writer’s point of class conflict. In fact, the class difference as the cause of their difficulties is never explicitly stated. Instead, the writer makes general, unsupported statements about Hardy’s focus on the language difference without saying why Hardy does that.

literary analysis essay ap lit

Like the A essay, sample C also alludes to the handwriting incident but only to note that the description of Henchard turning red is something the reader can imagine. In fact, the writer gives other examples of sensitive and serious tones in the passage but then doesn’t completely explain them. None of the details noted refer to a particular point that supports a focused paragraph. The details don’t connect. They’re merely a string of details.

Discussion is Crucial to Connect Your Quotes and Examples to Your Argument Points

Rather than merely citing phrases and lines without explanation, as the C sample does, the A response spends time thoroughly discussing the meaning of the quoted words, phrases, and sentences used to exemplify their assertions. For example, the third paragraph begins with the point that Henchard’s attempts to elevate Elizabeth in order to better integrate her into the mayor’s “lifestyle” actually do her a disservice. The student then quotes descriptive phrases that characterize Elizabeth as “considerate”, notes her successfully fulfilling her father’s expectations of her as a woman, and concludes that success leads to her failure to get them closer — to un-estrange him.

The A sample writer follows the same pattern throughout the essay: assertion, example, explanation of how the example and assertion cohere, tying both into the thesis statement. Weaving the well-chosen details into the discussion to make reasonable conclusions about what they prove is the formula for an orderly, coherent argument. The writer starts each paragraph with a topic sentence that supports the thesis statement, followed by a sentence that explains and supports the topic sentence in furtherance of the argument.

On the other hand, the B response begins the second paragraph with a general topic sentence: Hardy focuses on the differences between the daughter’s behavior and the father’s expectations. The next sentence follows up with examples of the words Elizabeth changes, leading to the broad conclusion that class difference causes clashes. They give no explanation to connect the behavior — changing her words — with how the diction reveals class differences exists. Nor does the writer explain the motivations of the characters to demonstrate the role of class distinction and expectations. The student forces the reader to make the connections.

Similarly, in the second example of the handwriting incident, the student sets out to prove Elizabeth’s independence and conformity conflict. However, the writer spends too much time re-telling the writing episode — who said what — only to vaguely conclude that 19th-century gender roles dictated the dominant and submissive roles of father and daughter, resulting in the loss of Elizabeth’s independence. The writer doesn’t make those connections between gender roles, dominance, handwriting, and lost freedom. The cause and effect of the handwriting humiliation to the loss of independence are never made.

Write a Brief Conclusion

While it’s more important to provide a substantive, organized, and clear argument throughout the body paragraphs than it is to conclude, a conclusion provides a satisfying rounding out of the essay and last opportunity to hammer home the content of the preceding paragraphs. If you run out of time for a conclusion because of the thorough preceding paragraphs, that is not as fatal to your score as not concluding or not concluding as robustly as the A essay sample.

The A response not only provides another example of the father-daughter inverse relationship — the more he helps her fit in, the more estranged they become — but also ends where the writer began: though they’re physically reunited, they’re still emotionally separated. Without repeating it verbatim, the student returns to the thesis statement at the end. This return and recap reinforce the focus and control of the argument when all of the preceding paragraphs successfully proved the thesis statement.

literary analysis essay ap lit

The B response nicely ties up the points necessary to satisfy the prompt had the writer made them clearly. The parting remarks about the inverse relationship building up and breaking down to characterize the complex relationship between father and daughter are intriguing but not well-supported by all that came before them.

literary analysis essay ap lit

Write in Complete Sentences with Proper Punctuation and Compositional Skills

Though pressed for time, it’s important to write an essay with crisp, correctly punctuated sentences and properly spelled words. Strong compositional skills create a favorable impression to the reader, like using appropriate transitions or signals (however, therefore) to tie sentences and paragraphs together, and making the relationships between sentences clear (“also” — adding information, “however” — contrasting an idea in the preceding sentence).

Starting each paragraph with a clear, focused topic sentence that previews the main idea or focus of the paragraph helps you the writer and the reader keep track of each part of your argument. Each section furthers your points on the way to convincing your reader of your argument. If one point is unclear, unfocused, or grammatically unintelligible, like a house of cards, the entire argument crumbles. Excellent compositional skills help you lay it all out neatly, clearly, and fully.

For example, the A response begins the essay with “In this passage from Thomas Hardy”. The second sentence follows with “Throughout the passage” to tie the two sentences together. There’s no question that the two thoughts link by the transitional phrases that repeat and reinforce one another as well as direct the reader’s attention. The B response, however, uses transitions less frequently, confuses the names of the characters, and switches verb tenses in the essay. It’s harder to follow.

So by the time the conclusion takes the reader home, the high-scoring writer has done all of the following:

  • followed the prompt
  • followed the propounded thesis statement and returned to it in the end
  • provided a full discussion with examples
  • included quotes proving each assertion
  • used clear, grammatically correct sentences
  • wrote paragraphs ordered by a thesis statement
  • created topic sentences for each paragraph
  • ensured each topic sentence furthered the ideas presented in the thesis statement

Have a Plan and Follow it

To get a nine on the prose analysis FRQ essay in the AP® Literature and Composition exam, you should practice timed essays. Write as many practice essays as you can. Follow the same procedure each time. After reading the prompt, map out your thesis statement, paragraph topic sentences, and supporting details and quotes in the order of their presentation. Then follow your plan faithfully.

Be sure to leave time for a brief review to catch mechanical errors, missing words, or clarifications of an unclear thought. With time, an organized approach, and plenty of practice, earning a nine on the poetry analysis is manageable. Be sure to ask your teacher or consult other resources, like’s Prose Analysis practice essays, for questions and more practice opportunities.

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AP Lit Prose Analysis: Practice Prompt Samples & Feedback

9 min read • january 2, 2021

Candace Moore

Candace Moore

Practicing Prose Analysis is a great way to prep for the AP exam! Review practice writing samples and corresponding feedback from Fiveable teacher Candace Moore.

The Practice Prompt

Notes from the teacher.

While reading, consider the following questions:

  • What is the author’s language  doing ?
  • What  choices  has the author made in her language?
  • What is the  meaning/impact  of those choices?

As if you were writing a whole essay,  write a thesis  that establishes

1) the relationship Petry establishes between Lutie Johnson and the setting,

2) which figurative language devices Petry employed to establish the relationship, and

3) any complexity you identified in that relationship. Start a new paragraph  that analyzes  one pattern  of figurative language and its role in the relationship. You should have  at least two pieces of evidence  and  at least three sentences of commentary  making the connection between the language and the claim from your thesis.

Replay: Prose Analysis Thesis and Introduction

Read the selection carefully and then write an essay analyzing how Petry establishes Lutie Johnson’s relationship to the urban setting through the use of literary devices.

Passage and Prompt

Writing Samples and Feedback

Student sample 1.

In  The Street , by Ann Petry, the author establishes a victim and attacker relationship between Johnson and the urban setting. She uses personification, metaphor, and imagery of the wind to convey their relationship. Although the setting is portrayed as very violent, Petry also showcases its annoying characteristics to further add to their relationship.

The passage starts off with introducing the wind as it " rattled the tops of garbage cans  and “ sucked window shades out ”. Immediately, it’s described as a violent figure that gives off an aggressive and depressing atmosphere. It purposely bothers people, going as far as driving them out the streets. It meticulously bothers Lutie Johnson as she shivers when “ the cold fingers of the wind touched the back of her neck, and explored the sides of her head. ”: making her feel uncomfortable and powerless.

Teacher feedback:

You have a thesis that establishes a line of reasoning, and names the relationship between Lutie and the setting, which is great! So that earns the point. My push for you would be to get all of that into one sentence, because that would cut down on the repetition, and strengthen your writing style. 1/1: Thesis
Your paragraph uses well-selected evidence, but as a reader, I’m not convinced that you know what part of your argument you’re proving in this paragraph, or how your line of reasoning is supported. The first three sentences are connected by the violence/aggression, but then you shift to a different aspect of the relationship in the second half without a clear link between. Ev&Comm: 2/4

Student Sample 2

In  The   Street,  by Ann Petry, she establishes a negative relationship between Lutie Johnson and the urban setting. She uses the literary devices, personification and metaphor to show how the wind is impacting the people in the city. Petry also displays how the people in the urban area felt with the wind to express the negative relationship they have with the wind.

The way that the wind is expressed in the passage is as it were a human and has human features. An example of the wind having a human feature would be when the wind “did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street.” One can notice that the wind ruined a person’s spirit while they are strolling through the streets. "And then the wind grabbed their hats, pried their scarves from around their necks, stuck its fingers inside their coat collars, blew their coats away from their bodies. " Petry used personification in that sentence to make it seem as though the wind has hands by saying that it grabbed hats and stuck its fingers in their coat collars to portray that the wind felt very eerie.

Your thesis establishes a relationship (negative), and names the devices that you will use in your analysis. However, your thesis does not establish a strong line of reasoning because you don’t make a whole argument when you say “how the people … felt” and “how the wind is impacting” instead of giving your interpretation (e.g. the people felt like victims, or the wind assaults them). 1/1
Your paragraph does clearly interpret the personification in the passage, and uses evidence that shows how Petry gives human qualities to the wind. However, you did not go the next step to analyze the relationship through the personification thoroughly. Try to spend more of your paragraph connecting the device to your argument, as well as clarifying the connection between the evidence points in your paragraph. 2/4

Student Sample 3

In  The Street  by Ann Petry, a negative relationship was established between the character Lutie Johnson and the urban setting in the story. The author uses diction, personification, and imagery to portray how the wind and Lutie have a negative relationship.

The word choice of Petry clearly establishes a negative relationship between Lutie and the wind by using words like “discourage,” “entangling,” “cold,” and “shivered.” All of these words hold negative connotation and create a feeling of invasiveness and being attacked. When the wind lifted Lutie’s hair and she “shivered as the cold fingers of the wind touched the back of her neck,” the audience can clearly see that the wind is not creating a pleasant sensation for Lutie. If the author were to use plain diction like “Lutie felt cold when the wind toughed her neck,” there would be no emotion and nor establishment of a strong relationship. The audience would have just known that the wind was cold.

Your thesis establishes your argument about a negative relationship and names the devices you will use. 1/1
The first two sentences of your paragraph are very strong – you have a device supported by the evidence, and your commentary connects to the argument. However, the rest of the paragraph does not analyze the relationship; it only interprets the diction. If you explained the connotation of that line as clearly, you would have a strong commentary. 2/4

Student Sample 4

In  The Street , Ann Petry portrays the abusive relationship between Johnson and the urban setting, through the usage of diction, personification, and imagery. The main culprit of this abuse is the natural wind, how it is violent and stops at nothing to bother the characters.

The passage begins with introducing the wind as it “rattled the tops of garbage cans” and “sucked window shades out”. Right off the bat, the characteristics of the wind is violent, a force that cannot be stopped. The wind is aggressive, purposely bothering the people, completely emptying the streets. The wind then begins abuses Johnson, making her shiver with “[its] cold fingers touch[ing] the back of her neck, and explor[ing] the sides of her head.” This removes any power that Johnson could of had, ending with the wind dominating over her.

You have a strong thesis in regards to its argument establishment – you have clearly interpreted the relationship. 1/1
Your evidence is well-selected, and your commentary tightly connected to the line of reasoning you established in your thesis. The last sentence is very strong. Organizationally, I would move the second sentence to the beginning of the paragraph as your assertion, creating a thread for the paragraph from the start that you can follow through the rest of the sentences. This makes your line of reasoning clearer and stronger, and more “sophisticated”. 3/4

Student Sample 5

In  The Street , by Ann Petry, a tug of war dynamic relationship is established between Lutie Johnson and the urban setting and portrayed in a negative light. Through the use of personification, imagery, and diction the fight Johnson faces against the brutal wind is shown.

Petry uses personification throughout the passage to describe the wind as if it is a person. Things such as, “Each time she thought she had the sign in focus, the wind pushed it away from her” By doing this the audience sees the wind directly affecting Johnson and creating a fighting relationship between the two of them. As Johnson tries to read a sign the wind pushes it away as if it doesn’t want her to go. By making it seem like the wind is trying to directly fight Johnson it makes the fight more personal The wind even chills Johnson by touching the back of her neck with its “cold fingers”. The wind now seems even more human like, as if the wind is grabbing Johnson in an aggressive manner. The act of the wind touching her neck is meant to scare Johnson and hold her back even more for where she needs to go. Each time Johnson tugs away from the wind, the wind pulls even more to fight Johnson.

Your thesis is strong, and establishes the relationship as one with a “tug of war dynamic”. 1/1
Your first sentence of your body paragraph establishes personification as the device, but only defines personification instead of beginning your interpretation that will lead to analysis (e.g. … personification to show the wind as creating barriers for Lutie). Your analysis is clear and effective, however, in showing the relationship and how the personification creates it. 3/4

Student Sample 6

In  The Street , by Ann Petry, the author establishes an obstructive relationship between Luti Johnson and the urban setting, particularly the wind. Petry employs the use of personification, imagery, and metaphor to express how Luti struggles against the wind.

The author used personification to describe the wind throughout this passage. This makes the effects of the wind seem deliberate and personal. When Luti is first introduces in the passage, the wind “lifted” her hair, exposing her neck. This action caused Luti to feel vulnerable and cold. Then, “the cold fingers of the wind touched the back of her neck, explored the sides of her head.” This statement makes it seem as if the wind is purposely violating Luti’s privacy and exposing her to the cold. By using personification to describe the wind, the author takes a natural element and turns it into a cruel, aggressive character. By giving the wind this “personality,” Petry is able to convey how destructive its actions are towards Luti.

Good thesis! You’ve given a very specific name to the relationship that establishes a line of reasoning. Having two sentences to establish these parts isn’t necessary, though. 1/1
I appreciate that you have an assertion that shows where the sentence is going. Again those first two sentences could be one: Throughout the passage, the author personifies the wind’s actions as deliberate and personal. The rest of the paragraph is strong, however, and connects clearly and effectively to your argument. Make sure that it connects clearly to the thesis, as well.

Student Sample 7

In  The Street , by Ann Petry, the author uses personification in order to show the wind as a powerful figure. Through these literary devices, the audience can see the influence of the winds on the people of the town, creating the wind to seem like a relentless bully.

At the beginning of the story, the personification of the wind is established. The wind comes off as aggressive and ruthless by driving people into their homes. The wind’s motive is then revealed, creating a sense of motivation that drives the wind  “It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street”  By blinding people with dust and wrapping the newspaper around their feet, the wind is portraying doing what a human would do when they are being malicious and ruthless. When Lutie Johnson is introduced, the audience gains a sense of innocence in her character. So, when the wind  “… blew her eyelashes away from her eyes so that her eyeballs were bathed in a rush of coldness…” , the wind is conceived as a bully. The audience can help to feel bad for what she has to endure. The wind continues to have this bully mentality when she tries to read the sign. However, the wind eventually lets her read the sign, allowing her to see it for an instant.

Strong thesis! “Relentless bully” shows you are clear on the relationship, as well as how you plan to analyze it through the personification. 1/1
You have very effective word choice in your analysis, which makes your writing and analysis fluid. The line of reasoning from your thesis is supported by your interpretation of the wind as malicious, ruthless, etc. However, your introduction of Lutie as a character with innocence is not as clearly connected or supported, and your last sentence seems to contradict the rest of the paragraph. 3/4


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literary analysis essay ap lit

AP English Literature: Approaches to Poetry Analysis

literary analysis essay ap lit

Mastering the art of poetry analysis is crucial for success in the AP English Literature exam. Here's a comprehensive guide on various approaches to poetry analysis that can enhance your understanding and interpretation of poetic texts:

1. Close Reading:

   - Focus: Examine the language, structure, and literary devices within the poem.

   - Analysis: Pay close attention to individual words, phrases, and images. Consider the impact of sound devices like rhyme, meter, and alliteration.

2. Structural Analysis:

   - Focus: Explore the poem's organization and form.

   - Analysis: Consider the arrangement of stanzas, lines, and the overall structure. Evaluate the impact of the chosen form on the poem's meaning.

3. Figurative Language:

   - Focus: Identify and analyze metaphor, simile, personification, and other figurative elements.

   - Analysis: Explore how figurative language contributes to the poem's themes, tone, and overall impact. Consider the symbolic significance.

4. Imagery:

   - Focus: Examine vivid and sensory language used to create mental images.

   - Analysis: Explore how imagery appeals to the senses and contributes to the poem's emotional or thematic resonance.

5. Theme Exploration:

   - Focus: Identify and interpret the central themes of the poem.

   - Analysis: Consider recurring ideas, motifs, or messages. Reflect on how the poet explores and conveys these themes through language and imagery.

6. Tone and Mood:

   - Focus: Determine the emotional tone and mood of the poem.

   - Analysis: Analyze word choices, diction, and the overall atmosphere created by the poem. Consider how the poet's tone contributes to the reader's emotional response.

7. Character Analysis (Persona):

   - Focus: Consider the speaker or persona of the poem.

   - Analysis: Analyze the characteristics, perspectives, and motivations of the speaker. Consider how the speaker's voice shapes the poem's meaning.

8. Historical and Cultural Context:

   - Focus: Explore the historical and cultural influences on the poem.

   - Analysis: Consider how societal events or cultural movements at the time of writing may impact the poem's themes, perspectives, and language.

9. Allusion and Intertextuality:

   - Focus: Identify references to other works, myths, or historical events.

   - Analysis: Explore how the use of allusion adds layers of meaning to the poem. Consider the impact of intertextuality on interpretation.

10. Sound and Rhythm:

    - Focus: Examine the poem's auditory qualities.

    - Analysis: Consider the rhythm, meter, and sound patterns. Explore how the poet's use of sound enhances the poem's meaning and emotional impact.

11. Symbolism:

    - Focus: Identify symbolic elements within the poem.

    - Analysis: Interpret the significance of symbols and their contribution to the poem's themes or messages. Consider both conventional and unconventional symbols.

12. Comparative Analysis:

    - Focus: Compare the poem with other works or poets.

    - Analysis: Explore similarities and differences in themes, styles, or approaches. Consider how this comparative analysis enriches the understanding of the poem.

13. Biographical Approach:

    - Focus: Consider the poet's life and experiences.

    - Analysis: Explore how the poet's personal experiences or background may influence the themes, perspectives, or emotions conveyed in the poem.

14. Reader Response:

    - Focus: Consider the reader's subjective response to the poem.

    - Analysis: Reflect on your own emotional reactions, interpretations, and connections with the poem. Consider how different readers might respond differently.

15. Contextual Analysis:

    - Focus: Analyze the broader context in which the poem was written.

    - Analysis: Consider historical, cultural, or literary movements that may have influenced the poet. Explore how the poem responds to or challenges the prevailing norms of its time.

By employing these diverse approaches to poetry analysis, you can develop a nuanced understanding of poems and effectively express your interpretations in the AP English Literature exam. Combining these strategies allows for a comprehensive exploration of the multifaceted elements that make poetry a rich and complex form of literary expression.

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literary analysis essay ap lit

—AP Poetry Analysis—

We choose our AP Poetry Analysis prompts not just to prepare students for the essay on the AP Literature exam, but also to introduce the major themes of the novel or play through a complementary text that addresses the subject matter through a different lens.  Similar to the thought-provoking quotation that we use as the basis of our Journal Discussions, we want to give students another perspective on the issues they will encounter in the novel or play they are about to read.

Oftentimes, the choice of poem is relatively obvious by allusions made in the title or text of the novel or play.  For instance, when reading Chinua Achebe's  Things Fall Apart , it makes sense to analyze William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming," the poem from which the title of the novel is taken.  Similarly, when reading Kate Chopin's  The Awakening , it is helpful to analyze Charles Swinburne's "A Cameo" since Gouvernail murmurs the first two lines of the poem during Edna's farewell dinner on Esplanade Street. There is a reason that authors and playwrights allude to other literary works, and our job as readers is to determine the thematic connection between the two. 

When there is not an obvious allusion made in the title or text, we have the opportunity to select a poem that relates thematically to the novel or play and is consistent with the AP Literary Analysis prompt already chosen.  For instance, when we teach Sandra Cisneros'  The House on Mango Street , we want students to focus on how Esperanza's feelings towards her neighborhood change over the course of the novel.  To achieve this purpose we chose the 2010 AP Literary Argument prompt for our final essay:

"You can leave home all you want, but home will never leave you."

- Sonsyrea Tate

Sonsyrea Tate's statement suggests that "home" may be conceived as a dwelling, a place, or a state of mind.  It may have positive or negative associations, but in either case, it may have a considerable influence on the individual.

Choose a novel or play in which a central character leaves home yet finds that home remains significant.  Write a well-developed essay in which you analyze the importance of "home" to this character and the reasons for its continuing influence.  Explain how the character's idea of home illuminates the larger meaning of the work.

While there are many poems that focus on the concept of "home," we selected Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" to compare and contrast with Cisneros' work.  When analyzing any piece of literature, we focus on the four pillars of style analysis:  diction, imagery, language, and syntax.  We go into depth on all four pillars in the Style Analysis Tutorial , so for this section we will focus on what is unique about analyzing poetry in comparison to prose.

When we present a poem to the class, we structure it like an AP Poetry Analysis prompt that students will find on the AP Literature exam so they get more comfortable with the format:

Hayden AP Poetry Analysis.jpg

When we first introduce poetry to students, we note that paragraphs and sentences in prose have been replaced with stanzas and lines in poetry.  We emphasize, however, that most poetry is still written in complete thoughts and contains end punctuation.  Our advice to students is to read poetry as if it were prose, pausing and stopping when the punctuation dictates.  We always read poems out loud in class twice — the first time by the teacher to model how it should sound and then a second time by a student reader.  For poems with multiple long stanzas, we might have different students read different stanzas aloud.  

Since every word in poetry is important, we first define any words that students might not know —like "indifferently" or "austere" in Hayden's poem, for example .  We want students to consider the significance of the diction, imagery, and language in a poem —which, again, we discuss in detail in the Style Analysis Tutorial —but in this tutorial we are going to focus on how the specific syntax of poetry, which we call poetic devices, differs from prose and how poets use these poetic devices to establish tone and reveal theme. 

We break poetic devices into three categories based on the repetition of sounds.  The first category identifies the repetition of specific letter-sounds, which takes the form of alliteration, consonance, and assonance.  The second category concentrates on the repetition of syllables, which involves a poem's rhyme, rhythm, and meter.  The third category focuses on the repetition of words or phrases, which we call parallel structure:

Poetic Devices.jpg

I.  Alliteration/Consonance/Assonance

Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words whereas consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds within words.  Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.   Poets use repeated sounds not just because they are pleasing to the ear , but also to emphasize certain words  and create connections between words.

Let's look at the opening stanza of Hayden's poem:

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

When introducing poetic devices, we first ask students to find as many repetitions of consonant and vowel sounds as possible within an opening stanza.  For Hayden's poem, students usually notice the repetition of the hard "k" sound that comes at the beginning of words like " cl othes," " c old," and " cr acked"; in the middle of words like "cra ck ed," "a ch ed," "wee k day," "ba nk ed," and "tha nk ed"; and at the end of words like "bluebla ck ."


When we ask students to describe the tone, or feeling, associated with that particular sound, students often say it is harsh and abrupt.  The next question is why Hayden would want to repeat that particular sound in his opening stanza, and how that sound might reflect the feelings that the speaker has internalized when remembering his father and his childhood home.  

Despite the coldness of the relationship he had with his father, it is clear that the speaker's feelings have changed now that he is older.  The adult speaker seems to recognize and appreciate the fact that his father "got up early" during the week, most likely to go to a blue-collar job that produced "cracked hands that ached."  Not only does Hayden alliterate the " w eekday w eather" to emphasize the harsh conditions that his father endured during the week to provide for his family, but he also alliterates the " bl ue bl ack cold" when the speaker's father "made /  b anked fires bl aze" to show how the father also provided comfort for his family in the early morning darkness before any of them had gotten out of bed.


When Hayden stops the opening thought with a caesura in the middle of the fifth line, he uses the period to interrupt the flow of the line to set us up for the devastating final words of the stanza:  "No one ever thanked him."  When reading those words, we sense the guilt and regret the speaker has for failing to appreciate his father when he was a child.

Hayden's use of assonance is also interesting to analyze in the first stanza, specifically with the juxtaposition of long and short "a" sounds.  The long "a" sounds connect the hands that " a ched / from l a bor in the weekd a y weather m a de / banked fires bl a ze."  Those same hands that "ached" from long hours of manual labor outside the home were the same hands that "made" the fires inside the home —on "Sund a ys too"— to provide comfort and warmth for his family.


One could argue that the length of those drawn out "a" sounds  reflects the long thankless days that the father spent providing for his family with no apparent acknowledgment or appreciation of his sacrifice.  Is there bitterness inside the father?  Perhaps those harsh "k" sounds combined with the short "a" sounds in "bluebl a ck," "cr a cked," "b a nked," and "th a nked" reflect not just the speaker's fear of his father as a child, but also the resentment that the speaker imagines the father must have had towards his ungrateful family.

We emphasize with students that any literary interpretation—but especially with an analysis of the subtleties of syntax or poetic devices—is subject to debate.  The role of a literary critic is not necessarily to be "correct," but to make interesting observations based on evidence from the text to make the reader think differently or more deeply about the work.  Some interpretations are more convincing than others based on the evidence to support the claims, and others are more compelling based on the insight and depth of the analysis. 

Our advice to students is to think deeply about the literary work and make as interesting an argument as possible based on the evidence from the text.  An essay does not necessarily have to convince the reader that a certain interpretation is "right," but it should always aspire to be thought-provoking and make the reader think about the work in a new way.

II.  Rhyme/Rhythm/Meter

When we introduce the concept of rhyme, we differentiate between "end rhymes" and "internal rhymes."  When end rhymes create a consistent pattern, we call that a "rhyme scheme" and use letters, such as ABAB,  to represent the repeating pattern.  For Hayden's poem, however, there are no end rhymes, which means there is no rhyme scheme.  The first question that students should ask is why Hayden would choose to write his poem in free verse rather than with a set rhyme scheme.

Just because there are no end rhymes does not mean, however, that there are no internal rhymes.  In the first stanza, we see "blue black " and " cracked " on successive lines and " banked " and " thanked " in the same line.  These internal rhymes are not only aesthetically pleasing to the ear, but they also link those words thematically.  It is up to the reader to make a connection as to why the poet would want to pair those two words.

Internal Rhyme.jpg

In the first pairing, the "blue black cold" represents the harsh conditions that the father has to face everyday — "Sundays too" — to provide and care for his family.  His perpetual sacrifice is represented by the " cracked hands that ached," but it seems that the "aching" of his hands does not just reflect a physical hardship; instead, it seems to also imply an internal suffering, one that the speaker is unable to recognize as a child but acknowledges and takes some responsibility for as an adult.  Similarly, the " banked fires" that the father made "blaze" every morning go unacknowledged by his family; despite the fact that he should have been " thanked " for the sacrifices he made, no one ever did.

In the second stanza, Hayden also uses internal rhymes effectively:

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he'd call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

The first line connects " wake " with the first syllable in " break ing," showing how the father regularly gets up in the early morning to make the house warm for his family by "breaking" the cold.  The tone of the stanza, however, is not one of familial love and warmth.  The present participles at the end of the first line connect with the present participle in the fourth line to create a series of internal rhymes by repeating the "-ing" syllable on "splinter ing ," "break ing ," and "fear ing ."  Despite the speaker's understanding at an intellectual level that the father's efforts are "splintering" and "breaking" the cold, they are sublimated by his simultaneously "fearing the chronic angers of that house." Instead of feeling gratitude for this father's efforts, the speaker only has dread and fear, fully aware that his father's temper is always in threat of "splintering" and "breaking" the peace and tranquility of the house.

When determining rhythm, we have to look at the punctuation and the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (i.e. meter) in a line or stanza.  In looking at the punctuation in the second stanza, the first thing we notice is the proliferation of commas.  The comma at the end of the first line creates an asyndeton that takes the place of an "and" that could have easily separated the two present participles in a smoother, more rhythmic way.  Instead, Hayden uses the comma to create a jarring transition between the two participles that abruptly concludes with the period at the end of the line. 

One could argue that the punctuation aptly reflects the harsh, abrupt tone that we saw in the consonance of the repeated "k" sounds in the first stanza, which continues in the second stanza with " c old," "brea k ing," " c all," and " chr oni c ."  The commas at the end of each successive line in the second stanza slows the pace and makes us consider each line carefully.  The commas never complete the thought, however, so we carry the tension from one line to the next — and even into the next stanza — understanding implicitly that the "chronic angers of that house" remain unresolved and simmering beneath the surface, which breaks any sense of harmony in the house or rhythm in the poem.

The disruptive punctuation is complemented by the absence of a set meter.   To determine meter, we have to recognize which syllables are stressed and which are not.  The easiest way to do that is to look at the multi-syllable words first to determine where the natural accents lie.  For instance, the word "splintering" in the first line of the second stanza has three syllables, but only one contains the natural accent, which is the first; the final two syllables are unstressed.  Likewise, in "breaking" the first syllable is stressed and the second is not.   In fact, all of the multi-syllable words in the second stanza have the first syllable stressed:

Meter I.jpg

After we find the natural accents, we then look at the single-syllable words, where there is ample room for interpretation.  In general, primary words — like nouns and verbs — are usually stressed whereas secondary words — like articles and prepositions — are not.   This is a guideline but not a rule, however.  When words are stressed, they are emphasized; sometimes it makes sense, based on the context of the line, to stress an adjective, for instance, rather than the noun.  Similarly, stressed and unstressed syllables usually alternate in poetry to create a natural rhythm, but poets will intentionally disrupt the rhythm to call attention to specific words. 

Here is a possible scan of the second stanza in Hayden's poem:

Meter II.jpg

The first line starts off with a series of three rhythmic iambs (two-syllable combinations of unaccented syllables followed by accented syllables) before the pattern is broken with the words "splintering, breaking" at the end of the line.  By analyzing the meter, we can assume that soon after waking—even on Sundays with a fire warming the house—the speaker still feels a sense of tension and unease.  What is interesting is Hayden's decision to end the line with a weak, unaccented syllable, which one could argue conveys a sense of weary resignation, as if the speaker can never escape the constant "splintering, breaking" tension that permeates the house.  

The first syllable of the second line, "When," could certainly be accented, but leaving it unaccented allows that feeling of helplessness to carry over from the previous line and build into another series of rhythmic iambs that runs through the next two lines until it is disrupted once again by a present participle, this time "Fearing," which starts the fourth line and connects to the "splintering, breaking" of the first line.  This rhythmic pattern—and its disruption—repeats itself as if to imply that any sense of harmony within the house cannot remain for long. 

The preposition "of" in the final line of the stanza could also be unstressed, but choosing to accent the preposition creates another series of four straight iambs that is broken once again by a present participle, this time the "Speaking" at the beginning of the final stanza.  What is interesting is that the father is responsible for the "splintering, breaking" of the rhythm in the second stanza, but it is the speaker who is responsible for breaking the rhythm in the final stanza by "Speaking indifferently" to his father, which seems to imply that they both share responsibility for the psychic tension and "chronic angers of that house."  

III.  Parallel Structure

Parallel structure is the repetition of words or phrases within the lines of a poem.  We have already seen how Hayden uses parallel structure in repeating the use of present participles to break the rhythm of the lines in the second stanza and at the beginning of the third.  We also see a key repetition in the penultimate line that, one could argue, unlocks the thematic meaning of the entire poem:

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love's austere and lonely offices?

By repeating "'What did I know, what did I know" the speaker acknowledges his own ignorance as a child of the love and sacrifice that his father demonstrated through his daily actions.  The repetition also implies a sense of guilt and regret that he was unable to understand or appreciate his father when he was younger.  What is obvious is that the speaker has matured over the years —perhaps now having children of his own—and sees his father in a new, more compassionate light.  

To help students identify poetic devices and become more comfortable with the analytical process, we provide five study guide questions on the back of the AP prompt that students should try to answer on their own.  When students return to class, we answer any questions they may have and share our different interpretations of the poem as a whole class.

Hayden AP Study Guide.jpg

After we have explicated the poem and answered questions from the study guide, students prepare to write their AP Poetry Analysis essay.  Similar to the other AP essays, we encourage students to use  Hegel's Dialectic to organize their thoughts and outline their arguments:

Hegel's Dialectic.jpg

The AP Poetry Analysis prompt for Hayden's poem asks students to consider how the speaker has "re-assessed" the "strained" relationship he had with his father in childhood.  One possible way to organize the argument would be to have the thesis, or initial claim (i.e. first body paragraph), focus on the "strained" relationship in the speaker's childhood.  The antithesis, or counter-claim (i.e. second body paragraph), could then focus on the speaker's re-assessment of that relationship once he becomes an adult.  The synthesis (i.e. third body paragraph) would focus on what the speaker has learned from the experience, which would also reflect Hayden's overall theme (i.e. "the meaning of the work as a whole").

If this were the first assignment of the year, we would provide a model for what a quality AP Poetry Analysis essay using Hegel's Dialectic might look like: 

Sample Hayden Essay I.jpg

When using Hegel's Dialectic for an AP Poetry Analysis essay, it is sometimes helpful to think of the thesis/antithesis/synthesis model in terms of tone and theme instead.  Students should look for competing, yet complementary, tones in the poem, which would then be the focus of their first two body paragraphs.  Students would then resolve the tension between those competing tones by revealing overall theme in the concluding third body paragraph.

Hegel's Tone.jpg

Once students have completed the Journal Discussion and written the AP Poetry Analysis essay, they are now ready to begin the novel or play with a solid introduction to the major themes of the work.  Moreover, they will be able to compare and contrast how the author or playwright addresses the Essential Questions with the poet and and the author/speaker of the quotation.  Ultimately, students will have to answer those Essential Questions for themselves, but they now have three different guides to help them along the way.

<<  Style Analysis Tutorial

AP Passage Analysis Tutorial  >>


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  21. AP Poetry Analysis Tutorial

    Once students have completed the Journal Discussion and written the AP Poetry Analysis essay, they are now ready to begin the novel or play with a solid introduction to the major themes of the work. Moreover, they will be able to compare and contrast how the author or playwright addresses the Essential Questions with the poet and and the author ...