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Commentary Samples From Exam English Language Essay

Stephen Edgar’s “The Secret Life of Books” is about the nature of reading and the power of literature to affect the reader. The poem personifies books, imagining how they silently plot to draw in their readers, and then moves to a discussion of how the readers are changed by their reading. Edgar structures his poem to illustrate the nature of this relationship between literature and its readers.

“The Secret Life of Books” is divided into five stanzas, each six lines in length. A lyric poem, it is a brief commentary revealing the speaker’s emotions on its topic. Within such a brief length, Edgar has developed a specific structure to each stanza. Of the six lines in a stanza, the first is long (10-12 syllables), the second is short (3-5 syllables), the third and fourth are long, the fifth is short, and the sixth is long. The second and sixth lines of each stanza rhyme, or come close to rhyming, as do the third and fifth. This structure is consistent throughout the entire length of the poem.

The first stanza introduces the idea of books’ after-hours scheming, and describes how they influence the outside world: “they do their work through others/ . . .by the twisting of heart.” The stanza is consistent in voice and character. Each sentence has “they” referring to books as its subject: “They have... They know… they do their work... They have turned the world.” However, the stanza also employs a contradiction to illustrate its theme. On the one hand, the dominant image of books in the stanza is that produced by the simile in lines 3 and 4: “Like invalids long reconciled /To stillness.” Books are incapable of movement and seemingly inactive: “they can’t move.” On the other hand, the stanza describes their effects using language which suggests movement: “They have turned the world/ By the twisting of hearts.” This contrast between images of stasis and kinesis emphasizes the paradox of the poem’s theme: how can inanimate objects produce change?

The next stanza directly raises this question: “What do they have to say and how do they say it?” How can a book speak? This question is not answered directly. Instead it introduces whimsical images of books plotting in “the library/ At night or the sun room.” The stanza also introduces the use of the second person: “something is going on,/ You may suspect...” For the first time in the poem interplay exists between “they” (the books) and “you” (the reader). However, such interaction is only mental-suspicion. The reader has not yet opened the book and begun to read. The stanza is mainly preparatory - it describes the setting (library or sun room), introduces a second character, and, most importantly, creates tension in the poem by bringing up an unanswered question. This quality of unfinishedness is emphasized by Edgar’s use of an incomplete sentence at the end of the stanza. Completion, he suggests, will come later.

The third stanza begins by completing the sentence that ended the previous stanza: “Yet they/ Need you.” The use of “Need” to begin the stanza establishes its dominant idea, that a book needs a reader to become complete. In this, the central stanza of the poem, the reader (“you”) picks up one of “them” and begins to read. Another question is raised: “Why this one?” The answer has been provided by the previous two stanzas’ set-up: the books’ “stratagems” have drawn you in. The stanza contains images of “determinism, the selfish gene,” alluding to science as an attempt to answer our questions. But the author seems to disagree that a “selfish” or other gene causes our choice of reading matter; he prefers his capricious idea of books’ secret midnight strategy sessions. Literature itself is what draws the reader in and it is addictive: “already the blurb/ is drawing in/ Some further text.” To demonstrate this, Edgar again leaves his final sentence of the stanza unfinished, showing how one word leads to the next.

The fourth stanza continues the idea of one book leading to another, an “atlas or gazetteer,” for example, to look up unfamiliar place-names. But in the fourth stanza Edgar moves on from the idea of addictive reading and begins to answer the question posed in stanza two: how do books speak? The answer he provides is that they use the reader, by prompting discussion or provoking thought. In a poem “spare/As a dead leaf’s skeleton,” the reader must provide the words that the author left out. Edgar uses the metaphor of relations between the sexes to describe his idea of how a poem or other work of literature speaks. A piece of literature provides us with a script, but just as “lovers never hear” the script passed “through the sexes,” the reader may never realize that his ideas stem from a book he has read.

This idea is developed further in the final stanza, bringing the poem to its conclusion. When the reader comes “to think, to tell, to do,” he ends up not thinking in an original manner, but becomes a model of what he has read. “In the end they have written you”; their thoughts become yours. Structurally, this stanza connects to the first stanza. It is self-contained, neither beginning nor ending with part of a sentence. In addition, the phrasing of the first line, “They have you,” echoes the poem’s opening: “They have their stratagems too.” What exactly are the books plotting? The parallel structure at the poem’s end resolves this question. They were plotting to have their ideas become part of us.

The title of the poem is extremely significant. It is the only time in the poem that the word “books” is used, and thus the readers’ only clue to the identity of “they” used over and over in the poem. The phrase “secret life” carries the connotation of glamorous and exciting dual identities, lending the poem a touch of whimsy. It echoes sensationalist tabloid headlines, leading the reader to suspect exciting and surreptitious goings-on in the library at midnight.

Any poem that describes literature to such an extent as this one lends itself to being read as self-referential. In this case, the author seems to be acutely aware that this poem will be analyzed, and some of his lines suggest that he is directly speaking to the analyzer. The question: “What do they have to say and how do they say it?” is a classic prompt when analyzing a poem or other piece of literature. The irony in this poem is that, like the books it describes, it will become part of its readers’ mind; it will write us, so to speak. The inherent irony within the poem makes Edgar’s use of a light tone appropriate; were he to write an extremely serious piece on this topic, it would seem that he had failed to understand that his own work was part of the process he describes, instead, he is fully aware that the quotation marks we are caught between may be his own.

Although “The Secret Life of Books” has a light, or whimsical tone, it provides serious insight into the relationship between author and reader. Just as a composer needs musicians for his art to come to life, an author needs readers, or his work has no more worth than lines on a page. At the same time that the author needs the reader, the reader needs literature, needs the ideas it contains for they help him to form opinions and expose him to new ideas. We are what we read, Edgar suggests, but this is not necessarily a bad thing; this transformation must occur for authors to turn the world.

Commentary Marks from Exam 1, May 2001

Higher Level

This is an example of an excellent commentary. The first paragraph gives a concise introduction to the main ideas in the poem and relates the ideas to the structure of the poem. After an analysis of line lengths, which is accurate but not enlightening, the candidate proceeds to discuss the poem stanza by stanza. This works for this poem because of its logical progression which the candidate clearly understands. He does not always use the correct terms but, more importantly he can discuss effects, as he does for the enjambment between stanzas 2 and 3, and 3 and 4. He has an excellent understanding of voice, does not avoid the difficult metaphors (see comments on “dead leaf’s skeleton”) but refrains from translating the obvious. The candidate was one of the few who realized that the poem was humorous. There are plenty of detailed references to the text and the language is correct and usually concise. Score: 55555 for a total of 25.


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