Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

3.2 Carrying out an analysis

Here, then, is the two-verse poem we will focus on in the next few sections of the course. As you see, I have left out the ends of the lines in the second verse. So it presents you with a kind of ‘puzzle’. (But I have included the punctuation, and added line numbers for ease of reference.)

  1. The grey sea and the long black land;

  2. And the yellow half-moon large and low;

  3. And the startled little waves that leap

  4. In fiery ringlets from their sleep,

  5. As I gain the cove with pushing prow,

  6. And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

  1. Then a mile of warm sea-scented _________;

  2. Three fields to cross till a farm _________;

  3. A tap at the pane, the quick sharp __________

  4. And blue spurt of a lighted __________,

  5. And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and __________,

  6. Than the two hearts beating each to __________!

Activity 1

Read the poem three or four times. Then turn poet and try to fill in the missing words in the second verse before you read on. (Don't cheat!)

A clue

Speak the first verse out loud, and notice which of the end-words in the lines have similar sounds (that is, which lines rhyme). Notice that lines 2 and 5 look as though they rhyme, but they don't strike the ear that way. However, in verse 2 the equivalent lines do rhyme.

A warning

Anxiety can Damage your Health – so do not get anxious about this. It's supposed to be fun. (But it will be even more fun if you could share your experience. Why not use the Comments section below to do this?)


I have no way of knowing what you wrote of course. But I should reveal that I have played this game before. And I am prepared to bet that, whether you got the right words or not, the ones you wrote were almost all words of one syllable. (Syllables are based on vowel sounds. So ‘speed’ (‘ee’) and ‘loud’ (‘ow’) are words of one syllable (even though they contain two vowels), and ‘fiery’ has two syllables because the ‘fie’ produces the sound ‘i’ and the ‘y’ is sounded ‘ee’ – ‘fi/ree’.)

The poem is by Robert Browning and was published in the early 1840s; here it is in full.

  1. The grey sea and the long black land;

  2. And the yellow half-moon large and low;

  3. And the startled little waves that leap

  4. In fiery ringlets from their sleep,

  5. As I gain the cove with pushing prow,

  6. And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

  1. Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;

  2. Three fields to cross till a farm appears;

  3. A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch

  4. And blue spurt of a lighted match,

  5. And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,

  6. Than the two hearts beating each to each!

R. Browning (1940 edn) Browning: Poetical Works, London, Oxford University Press, p. 215.)

Activity 2

Now read out the poem in full a few more times.

Note: It will help if you type or write the poem out accurately on a sheet of paper (including the punctuation). Then you can keep it in front of you as we look more closely.

The reason I am so confident that you wrote words of one syllable is that the majority of the words in the entire poem are of that kind, and all but one of the words that end the lines in the second verse (‘appears’). (Just check that for yourself.) As you were reading through the poem several times your ear will have picked that up. So, if at first you wrote in two-syllable words, they would have ‘sounded wrong’ (unless, perhaps, English is not your first language or you happen to have very little experience of poetry). This is why I asked you to read the poem aloud. What your ear detects is a certain pattern of sounds – in this case a pretty simple pattern of mainly single sounds. And that is what a poem is, a particular pattern of words and sounds. That is why you should try to read poems out loud. Your ear tells you what you already ‘know’ about poetry, so you should always listen to it and put your faith in it, so to speak.

You may have noticed other patterns of sound that ‘knit’ these particular words together: each verse has six lines, and in each the end-words are paired in rhyming sounds as follows: lines 1 and 6; 2 and 5; 3 and 4. If you expected to find that kind of patterning, or picked up my ‘clue’, you probably worked out from the first verse which of the end-words in the second verse would need to rhyme. Another thing you may have ‘heard’ is how long and drawn-out most of the vowel sounds in these end-words are: ‘low’, ‘leap’, ‘sleep’, ‘beach’, ‘appears’, ‘fears’. If you then look at the words within the lines you'll find many more that sound similar in this respect (‘grey sea’, ‘half-moon’, ‘Three fields’, ‘hearts beating each to each’). Some of these long vowel sounds within the lines also ‘echo’ the vowel sounds in the end-words – for example, ‘black land’ in line 1, and ‘yellow…low’ in line 2 – producing ‘internal’ rhyming patterns as well. And, generally, the consonants are soft-sounding. If you find it hard to hear these things, read the words out loud in an exaggerated way.

There is another type of pattern here too, in the kinds of word the poet uses. A lot of these words appeal to our senses: of sight (the setting of ‘grey sea’, ‘black land’ and ‘yellow’ moonlight across the water); of hearing (the ‘tap’ and ‘scratch’ of lines 3 and 4 in the second verse); of smell (‘sea-scented’); touch (‘warm’) and sensation (‘two hearts beating’). In particular, the poem is very visual – in our mind's eye, we can see what is ‘happening’ at every stage. It is a little drama that would translate very well to film.

Finding ‘ways into’ a text

The hardest part of analysing a text is getting started. Here, the game of writing end-words for the poem forced you to start by thinking about sounds. But there are many possible ways into any text. So if you feel a bit bewildered at first, don't despair.

Generally, it is best to begin by thinking about some aspect of the text that seems to stand out, striking you forcefully in some way. In a written text, you may be struck by a particular image (or comparison), and begin thinking about what it brings to mind. (In the poem for instance, consider the way the waves are compared to ringlets in lines 3 and 4 of the first verse. Why ‘ringlets’? What do you associate with them?) Or it may be the way the words are laid out on the page that attracts your attention: a pattern in the dialogue of a play or novel (such as very long speeches regularly assigned to one character and short utterances to another); in poetry, an unusual arrangement of the verses with some lines much shorter than others. In a piece of music it might be a sudden change in rhythm, or in dynamics (from soft to very loud perhaps). Or you may hear a particularly pleasing melody (or tune) repeated in a slightly different way at different points in the piece. You may see a certain shape repeated in a painting (lots of curves for instance), or notice a splash of vivid colour on one part of the canvas.

Wherever you begin, as soon as you notice a particular feature of the text and start thinking about it – or start to see or hear some sort of pattern – you will find yourself moving on from one observation to another (as we are doing here with the poem).

Once you think you have detected any kind of pattern you should look to see whether it runs right through the text. (Remember, from section 1.2, that analysis involves recognising similarities and differences.)

Activity 3

Read the poem out loud again. Do any lines sound different – breaking the pattern of long vowel sounds and soft consonants we noticed?


I'd say there is a different pattern of sound in lines 3 and 4 of the poem. These lines are similar in both verses and also different from the slower, languorous movement of the other lines – especially in the second verse. There, you have to pronounce the words clearly because of all the hard, dental consonants; ‘t’, ‘st’ and ‘tch’. And there are a number of short vowel sounds too (‘tap’, ‘quick’, ‘scratch’, ‘match’) which, because they are short, make you speed up as you read. The sounds of these words seem to mimic, or evoke, the actual (short, sharp) sounds of tapping and match-scratching. Combining this observation with what we noticed about the rhyming pattern earlier, you can see that the middle two lines in each verse are knitted particularly closely together by this change in sounds and movement and by the fact that these are the only lines with adjacent rhymes. They are also the only lines we read through without stopping – they are not divided by a comma or semi-colon. They seem to be little ‘units of meaning’ in themselves, within each verse of the poem. But why? What's the point of this?

Once you ask that kind of question you are thinking about what the poem is about – that is, you are moving towards some interpretation of its meanings. In fact you will have been asking yourself that kind of question all along. It is impossible to read and analyse something without trying to make some sense of it as you go. However, we began by putting these ‘why?’, ‘what does this mean?’ questions to one side. The point of suspending them – while you look closely at patterns of sound, movement, and so on – is that meaning in a poem is closely bound up in the way it is written. Indeed, the poem is the way it is written – these particular words on the page, in this order. (So too the painting is the marks on the canvas, the music is the particular arrangement of ‘sounds in time’.) Discovering how the poem works is precisely the point of analysing it in detail. If you jump to conclusions about what it means too quickly, you will tend to shut off some other possibilities that may be thrown up by a more thorough analysis of it.

Key points

  • Analysing a text shows you how it works and gives you many clues to what it might mean.

  • First, examine a feature of the text that is particularly striking, and look out for patterns in it.

  • Then go on to analyse the text as fully as you can before trying to reach any conclusions about its meanings.

So, although in reality analysing a text and interpreting its meanings are not separate ‘stages’ we go through, but are overlapping processes, I will keep them separate for the time being so that you can see more clearly what each involves.


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