Commentaries, Essays, & Outlines
Your commentaries and essays will be marked for 1) content and 2) expression.
1) Make interpretations and arguments—not just summaries and observations. Also, give specific support for your interpretations and arguments. If you say that something occurs in a text, show where, how, and why. Back up your points with specific references to the text.
2) Express yourself grammatically and in the proper format—coherent paragraphs for the commentaries, and the traditional academic structure for the essays. Saying what happens in the text doesn't get you many marks; it merely shows that you've read the text and understand the basic points about it.
Explain and explore the text, making arguments about how it's constructed and what it means. Explain how the text relates to the themes we've discussed in class.
Unlike an essay, a commentary doesn't require an introduction or conclusion. Nor does it require a clear and integrated relation between a main argument (in the thesis statement) and subsidiary arguments (in topic sentences). Yet a good writer will use more of the unifying features of an essay than will an average writer. In the case of an extremely good writer, there will be very little difference between an essay and a commentary, except that the introduction in a commentary will probably be shorter than in an essay.
Try not to just list unrelated arguments. Rather, try to analyze these arguments in an integrated fashion. The more coherent your commentary is, the better. In this sense a first rate commentary is an essay without the detailed structure of an an essay.
Sample commentary #1
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
Stopping to Smell the Roses
The meaning of Pound’s very short poem must take into account the title, since the human and natural images in the two lines are in obvious contrast to the industrial setting in the title. Where Pound’s metro station is located isn’t clear, yet a quick glance at Wikipedia shows that the poem was written in 1912, and was based on an experience he had in the Concorde metro station in Paris. The generic nature of the location in his title—“a station in the Metro”—doesn’t make the reader think about a particular location—the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower—but about characteristics shared by all metros: technology, noise, crowds, people waiting, cars roaring in and out of the station, sudden gusts of air, etc.
Pound creates a contrast by suggesting that the station is a mechanical thing while the faces and petals are natural things. The difference between the station and the people is highlighted by the word “apparition.” This is not a word used for the perception of ordinary things, whether they are static (like a sign reading “Concorde”) or dynamic (such as a car rolling into a station). Rather, “apparition” is a term used for the sighting of a spirit, ghost, or supernatural being. Pound thus suggests that he sees the petal-like faces as entities on a different, perhaps higher, plane. Whether this higher plane is emotional, spiritual, or aesthetic is not specified.
Another possibility is that Pound suggests a comparison or similarity between the station and the people. Just as the station is one entity composed of many elements, so the people in the crowd are one entity. The mechanical world of the station might even be seen as a living, breathing entity—a bough of people with petal faces. In this case, the ‘lower’ physical and the ‘higher’ emotional levels become blended on the aesthetic level, that is, in the perception of beauty. The petals are neither mechanical nor human, and can therefore serve as an aesthetic medium connecting the inert to the living. Perhaps Pound is suggesting that if we can transform anonymous faces into petals, we may be able to transform a subway station into a place of beauty.
Pound leaves us the choice—to be apart from, or to be a part of, the industrial world around us. The ambiguity of his imagistic, concrete poetry allows for either interpretation. Like some of the better ads we might see on a subway platform, these twenty words urge us to think about the possibility of beauty in the world around us.
Sample Commentary #2
“Three Panel Review” is a comic version of Hamlet by Lisa Brown. The main characters in the comic strip are 1. Hamlet’s father, who appears to Hamlet as a ghost and tells him that his brother Claudius has killed him, 2. Hamlet, who questions whether or not he should kill his uncle Claudius (he fears that his father’s ghost may be a demon), and 3. Claudius, who Hamlet finally realizes is guilty of killing his father.
Brown takes Shakespeare’s long, complex play and condenses it into three succinct cartoon frames. The absurdity of this reduction is enhanced by the simplicity of the language. Brown takes Shakespeare's subtle and complex wording and turns it into the simple question, “Should I kill my uncle?”
Moving from the first to the second panel, we go from night to day (as in the play), and yet the white of the ghost in the first panel is echoed in the second panel by the white skull (of Hamlet’s childhood friend, the jester Yorick). Both the ghost and the skull are reminders from the world of the dead. Brown thus manages to supply details that hint at complexity while at the same time she reduces that complexity in an absurd and humorous manner.
The white middle panel stands out among the three, as if we are to rest our gaze there, while Hamlet ponders the great mysteries of life and death, as well as the moral dilemma of revenging his father’s murder. Brown plays humorously on this possible depth by following it immediately with a third panel in which Hamlet discards this depth: Hamlet says simply, “You know what? I think that I will.” One of the deepest and most imaginative thinkers in all literature has decided, ‘What the heck, I’ll just stab the guy.’
The simplicity of Brown’s final panel is also at comic odds with Shakespeare’s play. In the original, Hamlet’s friend Horatio warns him to pay attention to his misgivings about avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet responds, “We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”—a reference that goes back to Matthew 10:31 in the Bible. When Hamlet finally does act, it’s the culmination of a long and intricate process of rejecting alternative courses of action. The more one knows about the complexity of the original play, the more humorous Brown’s reduction becomes.
Other details hint at complexity. The wine cup in Hamlet’s hand is a direct reference to the complicated scheming of the king, who tries to poison Hamlet, but poisons his wife instead, and then is forced to drink the poison himself. The king’s kneeling stance represents his desperate present situation, yet could also refer to his earlier attempt to pray at an altar for his sins—at which point Hamlet decides to spare his life. At the end of the play, however, Hamlet has no such second thoughts: he will instantly send his uncle to the fires of hell. Brown’s final triumph, her final incongruity or reversal of expectations, is that while the play ends on a deeply tragic note—meaningless slaughter, bodies piled on top of each other on the stage—the comic strip leaves us laughing.
Essays are similar to commentaries in that they make an argument about the text, they analyze (rather than observe or summarize), and they provide proof from the text. Essays, however, are longer and more detailed. They're also more elaborately structured: they have an introduction, a thesis statement, and a conclusion. For a detailed explanation of essay structure, see the page “Essay Structure.”
Sample Essay # 1 - on "Station" and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (Cream, 1967)
Tales of Brave Ulysees
You thought the leaden winter
Would bring you down forever
But you rode upon a steamer
To the violence of the sun
And the colours of the sea
Blind your eyes with trembling mermaids
And you touch the distant beaches
With tales of brave Ulysses
How his naked ears were tortured
By the sirens sweetly singing
For the sparkling waves are calling you
To touch their white laced lips
And you see a girl?s brown body
Dancing through the turquoise
And her footprints make you follow
Where the sky loves the sea
And when your fingers find her
She drowns you in her body
Carving deep blue ripples
In the tissues of your mind
The tiny purple fishes
Run laughing through your fingers
And you want to take her with you
To the hard land of the winter
The Doors of Perception (599 words)
“Station” is like a snapshot stopping the moving world to focus on beauty, while “Tales” is like a video taking us from this earth to far-off realms of sky, sea, and myth. Both poems use abrupt, puzzling shifts in setting and psychological states, yet “Station” encourages a grounded, positive shift in perception while “Tales” hints at the dangers of not keeping one’s feet on the ground.
The shifts in both texts are abrupt and illogical, yet they make sense on visual and emotional levels. In “Station” the poet shifts quickly from faces to petals, which are both oval and both stand out from their backgrounds. The mechanical world of the station might be seen as a living, breathing entity -- a bough of people with petal faces. The word “apparition” is usually reserved for ghost sightings, yet here it urges us to see the ordinary world with a heightened sense of mystery. “Tales” also contains a sudden shift -- from a “leaden winter” to a world where nature is alive with colour and light: the singer takes a steamer “to the violence of the sun” and to “the colours of the sea.” On the surface this is illogical, yet it makes sense that he would yearn for sun if he’s stuck in a grey, “leaden” winter. To escape his boredom or depression, he needs a radical departure, something that will rip him -- almost violently -- from the ordinary. The agent of this ripping may be drugs, or the addictive beauty of a woman, yet it may also be the fantasy of living the type of dangerous, sensual life lead by Ulysses. The Greek hero is perhaps the epitome of adventure: he won the Trojan War, made love to goddesses, battled monsters, endured the excruciating song of the sirens, and became Western culture’s most famous traveller.
The imaginative leap in “Tales” is mythic and dangerous, whereas the leap in “Station” is aesthetic and life-affirming. Although the singer wants to take Aphrodite (the goddess of love) back with him to “the hard land of the winter,” she is at best an impossible fantasy, and at worst, a mortal danger. When she drowns him “in her body” this may indicate either good sex or depression and death -- perhaps the type of gruesome death promised by the mythical “sirens sweetly singing.” Or, if the poem’s about drugs, this could indicate overdose. When she carves “deep blue ripples in the tissues” of his mind this may mean he’s enjoying deep pleasure or that she’s slicing him up, driving him crazy. Either way, the promise of a colourful escape into the world of sensuality and myth turns negative.
By contrast, Pound keeps his readers in the real world so that they can find beauty in the here and now. Neither mechanical nor human, the petals become an aesthetic medium connecting the inert station to the sentient commuters. While Pound writes his poem in 1920 Paris, he avoids any overt reference to love the City of Love. And while Pound was in fact a Classical Greek scholar, he avoids Greek myth completely. His aim is aesthetic, the love of beauty, not the exploration of myth or romance. He blends the physical and the emotional in the aesthetic, suggesting that if we can transform anonymous faces into petals, we may be able to transform a subway station into a place of beauty. His poem stops us in our tracks, and gets us to smell the roses. “Tales” on the other hand offers a larger canvas containing love and myth, yet also a subtle warning about the danger of shifting too precipitously into a world of fantasy.
Scratch outline for “The Doors of Perception”
Both poems use abrupt, puzzling shifts in setting and psychological states, yet “Station” encourages a grounded, positive shift in perception while “Tales” hints at the dangers of not keeping one’s feet on the ground.
1. The shifts in both texts are abrupt and illogical, yet they make sense on visual and emotional levels.
2. The imaginative leap in “Tales” is mythic and dangerous, whereas the leap in “Station” is aesthetic and life-affirming.
3. By contrast, Pound keeps his readers in the real world so that they can find beauty in the here and now.
Sample Essay # 2 -- on “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” (Death Cab for Cutie, 2005)
I Will Follow You into the Dark
Love of mine, someday you will die
But I'll be close behind and I'll follow you into the dark
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight, waiting for the hint of a spark
[CHORUS] If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
And illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs
If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I'll follow you into the dark
In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
And I held my tongue as she told me,
Son, fear is the heart of love, so I never went back
You and me we've seen everything to see
From Bangkok to Calgary and the soles of your shoes
Are all worn down
The time for sleep is now
But it's nothing to cry about
'Cause we'll hold each other soon in the blackest of rooms
Paint It Black
“I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is simply written yet gets at deep emotions. In the chorus and the three main stanzas, the singer addresses a loved one who’s about to die. He promises to follow this person into the afterlife. The song’s not accompanied by any complex background music, and the singer’s voice is serious and sincere. Despite the song’s apparent simplicity, it’s complex mix -- of perspective, narrative, metaphor, and image -- deepen our understanding of the poet’s resolve to follow his lover into the dark, uncharted territory of death.
While the vocabulary and the spatial details in the first stanza are relatively simple, they hint at the puzzle of death’s obscurity. Most of the words are monosyllabic (and thus create the illusion of simplicity), yet the stanza leaves us with mysteries, intriguing us and making us feel the challenge and adventure in what he’s proposing. The spatial details are clear and simple: he will be “close behind” her after she dies and he will “follow” her “into the dark” (I am assuming it is a female, although it could be a male). Yet where is this “dark”? He gives different ideas about where it might be, yet he eliminates these possibilities, and ends up with the same simple notion he started with. This may be appropriate, for who really knows what (if anything) comes after life?
The first stanza also offers an alternative perspective by rejecting traditional ways people describe death. The first word is “No” and the two settings he describes are typical, if not stereotypical: “blinding light” and “tunnels to gates of white.” The singer replaces these with the image of them holding hands—desperately, as if they were making a lover’s leap into the darkness. Yet he isn’t suggesting suicide, for they’re waiting for “the hint of a spark”—which isn’t a very clear reference, although it does rhyme with “dark” in the earlier and later stanzas. The rhyme works, for it juxtaposes the two words and the two ideas: the light that a spark gives is a small yet optimistic alternative to the dark. It also might hint at more light to come, for a spark can also light a fire. At least it’s better than a black nothing.
The first chorus shifts our attention from two rejected clichés to two mini-narratives which introduce more complex situations. In the first three lines of the chorus he combines the cosmic settings of Heaven and Hell with the ordinary setting of a hotel or motel. He suggests that the big capitalized Systems don’t care about her. There may even be an indirect reference to Jesus and the manger, for when Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place to stay, they were allowed to stay in a barn. Yet here Heaven, or the Christian system in which Jesus supplies the Grace that opens the door to Heaven, doesn’t let them in. Heaven and Hell “decide” to close their doors to the woman, just as a motel manager might put on the “NO” before the “VACANCY” sign. Perhaps this is because the woman doesn’t believe in religious doctrine, or perhaps the doctrine isn’t open enough to accept those who have different points of view. In any case, we once again come back to “No,” to a negation of the traditional afterlife scenarios.
The next three lines of the chorus suggest a different narrative involving a nautical metaphor for death. After the woman dies, her soul will “embark.” This leads us to rethink what seems like a rejection of spirituality in the previous lines, for at least he believes she has a spirit or soul (we are never told what her beliefs are). This makes sense of the previous idea—that even though he doesn’t expect she will encounter a bright light or a tunnel, he thinks that there will be a “spark” of life that remains after the body dies.
The final two stanzas supply a sustained narrative that explains the singer’s reasons for rejecting traditional beliefs. We see why he chooses mystery and ambiguity over religious doctrine: his Catholic schooling was as strict as “Roman rule” and it emphasized fear rather than love. The strict ‘lady in black’ is a betrayal of Mary, Mother of Grace, so it’s no wonder he rejects this betrayal and focuses on love instead. All of this explains why he earlier rejected the traditional Heaven and Hell scenario. He ‘never goes back’ to a traditional way of thinking, and chooses instead to broaden his vision by travelling with his beloved all over the world, from “Bangkok to Calgary,” that is, from a country that is completely foreign, to another North American city closer to Gibbard’s home state of Washington.
This reference to travel and places leads to the image of worn shoes, which is at once realistic and metaphoric. That the soles of her shoes are worn down suggests that her body is worn down, to the point where death is about to overcome her—which is emphasized by the word “now.” The “sleep” he refers to is the sleep of death, as in Hamlet’s famous “To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause…”. This ‘rub’ is not some vague possibility, for she is at the moment of death, of ‘shuffling off her mortal coil.’ Yet she does not have to face this alone, which is the point of the poem: death may be terrifying, yet she is not alone. Love doesn’t depend on time, place, or school of belief. As the pagan Latin poet Virgil wrote two thousand years ago, love conquers all.
At the end of the song, he uses the colour black to reassure her that he will be with her till the end, and beyond. He says that he will stay with her in “the blackest of rooms,” just as he says earlier that he will hold her hand and wait with her for a “spark,” that together they will pass by the “NO VACANCY” sign, and that together they will look out from the dock onto the dark waters. The song ends with a return to the idea of darkness, in this case the “blackest of rooms.” Black conjures the dark mystery of death, and also perhaps the sadder, darker, deeper feelings he will soon experience in the room as her body goes cold. As her soul vanishes into the obscure darkness, he will wait in a similar darkness, lost in mourning, waiting for a spark.
A good outline can be very helpful. It allows you to see at a glance how the different parts of your argument fit together. A scratch outline contains 1) a thesis statement and 2) topic sentences. A full outline contains 1) a thesis statement, 2) topic sentences, and 3) point form lists beneath each topic sentence (these lists contain—in abbreviated form—the specific proof you will use to support your arguments).
Sample Scratch Outline
Paint It Black
Despite the song’s apparent simplicity, it’s complex mix -- of perspectives, narratives, metaphors, and images -- deepen our understanding of the poet’s resolve to follow his lover into the dark, uncharted territory of death.
1. While the vocabulary and the spatial details in the first stanza are relatively simple, they hint at the puzzle of death’s obscurity.
2. The first stanza also offers an alternative perspective by rejecting traditional ways people describe death.
3. The first chorus shifts our attention from two rejected clichés to two mini-narratives which introduce more complex situations.
4. The next three lines of the chorus suggest a different narrative involving a nautical metaphor for death.
5. The final two stanzas supply a sustained narrative that explains the singer’s reasons for rejecting traditional beliefs.
6. This reference to travel and places leads to the image of worn shoes, which is at once realistic and metaphoric.
7. At the end of the song, he uses the colour black to reassure her that he will be with her till the end, and beyond.