Finding it difficult to know where to start when you are asked to analyse language in poetry? Perhaps you are studying for your English Literature GCSE exam? Let us break it down for you with 5 easy steps:

1. Focus on what you know.

Remember that poets are often describing very ordinary things that you have seen or experienced – love, friendship, arguments, nature. So don’t panic! The unique thing about a poem isn’t usually what is being said – but how it is being said. 

The poet Seamus Heaney, in his poem Storm on the Island (1966), uses images and sounds to describe a storm:

Even if you don’t know some of the words used in this extract, do not panic. If this happens outside of an exam, you can simply look up the words to find out what they mean. However, if this happens during an exam, do not try to talk about the language you do not understand. Only discuss the parts that you do understand.

2. Highlight parts that can help answer the question.

Let’s imagine that our question is this: How does this part of the poem bring the storm to life?

We are only going to highlight the parts that: 

a) make the storm seem alive (since this is the focus of the question).

b) we understand completely.

3. Analyse only the most interesting language first.

We don’t have time to analyse every single word that we have highlighted, so we are going to ‘zoom in’ on specific language that we think is the most interesting and the most powerful.

We highlighted the first line in this extract because it makes the wind sound like it is deliberately moving – but exactly what language creates this effect?

There are several things that make this word powerful and make the wind seem alive:

  • The verb ‘dives‘ describes a deliberate, sudden, pointed action which usually ends in hitting something – usually water.
  • The verb ‘dives‘ personifies the wind (makes it seem like a human).
  • The verb ‘dives‘ suggests that the wind is attacking the people (‘we’). 

4. Make suggestions about why the poet has chosen this language

Now we need to think about why the poet has chosen this language. The question has told us that the storm seems alive, and we have now identified that the storm also seems like it is deliberately launching an attack on the people. 

Now we need to make suggestions about why the poet wants to make the storm seem this way. Again, do not panic if you think you do not know. Even the teachers do not know exactly why a poet has chosen certain language! Only the poet knows – and we can’t ask him. So we just need to show that we have some suggestions. 

Perhaps the poet has done this for one of the following reasons:

  • to make the storm seem threatening and dangerous.
  • to emphasise the power of the storm compared to the people who are experiencing it.
  • to suggest that the place itself is under attack, almost like it is a war zone. 
  • to encourage the reader to feel more fearful of nature and to respect its power.
  • to convey how vulnerable it can feel to be on an island up against such an ‘enemy’.

5. Build on your argument using extra evidence.

Now that we have made a few suggestions about why the writer has used this language, it’s time to support our argument using extra evidence from the poem itself!

Here are some examples from the other line we highlighted above:

  • The alliteration created by the repeated ‘w‘ sound (‘we‘, ‘while’, ‘wind‘) imitates the sound of wind blowing, helping the reader to experience the storm more keenly and feel even more threatened by it.
  • The image of attack is extended by the later use of the verb ‘bombarded‘ – not only ‘diving‘ now but actually hitting things – again like a warzone against an enemy.
  • The storm seems to have increased its attack by the third line in this extract – the sounds have changed from sibilant (‘s‘) to plosive (‘b‘, ‘p‘).

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