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Almost all English exams require students to do ‘Descriptive Writing’ at some point, and on most exams that I teach this is the highest marked question on the paper – worth up to 50% of the paper as a whole. But what exactly is it? And can it really be taught?

There’s a common belief – among teachers and students alike – that either you’re good at creative writing, or you aren’t. Tons of people think it can’t be taught, and that it’s just a natural talent. Personally, I strongly disagree with this and I absolutely think it’s something that should be taught properly and in a way that encourages students to enjoy and learn along the way, rather than feeling that they just aren’t creative or they just don’t get it.

This page will give you an introduction to the basic ideas of descriptive writing, and go through everything you need to know to get started with creating an excellent descriptive piece.

Thanks for reading! If you find this document useful, take a look at our full Basic Descriptive Writing course and Advanced Descriptive Writing course.

WHAT IS DESCRIPTIVE WRITING?

Well, it is a form of creative writing. But at the same time, it is NOT a story. Be careful!

The main purpose of descriptive essays is to describe something (a place, person, object, emotion, situation), so that you create an image, or a picture in the reader’s mind, of what you are writing about. 

The key thing with descriptive writing is that you need to create/bring to life an image inside the head of your reader rather than give them a cold factual account of the thing being described. 

Descriptive Writing Exam – How to Prepare Yourself

Descriptive Writing: Nightmare World (Writing Process, Example Plan + Written Extract)

SHOW, DON’T TELL

This is a crucial rule for any kind of creative writing. I’ll give you some examples below, so you can see the difference.

Tell – Describe literally what something is:

“The woman was sad.”

“I was late.”

“The boy was angry.”

Show – Get the reader to figure it out for themselves:

“A tear shimmered in her eye.”

“It was five past twelve. Darn it.”

“Scrunching up his face into a tight, mean little ball, the boy turned bright red and shook with rage.”

Hopefully can see how those second examples, modified from the first, are instantly more interesting and engaging.

Creative writing
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

HOW DO I WRITE A DESCRIPTIVE PIECE?

How to Plan a Perfect Answer in Descriptive Writing

Firstly, remember the purpose: transport your reader to a time/place, or make a person/object feel so real that it seems as though it could be right in front of the reader.

Then, consider the following:

  • Mood, tone, atmosphere 
  • Language features – simile, metaphor, repetition, alliteration etc
  • Structural features  – sentences, punctation, tone, pace etc

Then, plan your answer. You might use around 5-6 paragraphs for the average 45 min – 1hr long written answer. Your plan needs to have the following:

  • Multiple focal points – one focus per paragraph
  • Shifts in mood/tone
  • Not much action
  • No development of characters (but clearly defined characters if relevant to the question)
  • A clear, logical opening and ending
  • Something surprising or unusual, if possible

Then, you want to write the piece! Make sure you have time left over to check your answer. If you’re aiming for high grades, you’ll also want to include the following:

  • 5 types of imagery
  • Lots of interesting, complex words and phrases

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMJq0SZ1Tk8

Thanks for reading! If you find this document useful, take a look at our full Basic Descriptive Writing course and Advanced Descriptive Writing course.

Here’s an example of a Descriptive Writing Piece so you can get an idea of what this post was actually about.

Mauris congue venenatis nisl ut varius. In posuere sem lorem, eu iaculis ante. Quisque eget turpis sem. Phasellus varius tempor tellus, imperdiet auctor urna commodo vel ger dolor diam, tincidunt ac euismod ac, sollicitudin varius ante sadips ipsums dolores sits.

This is a bold title

Duis quis tortor sed sapien tincidunt ultrices tempor et ligula. Sed finibus, sem elementum tincidunt tempor, ipsum nisi ullamcorper magna, vel dignissim eros sapien at sem. Aliquam interdum, ante eget sagittis fermentum, mauris metus luctus sem, at molestie lorem.

Vivamus vehicula felis eget lectus laoreet finibus. Pellentesque luctus odio sapien, at suscipit mi malesuada non. Duis elementum cursus auctor. Morbi quis mattis tortor. Duis quis tortor sed sapien tincidunt ultrices tempor et ligula. Sed finibus, sem elementum tincidunt tempor, ipsum nisi ullamcorper magna, vel dignissim eros sapien at sem. Aliquam interdum, ante eget sagittis fermentum, mauris metus luctus sem, at molestie lorem.

Another amazing title

Moneda is a mobile-first cryptocurrency investment platform. There isn’t enough mobile accessibility in the world of cryptocurrency, and our team realizes that.

This is a small heading

Vivamus vehicula felis eget lectus laoreet finibus. Pellentesque luctus odio sapien, at suscipit mi malesuada non. Duis elementum cursus auctor. Morbi quis mattis tortor. Duis quis tortor sed sapien tincidunt ultrices tempor et ligula. Sed finibus, sem elementum tincidunt tempor, ipsum nisi ullamcorper magna, vel dignissim eros sapien at sem. Aliquam interdum, ante eget sagittis fermentum, mauris metus luctus sem, at molestie lorem.

Nested column with a title & text

Cras eget mollis leo. In ultricies sit amet justo ac tincidunt. Integer volutpat enim non velit pellentesque, a placerat dolor ullamcorper. Phasellus ac dolor velit. Nam molestie turpis sit amet diam lobortis sagittis.

Nested column with a title & text

Cras eget mollis leo. In ultricies sit amet justo ac tincidunt. Integer volutpat enim non velit pellentesque, a placerat dolor ullamcorper. Phasellus ac dolor velit. Nam molestie turpis sit amet diam lobortis sagittis.

An even smaller heading

Duis quis tortor sed sapien tincidunt ultrices tempor et ligula. Sed finibus, sem elementum tincidunt tempor, ipsum nisi ullamcorper magna, vel dignissim eros sapien at sem. Aliquam interdum, ante eget sagittis fermentum, mauris metus luctus sem, at molestie lorem.

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This is a sad poem about war, death, and the grief of those who survive. Hardy speaks poignantly from a female perspective, imagining how a wife must feel when she receives news that her husband has been killed in battle. This poem is tailored towards anyone studying the poem at a higher level, from GCSE upwards — particularly for the following exam boards: WJEC / Eduqas, OCR, Edexcel, CIE / Cambridge, CCEA, AQA.


Thanks for reading! If you find this poem useful, you can take a look at our full CIE English Literature A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

Our WJEC GCSE poetry course is coming soon, in the meantime, please take a look at all of our other English Literature and Language material here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses


A Wife in London

December 1899

I The Tragedy

She sits in the tawny vapour

That the Thames-side lanes have uprolled,

Behind whose webby fold-on-fold

Like a waning taper

The street-lamp glimmers cold.

.

A messenger’s knock cracks smartly,

Flashed news in her hand

Of meaning it dazes to understand

Though shaped so shortly:

He — he has fallen — in the far South Land…

II The Irony

’Tis the morrow; the fog hangs thicker,

The postman nears and goes:

A letter is brought whose lines disclose

By the firelight flicker

His hand, whom the worm now knows:

.

Fresh — firm — penned in highest feather —

Page-full of his hoped return,

And of home-planned jaunts of brake and burn

In the summer weather,

And of new love that they would learn.

Thomas Hardy


VOCABULARY

Tawny — a yellow brown colour

Vapour — steam

Uprolled — moving upwards as something rolls

Webby — like a web

Waning — disappearing, fading

Taper — a shape that reduces in side towards one end, like a candle

Glimmers — shimmering with light

Smartly — double meaning, neat, tidy and firm but also can refer to a sharp, harsh pain

Dazes — confuses / makes dizzy

’Tis the morrow — it is the next day (tomorrow)

Nears — comes near

Disclose — tell information

Penned in highest feather — written down with the most expensive feather quill pen

Jaunts — trips, journeys

Brake and burn — old fashioned words for green pastoral scenery (brake) and a fresh-water stream (burn)

STORY/SUMMARY

Part One: The Tragedy

From the title, we know that the subject of the poem is a woman, somebody’s wife, who lives in London. She is sitting in her house near the river Thames, surrounded by vapors — likely the pollution of the city, as London at this time was known to be extremely polluted and full of smog. Behind the thick smog, which looks like a web, a streetlamp faintly gives off a cold light.

A messenger knocks at the door, sharply. In his hand he carries a quick bit of news — the news is difficult for the woman to process, even though it is phrased so shortly: He (her husband) has been killed in battle — in the ‘far South Land’, an unspecified war that took place further South in the world than England, likely the Boer War (see the context for more info).

Part Two: The Irony

It is the next day, and the fog seems thicker, the postman delivers a letter and leaves. It is a letter from the dead husband, likely sent before he died. The wife reads it by the light of the fire, reading the lines that were written by his hand — which is now lifeless and being eaten by worms.

The writing is fresh and firm, written with the very best pen. It is full of hope for the future, planning trips to take with the wife into the countryside in summer weather, hope of rekindling their love anew once they have been apart for so long.

SPEAKER/VOICE

The third-person limited narrative perspective provides a focus on the ‘Wife’, the subject of the poem, whilst also remaining detached from the situation. It is as if the speaker is commenting generally on the situation, particularly as the unnamed ‘Wife’ is not described in detail, she comes to represent the status of many women at the time of writing who were at home while their husbands were at war, fighting in far off lands. At any time, they could be delivered a letter similar to the one which the wife in the poem receives, stating that their husband had been killed in action.

LANGUAGE

  • Visual Imagery — ‘Tawny vapour’ / ‘street-lamp glimmers cold’ — the imagery in the first stanza paints a picture of London as a dirty, over-industrialized, and cold place with no warmth or sense of community. The ‘messenger’ and ‘postman’ that arrive are equally cold and matter-of-fact, not offering condolences or comfort to the wife. The visual imagery of the countryside directly contrasts this.
  • Extended metaphor — the fog is used as a metaphor for isolation, and perhaps depression, in the poem. The woman is sitting ‘in the tawny vapour’ of the river Thames, the brown mists or fog that rolls off the dirty London river — which at the time of writing in 1899 was highly polluted. After the news of the husband’s death, the ‘fog hangs thicker’ as if it has increased around her. This suggests that she is quite lonely and isolated, she doesn’t seem to have other families to comfort her in her time of need as she is always presented as alone. It is also implied that the sadness she feels is a result of her husband’s absence, that she is placed into a state of waiting and not knowing whether he will ever return, which makes her somber and reflective rather than able to enjoy life.
  • Foreshadowing — The streetlamp is described as Like a waning taper’, a simile which suggests that the light is disappearing or growing dimmer through the fog; it is also ‘cold’ which adds to the stark atmosphere of the poem as it implies that the husband’s death is happening at that moment. This also symbolically prefigures the lamp as looking a little like a candle — such as that lit when a night vigil is kept for a dying person (where people light candles, pray and watch over them through the night). Street Lamps in the 1800s were made of gas, not electric, and they were lit nightly by lamplighters — so they did also look more like candles flickering than modern-day electric lights.
  • Consonance — ‘A messenger’s knock cracks smartly’ — the excessive consonance of the plosive ‘k’ sounds in the phrase ‘knock cracks’ emphasizes the sharp brusqueness with which the messenger delivers the letter. Although he may be behaving in this manner because he believes it to be professional, it is also quite insensitive from the wife’s point of view — he merely delivers the news that her husband is dead, and leaves. Perhaps also he is busy and has a lot of husbands to report on, and therefore cannot stay or spend too long with the wife.
  • Alliteration — the wife reads her late husband’s letter ‘by the firelight flicker’, the fricative ‘f’ and ‘l’ sounds playing within the visual image to imply a sense of softness and warmth, which is even more tragic as the husband is no longer alive and will never be able to provide true warmth and comfort again to the wife.
  • Symbolism — ‘home-planned jaunts… in summer weather’ — the thoughts of the lovely times they will spend together when the soldier returns to fill his mind whilst he’s out in battle. The use of the adjective ‘summer’ implies that the couple’s relationship is now in a wintry state — perhaps with lost love or affection between them, or just a lack of closeness due to the physical separation. The images of summer — ‘brake and burn’ — create a sense of hope and symbolically imply that their love is like the seasons, it will pass into a passionate, joyful phase once again when the soldier returns. There’s a sense also of antithesis, as these summery, pastoral images of the countryside are directly contrasted with the ‘cold’ streetlamp, the darkness and dirtiness of London and its ‘fog’.

STRUCTURE / FORM

The poem is split into two parts, titled ‘The Tragedy’ and ‘The Irony’. The first section is tragic because it starts with loneliness, and ends with news of death — and the realization that the woman’s life will never be the same again. The second is ironic — but bitterly rather than comically — because the day after the wife learns of her husband’s death, she receives a happy, hopeful and enthusiastic letter from him promising her that they will have a bright and joyful future together. The cheeriness of the letter after the fact of his death only serves, ironically, to heighten her sadness.

Characterization — the woman is unnamed, characterized solely as ‘A Wife in London’, this lack of specificity and detail in some ways distances us from the character, but it is intended to demonstrate that she is a typical, everyday woman and many women in Britain had to suffer a similar experience. In this sense, Hardy’s poem is more about the social state of Britain than any individual person, he is more critiquing the social structure and the imperialist agenda of Victorian society.

Volta: ‘He — he has fallen — in the far South Land…’- the final line of the first section provides a volta — a turning point in the poem as the wife is hit with the news that her husband ‘has fallen’ — a euphemism used often by soldiers to indicate death. The news comes between to caesurae — dashes in the center of the line which creates dramatic pauses before and after the statement. This provides suspense at first, and then afterward the feeling of shock.

The stanzas are regularly arranged into quintets with an ABBAB rhyme scheme, although the meter is slightly variable. The fourth line in each stanza always feels a little hypermetric — as if it is unnaturally shorter, therefore drawing attention to itself with its abruptness. This perhaps imitates the regularity of the wife’s mundane and repetitive life, contrasted with the shocking news she’s received.

CONTEXT

Boer War (1899–1902) — Hardy was considered an ‘Anti-war poet’, who spoke out against the cost of war and Imperialism on the individual — concerned in particular with the permanent psychological trauma that it caused for both soldiers and their families back home. The poem is dated 1899, which is the same date as the start of the Boer War — a war fought in South Africa, which was one of the most costly wars ever fought in the name of the British Empire. The British had around 500,000 men, and the Boers (the Dutch settlers in South Africa) had only 88,000, and so it was a British victory. However, many British people at the time — Hardy included — felt that the war was both a pointless waste of money and of British lives, in particular Hardy criticised the idea that younger Victorian men were fed propaganda and told that they would die and always be remembered as noble heroes, whereas in reality they would never be properly buried and no one would remember their names, as well as the fact that they would die fighting for a cause that they didn’t personally believe in or particularly understand. Hardy explores this aspect of the Boer War further in poems such as Drummer Hodge. The war was partially about imperialism — maintaining the extent and influence of the British Empire — and also about claiming resources, such as gold and land. Hardy himself also felt that the Boers had a fair claim to the land, and that they were defending their homeland. None of these reasons had any direct effect on the individual British soldier, yet they were expected to die for their country and blindly follow orders anyway. Wars around the turn of the 20th century were also becoming more brutal due to technological developments in warfare, such as the beginning of machine guns.

Tragedy — Hardy’s writing is often tragic in tone, exploring degrees of sadness and depression. In this case, the tragedy is that the wife’s husband is killed, and she is placed into a state of shock. She seems to have no children, and we can assume that she and her husband are still quite newly married — as there are talks of the ‘new love that they would learn’ at the end of the poem, implying perhaps that they have not fully settled or become comfortable with one another yet. There is also perhaps an implication that children were part of their future plans, which further heightens the sense of tragedy. Hardy himself had an extremely unhappy first marriage to a woman named Emma Gilford, and so elements of the tragedy in the poem may be taken from his own circumstances — for instance, he and Emma also never had children, and she was a recluse, preferring to stay in the attic rooms of their house rather than spending time with him.

London — in the 19th Century London was not only the capital of England, but also of the British Empire — a vast collection of countries around the world that had been colonised by Britain. It was the largest city in the world at this point, but it also had a host of problems — many intellectual Victorians felt that it was hypocritical to have such poverty and dirtiness (from pollution and industrialisation) in their own capital city, yet at the same time professing to be superior and the most civilised country in the world.

ATTITUDES

  • War is as difficult for the families at home to cope with as the soldiers who are out fighting — we are provided in the poem with a different perspective on war, rather than focusing on the action of battle or the emotional and physical impact on the soldiers, Hardy chooses instead to focalise his narrative around the wife who stays at home and lives alone. The wife is deliberately unnamed, demonstrating how she universally represents the state of all wives and partners who struggle psychologically with the impact of war.
  • Death can be sudden, unexpected and disruptive — the poem is about grief and loss as much as it is about war, there is a sense that the woman is already extremely lonely and isolated, and then she is left to think of her husband and process his death in isolation. The tragedy is not just that he dies, but that he also sends a letter of all the times that they will share in the future together — thoughts which are now impossible to turn into a reality.
  • Modernism and technological progress takes us further away from living in an idyllic state in harmony with nature — Hardy often writes of the difference between country and city living in his poems and novels, for him the countryside is a beautiful, idyllic and peaceful place where one can live in harmony with nature. The city on the other hand — and London in particular — is large, unfriendly, dirty, mechanical and encourages people to live in a disconnected state, where they are no longer in tune with the natural environment. We can see this criticism of the city inherent in the descriptions of the fog and polluted vapours of the river, all of which are signs that the city is overcrowded and unpleasant — there is also a sad irony inthat the wife, even living in a place with such a high population as London, could feel so alone and be so lacking in comfort.
  • Soldiers in war often use thoughts of home to keep themselves motivated — the soldier’s letter arrives later than his death note, implying a greater cosmic irony to the situation; as if it isn’t hard enough for the woman to process hsi death, because of the time delays of letters she is presented the day after with his own voice, as if still alive, full of hopes and wishes of their future together.

THEMES

  • Love
  • War
  • Death
  • Life’s Purpose
  • Nature
  • City vs Country
  • Industrialization
  • Loneliness

Copyright © 2020 Scrbbly


Thanks for reading! If you find this poem useful, you can take a look at our full CIE English Literature A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

Our WJEC GCSE poetry course is coming soon, in the meantime please take a look at all of our other English Literature and Language material here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses

This is a sad poem about war, death, and the grief of those who survive. Hardy speaks poignantly from a female perspective, imagining how a wife must feel when she receives news that her husband has been killed in battle. This poem is tailored towards anyone studying the poem at a higher level, from GCSE upwards — particularly for the following exam boards: WJEC / Eduqas, OCR, Edexcel, CIE / Cambridge, CCEA, AQA.


Thanks for reading! If you find this poem useful, you can take a look at our full CIE English Literature A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

Our WJEC GCSE poetry course is coming soon, in the meantime please take a look at all of our other English Literature and Language material here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses


A Wife in London

December 1899

I The Tragedy

She sits in the tawny vapour

That the Thames-side lanes have uprolled,

Behind whose webby fold-on-fold

Like a waning taper

The street-lamp glimmers cold.

.

A messenger’s knock cracks smartly,

Flashed news in her hand

Of meaning it dazes to understand

Though shaped so shortly:

He — he has fallen — in the far South Land…

II The Irony

’Tis the morrow; the fog hangs thicker,

The postman nears and goes:

A letter is brought whose lines disclose

By the firelight flicker

His hand, whom the worm now knows:

.

Fresh — firm — penned in highest feather —

Page-full of his hoped return,

And of home-planned jaunts of brake and burn

In the summer weather,

And of new love that they would learn.

Thomas Hardy


VOCABULARY

Tawny — a yellow brown colour

Vapour — steam

Uprolled — moving upwards as something rolls

Webby — like a web

Waning — disappearing, fading

Taper — a shape that reduces in side towards one end, like a candle

Glimmers — shimmering with light

Smartly — double meaning, neat, tidy and firm but also can refer to a sharp, harsh pain

Dazes — confuses / makes dizzy

’Tis the morrow — it is the next day (tomorrow)

Nears — comes near

Disclose — tell information

Penned in highest feather — written down with the most expensive feather quill pen

Jaunts — trips, journeys

Brake and burn — old fashioned words for green pastoral scenery (brake) and a fresh-water stream (burn)

STORY/SUMMARY

Part One: The Tragedy

From the title, we know that the subject of the poem is a woman, somebody’s wife, who lives in London. She is sitting in her house near the river Thames, surrounded by vapours — likely the pollution of the city, as London at this time was known to be extremely polluted and full of smog. Behind the thick smog, which looks like a web, a streetlamp faintly gives off a cold light.

A messenger knocks at the door, sharply. In his hand he carries a quick bit of news — the news is difficult for the woman to process, even though it is phrased so shortly: He (her husband) has been killed in battle — in the ‘far South Land’, an unspecified war that took place further South in the world than England, likely the Boer War (see context for more info).

Part Two: The Irony

It is the next day, and the fog seems thicker, the postman delivers a letter and leaves. It is a letter from the dead husband, likely sent before he died. The wife reads it by the light of the fire, reading the lines that were written by his hand — which is now lifeless and being eaten by worms.

The writing is fresh and firm, written with the very best pen. It is full of hope for the future, planning trips to take with the wife into the countryside in summer weather, hope of rekindling their love anew once they have been apart for so long.

SPEAKER/VOICE

The third person limited narrative perspective provides a focus on the ‘Wife’, the subject of the poem, whilst also remaining detached from the situation. It is as if the speaker is commenting generally on the situation, particularly as the unnamed ‘Wife’ is not described in detail, she comes to represent the status of many women at the time of writing who were at home while their husbands were at war, fighting in far off lands. At any time, they could be delivered a letter similar to the one which the wife in the poem receives, stating that their husband had been killed in action.

LANGUAGE

  • Visual Imagery — ‘Tawny vapour’ / ‘street-lamp glimmers cold’ — the imagery in the first stanza paints a picture of London as a dirty, over-industrialised and cold place with no warmth or sense of community. The ‘messenger’ and ‘postman’ that arrive are equally cold and matter-of-fact, not offering condolences or comfort to the wife. The visual imagery of the countryside directly contrasts this.
  • Extended metaphor — the fog is used as a metaphor for isolation, and perhaps depression, in the poem. The woman is sitting ‘in the tawny vapour’ of the river Thames, the brown mists or fog that rolls off the dirty London river — which at the time of writing in 1899 was highly polluted. After the news of the husband’s death, the ‘fog hangs thicker’ as if it has increased around her. This suggests that she is quite lonely and isolated, she doesn’t seem to have other family to comfort her in her time of need as she is always presented as alone. It is also implied that the sadness she feels is a result of her husband’s absence, that she is placed into a state of waiting and not knowing whether he will ever return, which makes her sombre and reflective rather than able to enjoy life.
  • Foreshadowing — The streetlamp is described as Like a waning taper’, a simile which suggests that the light is disappearing or growing dimmer through the fog; it is also ‘cold’ which adds to the stark atmosphere of the poem as it implies that the husband’s death is happening at that moment. This also symbolically prefigures the lamp as looking a little like a candle — such as those lit when a night vigil is kept for a dying person (where people light candles, pray and watch over them through the night). Street Lamps in the 1800s were made of gas, not electric, and they were lit nightly by lamplighters — so they did also look more like candles flickering than modern day electric lights.
  • Consonance — ‘A messenger’s knock cracks smartly’ — the excessive consonance of the plosive ‘k’ sounds in the phrase ‘knock cracks’ emphasises the sharp brusqueness with which the messenger delivers the letter. Although he may be behaving in this manner because he believes it to be professional, it is also quite insensitive from the wife’s point of view — he merely delivers the news that her husband is dead, and leaves. Perhaps also he is busy and has a lot of husbands to report on, and therefore cannot stay or spend too long with the wife.
  • Alliteration — the wife reads her late husband’s letter ‘by the firelight flicker’, the fricative ‘f’ and ‘l’ sounds playing within the visual image to imply a sense of softness and warmth, which is even more tragic as the husband is no longer alive and will never be able to provide true warmth and comfort again to the wife.
  • Symbolism — ‘home-planned jaunts… in summer weather’ — the thoughts of the lovely times they will spend together when the soldier returns fills his mind whilst he’s out in battle. The use of the adjective ‘summer’ implies that the couple’s relationship is now in a wintry state — perhaps with lost love or affection between them, or just a lack of closeness due to the physical separation. The images of summer — ‘brake and burn’ — create a sense of hope and symbolically imply that their love is like the seasons, it will pass into a passionate, joyful phase once again when the soldier returns. There’s a sense also of antithesis, as these summery, pastoral images of the countryside are directly contrasted with the ‘cold’ streetlamp, the darkness and dirtiness of London and its ‘fog’.

STRUCTURE / FORM

The poem is split into two parts, titled ‘The Tragedy’ and ‘The Irony’. The first section is tragic because it starts with loneliness, and ends with news of death — and the realisation that the woman’s life will never be the same again. The second is ironic — but bitterly rather than comically — because the day after the wife learns of her husband’s death, she receives a happy, hopeful and enthusiastic letter from him promising her that they will have a bright and joyful future together. The cheeriness of the letter after the fact of his death only serves, ironically, to heighten her sadness.

Characterisation — the woman is unnamed, characterised solely as ‘A Wife in London’, this lack of specificity and detail in some ways distances us from the character, but it is intended to demonstrate that she is a typical, everyday woman and many women in Britain had to suffer a similar experience. In this sense, Hardy’s poem is more about the social state of Britain than any individual person, he is more critiquing the social structure and the imperialist agenda of Victorian society.

Volta: ‘He — he has fallen — in the far South Land…’- the final line of the first section provides a volta — a turning point in the poem as the wife is hit with the news that her husband ‘has fallen’ — a euphemism used often by soldiers to indicate death. The news comes between to caesurae — dashes in the centre of the line which create dramatic pauses before and after the statement. This provides suspense at first, and then afterward the feeling of shock.

The stanzas are regularly arranged into quintets with an ABBAB rhyme scheme, although the metre is slightly variable. The fourth line in each stanza always feels a little hypometric — as if it is unnaturally shorter, therefore drawing attention to itself with its abruptness. This perhaps imitates the regularity of the wife’s mundane and repetitive life, contrasted with the shocking news she’s received.

CONTEXT

Boer War (1899–1902) — Hardy was considered an ‘Anti-war poet’, who spoke out against the cost of war and Imperialism on the individual — concerned in particular with the permanent psychological trauma that it caused for both soldiers and their families back home. The poem is dated 1899, which is the same date as the start of the Boer War — a war fought in South Africa, which was one of the most costly wars ever fought in the name of the British Empire. The British had around 500,000 men, and the Boers (the Dutch settlers in South Africa) had only 88,000, and so it was a British victory. However, many British people at the time — Hardy included — felt that the war was both a pointless waste of money and of British lives, in particular Hardy criticised the idea that younger Victorian men were fed propaganda and told that they would die and always be remembered as noble heroes, whereas in reality they would never be properly buried and no one would remember their names, as well as the fact that they would die fighting for a cause that they didn’t personally believe in or particularly understand. Hardy explores this aspect of the Boer War further in poems such as Drummer Hodge. The war was partially about imperialism — maintaining the extent and influence of the British Empire — and also about claiming resources, such as gold and land. Hardy himself also felt that the Boers had a fair claim to the land, and that they were defending their homeland. None of these reasons had any direct effect on the individual British soldier, yet they were expected to die for their country and blindly follow orders anyway. Wars around the turn of the 20th century were also becoming more brutal due to technological developments in warfare, such as the beginning of machine guns.

Tragedy — Hardy’s writing is often tragic in tone, exploring degrees of sadness and depression. In this case, the tragedy is that the wife’s husband is killed, and she is placed into a state of shock. She seems to have no children, and we can assume that she and her husband are still quite newly married — as there are talks of the ‘new love that they would learn’ at the end of the poem, implying perhaps that they have not fully settled or become comfortable with one another yet. There is also perhaps an implication that children were part of their future plans, which further heightens the sense of tragedy. Hardy himself had an extremely unhappy first marriage to a woman named Emma Gilford, and so elements of the tragedy in the poem may be taken from his own circumstances — for instance, he and Emma also never had children, and she was a recluse, preferring to stay in the attic rooms of their house rather than spending time with him.

London — in the 19th Century London was not only the capital of England, but also of the British Empire — a vast collection of countries around the world that had been colonised by Britain. It was the largest city in the world at this point, but it also had a host of problems — many intellectual Victorians felt that it was hypocritical to have such poverty and dirtiness (from pollution and industrialisation) in their own capital city, yet at the same time professing to be superior and the most civilised country in the world.

ATTITUDES

  • War is as difficult for the families at home to cope with as the soldiers who are out fighting — we are provided in the poem with a different perspective on war, rather than focusing on the action of battle or the emotional and physical impact on the soldiers, Hardy chooses instead to focalise his narrative around the wife who stays at home and lives alone. The wife is deliberately unnamed, demonstrating how she universally represents the state of all wives and partners who struggle psychologically with the impact of war.
  • Death can be sudden, unexpected and disruptive — the poem is about grief and loss as much as it is about war, there is a sense that the woman is already extremely lonely and isolated, and then she is left to think of her husband and process his death in isolation. The tragedy is not just that he dies, but that he also sends a letter of all the times that they will share in the future together — thoughts which are now impossible to turn into a reality.
  • Modernism and technological progress takes us further away from living in an idyllic state in harmony with nature — Hardy often writes of the difference between country and city living in his poems and novels, for him the countryside is a beautiful, idyllic and peaceful place where one can live in harmony with nature. The city on the other hand — and London in particular — is large, unfriendly, dirty, mechanical and encourages people to live in a disconnected state, where they are no longer in tune with the natural environment. We can see this criticism of the city inherent in the descriptions of the fog and polluted vapours of the river, all of which are signs that the city is overcrowded and unpleasant — there is also a sad irony inthat the wife, even living in a place with such a high population as London, could feel so alone and be so lacking in comfort.
  • Soldiers in war often use thoughts of home to keep themselves motivated — the soldier’s letter arrives later than his death note, implying a greater cosmic irony to the situation; as if it isn’t hard enough for the woman to process hsi death, because of the time delays of letters she is presented the day after with his own voice, as if still alive, full of hopes and wishes of their future together.

THEMES

Love

War

Death

Life’s Purpose

Nature

City vs Country

Industrialisation

Loneliness

Copyright © 2020 Scrbbly


Thanks for reading! If you find this poem useful, you can take a look at our full CIE English Literature A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

Our WJEC GCSE poetry course is coming soon, in the meantime please take a look at all of our other English Literature and Language material here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses

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In essay writing for English, English Literature, and a lot of other humanities subjects (History, Classics, Sociology, Philosophy, Politics, etc) it is very important to be able to write a clear, precise paragraph that expresses your thoughts and analysis in detail. In order to do this, most schools and colleges teach something called a ‘PEE’ paragraph structure. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of the different types of ‘PEE’ paragraphs that you can do — including some basic and some more advanced examples.


This document is useful for anyone studying at school, high school, college, or university level, particularly on the following exam boards: AQA, OCR, Edexcel, WJEC / Eduqas, CIE / Cambridge, CCEA.

Thanks for reading! If you find this page helpful you can take a look at our full essay writing course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/basic-essay-writing


*** Bear in mind that you only use this structure for the middle paragraphs of your essay. Don’t use it in the introduction or conclusion!

PEE Structure (Beginner level)

Point — your ‘topic sentence’ of the paragraph. This should set the topic — explain an idea or opinion that you want to explore further. Your topic should not just describe the story, it needs to be a personal opinion or idea that deals with one aspect of the essay question.

Evidence — this is a quotation, several short quotations, or a reference that backs up your point. You are giving evidence to prove that your idea/opinion that was already stated in the first sentence of the paragraph is right. The evidence should be as clear and concise as possible, and it should perfectly illustrate your point.

Explanation — this is the analysis part of your paragraph. It shouldn’t just be one sentence; be sure to make it as long as possible — at least 2–3 sentences beyond your point and evidence. This bit is where you explain how and why your evidence proves your point. Don’t just describe the evidence, go deeper into exactly what it implies or suggests about the point and question. You can use techniques and zooming in on a specific word or phrase from the evidence to boost your grade.

Once you’ve mastered a PEE paragraph, there are ways to extend it further and make it more personal, developed, and sophisticated. If you’re aiming for around a C grade at GCSE / High School level then you only need to go as far as the PEE paragraph. For anything higher than that, you should learn these two examples below:

PETAL Structure (Intermediate level)

Point — your ‘topic sentence’ of the paragraph. This should set the topic — explain an idea or opinion that you want to explore further. Your topic should not just describe the story, it needs to be a personal opinion or idea that deals with one aspect of the essay question.

Evidence — this is a quotation, several short quotations, or a reference that backs up your point. You are giving evidence to prove that your idea/opinion that was already stated in the first sentence of the paragraph is right. The evidence should be as clear and concise as possible, and it should perfectly illustrate your point. Several short quotations grouped together to prove the same point is also called ‘synthesized quotations’, students that know how to do this usually are working at a higher level — as examiners, we look out for this as one indication of someone that is deserving of a B-A* grade.

Technique — you should always add in a technique whenever you quote or reference something. The best techniques to use are poetic devices (metaphor, simile, alliteration, etc) or rhetorical devices (repetition, rhetorical question, emotive language, etc). If you can’t think of a poetic or rhetorical technique you can also use grammatical devices (noun, verb, adjective, etc). Several techniques at once can also be more effective than just finding one and then moving on quickly. To learn more about techniques, take our ‘Basic Language Devices’ course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/basic-language-devices

Analysis — this is the same as ‘explanation’. Talk about how and why your quotation or reference proves the point of the paragraph, and how all of that answers the question. Don’t retell the story or describe what happens, you don’t get many marks for doing that in an essay. Instead of just finding the techniques and moving on, you also want to analyze them — why did they choose to use repetition, for example? Think about the detailed and specific effects of the evidence and how that links back both to the writer themselves and the question you’re trying to answer. To get extra marks, zoom in to some of your evidence and find more techniques/analysis there to go even deeper into the question. The more analysis you have, the higher your grade tends to be.

Link — finally, link back to the thesis that you wrote in the intro; the thesis is a one-sentence answer to the question that summarises your main opinion on the question and the writer’s purpose. Once you’ve set a thesis, you need to keep going back to it throughout the essay. Ideally, everything you write after the intro should just be a deeper way to prove your thesis is correct.

PEEDL Structure (Advanced level)

Point — your ‘topic sentence’ of the paragraph. This should set the topic — explain an idea or opinion that you want to explore further. Your topic should not just describe the story, it needs to be a personal opinion or idea that deals with one aspect of the essay question.

Evidence — this is a quotation, several short quotations, or a reference that backs up your point. You are giving evidence to prove that your idea/opinion that was already stated in the first sentence of the paragraph is right. The evidence should be as clear and concise as possible, and it should perfectly illustrate your point. Several short quotations grouped together to prove the same point is also called ‘synthesized quotations’, students that know how to do this usually are working at a higher level — as examiners, we look out for this as one indication of someone that is deserving of a B-A* grade.

Explanation — this is the same as ‘analysis’. Talk about how and why your quotation or reference proves the point of the paragraph, and how all of that answers the question. Don’t retell the story or describe what happens, you don’t get many marks for doing that in an essay. Instead of just finding the techniques and moving on, you also want to analyze them — why did they choose to use repetition, for example? Think about the detailed and specific effects of the evidence and how that links back both to the writer themselves and the question you’re trying to answer. To get extra marks, zoom in to some of your evidence and find more techniques/analysis there to go even deeper into the question. The more analysis you have, the higher your grade tends to be.

Development — this is a crucial aspect of your paragraph for anyone studying at a higher level or aiming for a top grade. You need to develop and expand what you’re talking about so that it feels like it’s not just your own ideas, but it’s actually informed by your wider reading and knowledge of the text. There are several ways to develop: go deeper into the context of the text and use that to analyse (explain how / why) the question and back up your point; go deeper into the themes and messages behind the story — explain what the writer’s main aims were and how these link to the question, how were they trying to persuade us to think or feel about an important theme? What is their overall intention in terms of how they aim to influence their audience?; explore alternative interpretations (at a high level this includes critics’ quotes) — how might a modern audience interpret an older story differently from the original audience? If someone is religious or atheist, what would their reaction be to the messages of the story? Understand different perspectives and also have a sense of your own personal opinion and why you think that you’re correct.

Link — finally, link back to the thesis that you wrote in the intro; the thesis is a one-sentence answer to the question that summarises your main opinion on the question and the writer’s purpose. Once you’ve set a thesis, you need to keep going back to it throughout the essay. Ideally, everything you write after the intro should just be a deeper way to prove your thesis is correct.

Thanks for reading! If you find this page helpful you can take a look at our full essay writing course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/basic-essay-writing

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