“the altar” by George Herbert

“The altar” by George Herbert

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Essay 3 asks you to analyze a poem minutely. By discussing the poem’s images, voice, and other literary devices, as well as the mechanics of its construction, you will plum the work for the depth of its meaning and possibly those ideas which may not be obvious on a first reading.


A definition for explication might be, “to make plain or clear; explain; interpret.” The word comes from the Latin explicare, which means “to unfold.” You can think of this assignment as asking you to “unpack” a poem, opening it up for the reader and discussing the ideas that are packed within.

You need to select one of the poems assigned since our reading of King Lear—one of at least 8 lines. (If you choose a longer work, you should concentrate on a smaller “piece” of the poem, of no more than 20 or 25 lines.) You will then write an essay in which you discuss the poem’s ideas, imagery, and possible message, focusing on what you believe is the overall meaning (or at least one possible overall meaning) of the work.

An explication will generally follow these guidelines:

  • It “unfolds” the poem by explaining in detail how the work communicates to the reader.
  • It considers significant details and suggestions in the poem, looking beyond the obvious.
  • It is not a paraphrase (that is, a restatement “in your own words”). Instead, it is an explanation of the way the work speaks to the reader.
  • It shows how each part of the poem contributes to the overall meaning of the work. Thus, each part of the analysis must relate to a clear central idea.
  • It generally works from the start of the poem or passage to the end.

You may use outside sources for this essay, but you are in no way required to do so, nor do you automatically earn more credit by doing so. If you do choose to use outside sources, you will need to cite them correctly in MLA format.


Papers will be assessed based on the criteria outlined in the Assessment Standards. Critical analysis, insight, and clarity will be key to your success in Essay 3.