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practical criticisms

nb: for Q800 / Classics & English students studying texts in Latin ONLY. Please submit two practical criticisms in lieu of an essay, either in term 1 or in term 2. For further guidance on practical criticisms, scroll down the page (this and similar guidance will also be distributed in class, and can be found in the  Module booklet (click to download)

Term 1 (deadline 22nd November 2018)

Write on TWO of the following FOUR passages, answering the question set with specific reference to the Latin text, while paying attention to the guidelines for practical criticisms (scroll down the page, below). You will need to consult commentaries and cite and discuss relevant bibliography, presenting each answer as a mini-essay with bibliography and detailed referencing to the text specified.The two practical criticisms should be submitted electronically on Tabula as one document of about 2,500 words (maximum 3000) in total.


1. Ovid, Amores 3.7.1-26.
Question: to what extent does impotence reboot, rather than deaden, Ovid’s elegiac project?

2. Horace Epode 8
Question: is it possible to read this poem without ourselves performing, with complicity, in the theatre of Roman masculinity?

3. Horace, Satires 1.4.38-65
Question: how corny, or how original, is Horace’s claim to be a victim of malicious misrepresentation?


Term 2 (deadline 20th February 2019):

Write on TWO of the following FOUR passages, answering the question set with specific reference to the Latin text, while paying attention to the guidelines for literary gobbets (scroll down the page, below). You will need to consult commentaries and cite and discuss relevant bibliography, presenting each answer as a mini-essay with bibliography and detailed referencing to the text specified.The two practical criticisms should be submitted, both electronically and in hard copy, as one document of about 2,500 words in total.

1. Phaedrus, App.10

Question: what is the moral of this nostalgic political fable?

2. Seneca Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium 12.1-6

Question: analyse the philosophical and literary point of Seneca's self-satire in this passage.

3. Seneca, Thyestes 970-998.

Question: consider and analyse the spectacle of Atreus' sadism in this passage

4. Statius, Achilleid 158-177.

Question: discuss in detail the portrayal of Achilles and his encounter with Thetis in this passage, exploring how it relates to the plot of Book 1 and the various transformations Achilles will undergo


Practical Criticisms: Some Guidelines

A literary commentary (‘gobbet’; aka ‘practical criticism’ or ‘prac crit’) should not be the same as writing a short essay. A commentary is largely concerned with the explication of a single passage of text; an essay is directed towards a different goal - making a more general argument or arguments on a set topic, using a wide range of primary and secondary evidence. Here is a short guide to what to focus on:

Remember that the ‘question’ (for coursework prac crits) is just a spur to reading the text closely: you do not have to focus on it exclusively, as you would do in an essay, but it will be useful to give some direct response to the question in your final paragraph. Indeed, the point of the question is to help you frame your analysis and inspire you to write your concluding comments.

Try to write 2-3 sentences of introduction, then 2-3 more developed paragraphs, followed by some concluding remarks.

In your introduction, you should:
• identify the context (briefly but precisely), paying some attention to what follows as well as what precedes; when dealing with a single poem, mention its position in the book, and state briefly what it is about. If the passage/poem is part of direct speech, identify the speaker. You may want to refer briefly to genre, metre, tone.
• briefly outline your coverage of major themes. What interests you about this passage/ poem?

Then, in the next two or three further paragraphs of detailed comment, you should:
▪ say what you feel should be said about the passage/poem as a whole, broken down into two or three main themes. Pay close attention to the text, and make sure your your observations begin with the text itself. At the same time, it might be useful to attempt to contextualize (or even politicize) more broadly your observations. It is this, alongside detailed and creative interpretative of textual detail, which will often distinguish excellent first-class work from good second-class material. Throughout, remember to analyse and evaluate, not simply describe. Make sure also to engage with and reference secondary literature, and use footnotes as you would do in an essay. Insert a final bibliography, also, as you would do in an essay.

Always brainstorm before you start writing.
It might help to use this checklist of questions/reminders:
• What genre/form is this, and what metre is it written in? (i.e. form sets up expectations, produces and frames meaning)
• Who is speaking/narrating? What can you say about that voice? Is it aggressive, satirical, meandering, elusive, formal, authoritative, weak (etc.etc.)? If there is more than one speaking voice, what emerges when you compare them?
• Look at imagery, metaphor, simile: analyse their function and effect.
• Pay attention to rhythm, speed, phonic effects, visual effects.
• If you are dealing with narrative, how is that narrative spun out? What creates drama and intensity? Is this passage a turning point or a climax, or a coda, or an interlude? Have we ‘been here before’?
• How does form illustrate or enact content?
• Pay attention to the vocabulary and diction used: is it formal, elevated, colloquial, casual, pompous, intellectual, grotesque, unusual? Is it ever designed to allude to a previous poem/passage/line/theme? Does any word I the passage/ poem have more than one meaning, and do multiple meanings or connotations have a potential function here? For example, do they create humour? Or innuendo? Does one connotation undercut the other?
• Look for patterns, and notice word order: are words repeated? Look especially at beginnings and endings, and also (especially in poetry) at the beginnings and ends of lines. Is a word repeated in a different form (i.e. polyptoton)? Is it repeated in the same metrical position in a different line? What might be the point of this? Do we find a noun placed a long way away from an adjective describing it, and is there a point to this?
• In what position do you think this passage/poem puts its readers?