Assessment objective 3 requires learners to ‘recognise and appreciate ways in which writers use language, structure and form to create and shape meanings and effects’. Note the word ‘appreciate’, which implies critical engagement and evaluation of how the text works.
AO3 does not ask you to look at language, structure and form in isolation. It is the commentary on how language contributes to ‘meanings and effects’ which counts here.
How does the poet’s use of language, structure and form lead us towards particular thoughts or feelings?
‘Meanings and effects’ suggests that there is more than one meaning for a text, and the language, structure and form of the poem make that meaning.
The word ‘effects’ does not just mean listing the literary effects which writers use. ‘Effects’ implies that words have an effect on the reader, so AO3 is closely related to AO4 (personal response).
Let’s look at ‘The Caged Skylark’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins as an example.
The title tells you this poem is about a caged songbird, but this is not to be understood literally. You can’t put a skylark in a cage, so this is a metaphor, or possibly an allegory, for something which is trapped and should be free.
This poem needs to be heard as well as read, as it depends just as much on its music - its various sound effects - as its images or pictures.
There are a couple of things to notice.
Firstly, the poem is 14 lines long, so it is a sonnet, and is divided into eight lines - the octave - and six lines - the sestet.
Secondly, there is rhyme. Only four rhymes which reinforce that division into octave and sestet, and make it clear that the poem changes direction after line eight.
There is a lot of alliteration. Often more than one word in the same line begins with the same letter and so has a similar sound.
When you pay attention to rhymes, sound effects, line endings and the stress of the poem, you have its rhythm.
As in most poems, rhythm is an important part of the effect, which is why it needs to be heard and read aloud.
It is usually a good idea to consider the structure and patterns of a poem before writing about its language. You need to appreciate this before considering the details of the poem.
How does language ‘create and shape’ a powerful opening here?
Notice the contrast between ‘dare-gale’ which sounds so exciting and ‘dull cage’. How does the alliteration reinforce that?
What about ‘skylark scanted’? What does that suggest has happened to the bird if we imagine it caged? The word ‘scanted’ suggests something is missing. Notice the difference in rhythm between the first half of the line, and the bare monosyllables at the end.
And what about the word ‘as’? It suggests the whole line is a simile, so we need to look out for a comparison.
This tells us the skylark resembles the human spirit.
If the human spirit is the skylark, the ‘bone-house’ is the ‘dull cage’.
Here is another contrast, sometimes called a juxtaposition.
The spirit is ‘mounting’, so like the bird it wants to climb and soar.
A bone-house sounds like a tomb, and a ‘mean house’ like a slum, but in contrast to the spirit, here the poet must be describing the body.
Think about the effect of talking about the body in this way.
Does it remind us of our own mortality?
And what are the things about having a body which can make the spirit mean?
In Hopkins’ poetry, it isn’t just imagery which makes an impact on the reader.
He also uses rhythm, based on what we call ‘stress’. In particular, Hopkins used a technique called ‘sprung rhythm’. Instead of the iambic rhythms familiar from English poetry such as Shakespeare’s plays, he would put strong stresses together.
‘This in drudgery, day- labouring-out life’s age’
When you say this line, you stress the syllables in bold. Notice how the line begins iambic, alternating weak and strong stresses, and he then puts strong stresses next to each other, by using long vowel sounds (‘a’ and ‘i’) which you have to put an emphasis on. Notice the stress on ‘day labour’ and ‘life’s age’.
Think about what this makes you feel about everyday human life, trapped in the material body instead of in the freedom of the spirit.
It provides further illustration of that comparison to a songbird trapped in a cage, and shows how we can sometimes feel trapped in our everyday lives.
In ‘The Caged Skylark’, Hopkins is clearly not just writing about a bird, but about human feelings. He describes a spirit which feels trapped in the material world, and the human body, and wants to be free to express itself and find its own ‘wild nest’.
A very strict verse form – the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet originally used for love poetry – may be an appropriate way to express a feeling of being trapped. But look at how Hopkins tries to escape from tight forms by breaking the rules, using alliteration and sprung rhythm, and notice the enjambment (run-on lines) in the final lines and the lack of punctuation.
There is a clear change of mood, as well as rhyme in the sestet. This is called a volta or turn, and it is stressed by repeated negation: ‘not’, ‘no rest’, ‘no prison’, ‘not distressed’, ‘nor he’.
Finally ‘risen’ is rhymed with ‘no prison’ to suggest an alternative to the images of being trapped or caged yet longing to sing.
Freedom and a ‘risen’ spirit are strongly linked. The allusions are to nature as well as religion to suggest a spiritual alternative for you, as the reader, to interpret to fit your emotions and beliefs.