Extract Essay – ‘What is our Life?’ (Tehreem Khan)

An example essay sent in by one of my regulars! Tehreem’s work is in italics and my comments about each paragraph are in spoilers. If you find this difficult to follow, I’ve attached the Word document, at the bottom of the essay, with comments directly linked to phrases and sentences.

If it seems like I am being unnecessarily harsh, I’m not trying to be a dick, but just trying to be as constructively critical as possible to guide future attempts. My mark is at the bottom.

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Text based question: Comment closely on ways in which the imagery and tone of the following poem develop a particular view of human life.

What is our life? A play of passion;
Our mirth the music of division;
Our mothers’ wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss;
Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest – that’s no jest.

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In this poem, Sir Walter Raleigh creates a unique picture of the human life by finding similarities between life and a stage play. As this poem was written in the Elizabethan era, stage plays were by far the most common source of entertainment for both the Royals as well as the common people. It can thereby be reasoned why Raleigh chose a play to compare with life. The poem produces a complete image of humans living their lives as the actors in a play acting their different roles.

Mirror and command the question

First of all the rhetorical questioning “what is our life?”emphasizes the need and importance of truly comprehending what our life actually is. Raleigh tries to bring the reader on a pondering point as to what is the reality of life. The second part of the sentence itself answers the question telling that it is “a play of passion”. The use of word ‘passion’ is used to create a significant impact upon the reader’s mind indicating the emotional ups and downs and hinting towards the many exaggerated feelings one feels throughout life. The short length of the question and answer produces a sense of urgency and seriousness while the use of caesura makes it appear as the very and only definite answer.

Always explain why you think quotations are significant

Raleigh continues with an explanatory tone creating a sense of revealing some unknown truth by following the structure of stating each real life characteristic ‘our mirth’ first and then giving it’s comparison with the stage play ‘the music of division’. ‘Mothers’ wombs’ are metaphorically addressed as the ‘tiring houses’ where players get dressed up and prepared for the part they have to play outside. This beautiful analogy implies to the development of humans as babies inside their mother’s wombs-just like an actor wears the right costume, selects the right props and revises his/her lines, a baby also develops all senses and body parts to adapt to the world outside it’s mother’s womb.

Mostly solid analysis

Moving on, the poet metaphorizes the life as a ‘short comedy’ which is important to note as this comparison reestablishes the so far happy and light image of life created in the previous verses. Moreover it gives the impression of life being less serious and not much to worry about. It also creates a sense of insignificance of life that it is ‘short’ and will end soon. Then in the fifth and sixth lines the consonance of ‘s’ shifts the tone of the poetry from the light one to a serious and harsh one. A sense of awe emanates from the ‘judicious sharp spectator’ who is marking every wrong action of the players. This produces the idea of judgement that whatever one does in this world is being watched upon and judged and so one has to be careful in their deeds and actions since the spectator is ‘sharp’ and strict at checking. It entails that life is more like a test which humans have to pass through earning virtues and abstaining from wrongdoings.

Connections, referencing lines and have you proved it?

Continuing with the similar solemn tone Raleigh describes the graves as a protection against the sun. He takes a rather positive approach towards the graves comparing them to ‘drawn curtains when the play is done’. It is important to mention that the comparison reiterates the inevitability of the end of life-just like a play has to end and curtains drawn to it, similarly the life is also ‘short’ and will soon end with the graves acting as the curtains. The personifications ‘hide us’ and ‘searching sun’ are of reasonable importance as they create a protective image of the graves (which is highly contrasting to the otherwise desolate, scary and lonely image associated with them) while creating a harsh, evil impression of the sun.

Significance of the grave

This leaves an overall impact of life being unimportant due to its short and non-serious nature which is although enjoyable and filled with emotions throughout, still has to end and be engulfed by death which is ‘no jest’. Yet the humans are to regulate their behavior by not indulging in wrongdoings as the spectator is judging all their actions.

How to conclude

My Mark and Comments

K – pertinent selection of supporting quotations and relevant knowledge (Band 3)

U – sound understanding  (sometimes missing a trick and not expanding analysis or connecting it back to the question) (Band 3)

P – personal response supported (Band 3)

C – expression clear and accurate (Band 3)

Pretty good effort, I’d probably give you 16/25 – if this doesn’t match what your teacher said don’t just assume I’m right; it is subjective and often wishy-washy. You need to ensure every quotation used is fully explored and it is clear why you think it is significant to our overall understanding of the poem.

Tehreem Khan answer

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

6 thoughts on “Extract Essay – ‘What is our Life?’ (Tehreem Khan)”

  1. is it okay for us to discuss things such as title and use of words ‘play of passion’ and its effect when the question only wants us to discuss tone and imagery?
    can you please tell exactly what falls under the umbrella of imagery and tone?

    1. Completely fine. Imagery and tone in a question does not confine you to those areas, but does ask that they be addressed. Just make sure you occasionally chirp up about them and then you can also comment on anything else that helps them create any effects or meaning.

  2. Oh thanks a lot, that was very encouraging though it would be really kind of you if you could elaborate a bit on this comment of yours “I am not a fan of referencing lines like this – do we need the line reference if you are going to explore your point with quotations?”…:)

  3. hahaha…A HUGE THANKS…this tells me I should really start practicing questions from today onwards and study literature all night long:D

    1. No, it’s not bad at all. A few tweaks to the way you are expressing yourself and I’m sure you’ll hit an A. Your understanding of the text is excellent, just make sure that you always develop your ideas fully. Good luck!

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