Analytical Thinking in Literature and Poetry

"Mr. Roosevelt when he Entered the Presidency."Credit: Unknown, before 1912

There is more to be seen and found on the page than the text itself.

You've heard of the phrase - reading between the lines - now add to that, exploring what's behind the words and around the phrasing. This brings us to the concept of "close reading." Close reading involves a narrowing of the focus away from the overall text and move towards individual words, segments of words and sentences; closely focus on the words used, their syntax, how the sentence or grouping of words is constructed from word order to grammatical implications as well as ideas, concepts and plausible meanings behind all the above. As a result of close-reading we will develop a better and more in-depth understanding of the overall statement, document, poem, prose, book, etc. One thing that must be understood a close reading cannot be accomplished through "speed reading" or skimming.

Think Analytically

Close-reading is an analytic reading exercise. It involves a detailed study of a selected work that includes making a determination of meanings, implications, and style with identifying evidence that supports a conclusion. It can be an exercise in deductive and inductive logic. Examples of texts that are routinely and will forever be scrutinized through "close-reading" are: the Torah, Old and New Testaments, the Koran, even legal documents and the U.S. Constitution. In literature, poems like Edgar Allan Poe's 1122 word poem, The Raven, when close-read, can result in a 10,000 word analysis identifying the many unique traits, definitions, possible meanings, interpretations, relationship of the elements, emotions or feelings evoked, how the elements and the total piece compare or contrast to other authors, as well as the relationship of the poem to historical events, religion and politics. As such, a close-read is an effort to exhaustively analyze study, evaluate, interpret and establish conclusions about the particulars of the subject work. What it is not is an effort to write a general book or story review - although, a summary of the subject work and the conclusions developed will be included in the performance of the overall close-read exercise.

How to Begin

Start by reading the first sentence of the work and try and identify anything that makes that sentence stand out, needs explanation, or opens itself up for interpretation. Look at the structure. Is there anything about the grammar, punctuation, use of capitalization, lowercase, unusual phrasing or word combinations, words unique to a time or place? Then take each of those observations and collect data relating to the same, analyze, evaluate and make conclusion that can be supported with the data you've assembled. Write down your observations and conclusions in manner that is logical and cogent.

Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“Credit: by Gustave Doré, 1866

Here is a small example of close-reading for the first lines of John Milton's Paradise Lost, from Book I:

  • Line 1:  Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
  • Line 2:  Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
  • Line 3:  Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
  • Line 4:  With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
  • Line 5:  Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Start by identifying words or phrases that you find interesting, unique, unusual, curious, undefined, confusing devoid of obvious meaning, metaphor, etc. that either need research to determine true meaning or plausible meanings. Record your questions, answers and notes to gather your data as you conduct the close-reading. Remember that you are not expected to solve every question as you come across them, but at least note those "unknowns" or unresolved items in your analysis. Some questions might be answered by a simple web search, while others may have to wait while you continue your reading to gain a better perspective of the entire paragraph, chapter or work.

To continue our example let's look at the first five lines of Milton's Paradise Lost individually.

  • In line 1 of "Man's first disobedience," who is speaking and what does he mean by the first disobedience?
  • Line 2 refers to the "forbidden fruit" and "tast", what might Milton be saying in this line?
  • Line 3 further states that the events of Lines 1 and 2 have "brought death" and "woe" to the world. What might this mean?
  • Line 4 mentions "one greater man," who is this referring to and what is the significance of this man? What does Milton mean by "restore us" and "regain the blissful Seat."
  • in Line 5, especially note that Milton uses a capital "S" in the word "seat."

These are all questions that you will want to answer in order to better understand the opening lines of Paradise Lost. Just for the sake of argument, by researching Milton's background and motivations, and as you continue to read and collect the data of the reading, you determine that: Line 1 refers to Adam and Eve, not heeding the warning of God and Eve's bite of the forbidden apple results in the first sin. Milton implies that the act of both Adam and Eve biting the apple further results in awareness for this original couple of the emotions and existence of suffering, misery, pain and sorrow. Hint: You may also explore other religion myths with similar stories noteworthy to add to your analysis. As for Lines 4 and 5 of Paradise Lost, the standard response of analysis is that Milton's "Great Man" refers to Jesus of Nazareth, his self-sacrifice for the purpose of forgiving man's sin and restoring the souls of humankind to God's grace. Of course these are not the only notes or comments you might develop through your close-reading and accompanied research.

Declaration IndependenceCredit: John Trumbull, 1818

Teachers and Students, for the Classroom

As a class project try a close-reading of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Close reading questions and topics for the study and better understanding of the "First Amendment" might include: What is an amendment and was it needed; Was there a real concern regarding this issue and were there any arguments against this prohibition; What were the religious persuasions' of founding fathers at that time; What is meant by exercise; What is meant by "abridging" freedom of speech and was there any conditions were "speech" could be limited in one form or another; Why did they single out "the press" rights; What is "peaceably assembly"; What is "petition the Government for a redress of grievances and what type of grievance; and, why was it necessary to wrap all these separate elements within the amendment into one run-on statement.

To address the questions as to what is an amendment and why it, or any amendment, was necessary, you will need to research how the history of the U.S. Constitution and the events and actions that led to the debates that eventually resulted in the Amendments to the Constitution. Wikipedia is actually a good place to start to gather an understanding of the creation of these documents. Links: U.S. Constitution and Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and Journals of the First Continental Congress 1774-1789.

In this amendment, from a grammar standpoint, notice how the word "shall" is used in lieu of the word "will." Why would "shall" be used in this way? In your research you will find that this is a legal consideration as to what the word "will" means from a standpoint of law and the legal meaning of the word "shall." Again looking at grammar, consider how commas and semi-colons are used; and is there a difference in their usage from a legal or literary usage. All the words in the amendment prior to the first semi-colon are in reference to religion. All the words between the first and second semi-colon are regarding speech and the press. After the third semi-colon, the focus is on peaceably to assemble and the expression of grievances to the Government. Notice how this is essentially a three part list of items.

Briefly looking at the first item: Usually stated as "freedom of religion," is that really what the founding fathers intended or was this simply to deny Congress from establishing a national religion or church? All the founding fathers and the members of the first Continental Congress were not unanimous on the issue of freedom of religion. Research what the many founding fathers and others had to say during the arguments in support or against this phrasing. Some of the original congressional members were not fond of the idea of religious freedom. There was a fear that this would encourage the acceptance of freedom "from" religion and if religion and or belief in a Christian God were made optional the government might find itself having atheists and Muslims in governmental positions. See if you can identify during your research which founders and early congressional representatives battled this issue and what was their motivation.

The same process of questions, research, analysis and conclusions is executed for the second and third parts of the amendment: regarding speech and the press, and on peaceable assembly and the expression of grievances to the Government. After you've assembled your questions and answers for the close-read of the amendment, you can consider taking that information and develop more questions and answers based on the implications of your initial findings. When you develop your analysis and conclusions make sure that your argument is cogent and site with examples and sources.

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Close-Reading is an Exercise in Independent and Original Thinking

It is true that a piece of literature may have different interpretations and sometimes seemingly multiple coexisting meanings; however, the art and accuracy of a good close-read and the resulting written analysis is in the skill and validity of the logical argument in support of your final conclusions regarding to the content of the texts. This is where you must use reasoning and logic to establish a cogent argument or interpretation. When developing the analysis remember the elementary basics: identify the what, when, why, who, and how of everything you discover during a close reading. The objective is to explore and uncover the many layers and facets overt, hidden, implied and plausible within a selected piece of literature (or any type of document) resulting in a deeper understanding of the literature beyond that of a fast or simple straight forward reading.


Although there is a current debate within the Kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education community as to whether this skill should be taught and at what point in a young person's academic life, there is no question as to the necessity for a college student to show up in their first class already armed with a full understanding of the fundamentals and the practical application of close-reading techniques. Thus, at the least, this skill should be taught in the latter half of a student's high school experience. From the very first class for a freshman college student the ability to perform a close-read is a must. No exceptions.