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English 7-8

How to Identify a Literary Technique

In this article, we're going to show you a foolproof method for identifying techniques in your texts.

Do you know how to identify a literary technique? Well in this post, we’re going to show you how to identify a literary device and figure out what it is doing so you can wow your teachers with your responses!

 

What is a technique?

Techniques are ways of performing tasks. Think about the techniques you need to bake a cake, play soccer, or learn guitar. These are skills that ensure we don’t burn the cake, miss a goal, or strum the wrong chord!


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In much the same way, in English, literary techniques and devices are tools used by composers (authors, poets, filmmakers, artists) to create a text.

 

Why do we need techniques?

In high school, we identify the techniques of texts because it helps us:

  • Understand why a text is worth studying
  • Appreciate the language forms and features a composer uses to create a text
  • Justify the composer’s intended purpose
  • Comprehend the MEANING of the text overall

 

What do we mean by meaning?

In English, we study texts to understand their meaning, which we can view as a text’s importance, value or message.

Have you ever watched a video about animal rights or seen a movie about war and felt affected by it? That’s because these texts convey meaning by delivering a message to audiences that impacts them in some way.

So, if you’ve seen a video from an animal rights activist group about the mistreatment of animals, maybe you felt upset, guilty or angry – the makers of that video are trying to make audiences feel this way so they can take action or make a change.

 

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How to identify a literary technique

Now that we understanding how techniques help meaning, let’s try and identify techniques that shape meaning ourselves. For this, we’ll look at the poem Death of a Whale by John Blight (1913 – 1995).

Here’s the poem:

When the mouse died, there was a sort of pity:
the tiny, delicate creature made for grief.
Yesterday, instead, the dead whale on the reef
drew an excited multitude to the jetty.
How must a whale die to wring a tear?
Lugubrious death of a whale: the big
feast for the gulls and sharks; the tug
of the tide simulating life still there,
until the air, polluted, swings this way
like a door ajar from a slaughterhouse.
Pooh! pooh! spare us, give us the death of a mouse
by its tiny hole; not this in our lovely bay.
—Sorry, we are, too, when a child dies;
but at the immolation of a race, who cries?

 

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Before we dive into techniques, we need to understand what the poem is all about. The beauty of English is that there is no one way of interpreting a text – as long as you can justify why you think you are correct! To do this, we can ask ourselves:

  • What do we think the poem is about?
  • What words or phrases contribute to this understanding of the poem?
  • What images, thoughts or feelings are brought up when we read this poem?
  • Why do we think the poet created these images, thought or feelings we felt?
  • What is the TONE of the poem?

Note: TONE is the way a composer or persona feels, conveyed by word choice. Think of a person’s tone of voice – are they strict? Compassionate? Disappointed? Delighted?

In this instance, it could be argued the Blight is comparing the massive death of a whale to the insignificant death of a mouse.

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This COMPARISON is suddenly interrupted in the last two lines of the poem, which refers to the death of a child and the “immolation of a race” (sacrifice of an entire group of people). This creates a sombre (dark) TONE as Blight highlights how we as humans are only affected by death when it affects us personally, and we lack compassion when death or destruction occurs far away from us. Here, Blight suggests that human compassion and empathy is determined by size and proximity.

 

Taking your analysis further!

Did this analysis challenge how you interpreted the poem? If that’s the case, don’t worry! As we mentioned before, if you have a different understanding of a text, you only have to justify why you think this with examples from the text.

This is why we continue to study texts, because no matter how long ago a text was written, it can continue to offer new and different understandings to audiences!


Let’s revisit an extract from the poem to see how this interpretation was taken:

When the mouse died, there was a sort of pity
the tiny, delicate creature made for grief.
Yesterday, instead, the dead whale on the reef
drew an excited multitude to the jetty.

 

Here, Blight has given us two mental images: a dead mouse and a dead whale.

 

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There’s a striking comparison between a mouse and a whale!

 

While unpleasant, we can visualise how small a dead mouse must look in comparison to a dead whale beached on a shore. This technique of comparing two opposing ideas is known in English as JUXTAPOSITIONING.

JUXTAPOSITIONTwo ideas or images placed close to each other to show how they contrast

Blight says that when the mouse died, “there was a sort of pity” for this “delicate creature made for grief” because mice usually exist in houses and close to home. But the big whale, who rarely appears in humans’ day-to-day lives, “drew an excited multitude to the jetty”. Blight continues to JUXTAPOSE the “pity” we feel for a mouse with the excitement of seeing a dead whale, a rare sight. In this sense, it can be argued that Blight JUXTAPOSES these two ideas to highlight how we only care about death when it impacts us directly.

 

Keep looking deeper into your text to develop your argument

Let’s see if we can find any other techniques in the poem that add to this view:

until the air, polluted, swings this way
like a door ajar from a slaughterhouse.

Once again, Blight creates a mental image, this time of a slaughterhouse. Even though there is no physical slaughterhouse present on the beach or jetty he describes, Blight describes how the air swings ‘like a door ajar from a slaughterhouse’. The technique he has used here is SIMILE.

SIMILEComparing two ideas using ‘like’ or ‘as’ to link them

Blight compares the swinging air to a door of a slaughterhouse which adds to the sombre TONE. Tone is another technique that represents the overall mood or voice of the poem, which in this case is quite sombre, morbid and even a little graphic.

Hint: it helps to read these lines out loud. What sounds did you notice? How did the poem end?

Let’s have a look at one more extract and see if we can identify any other techniques that contribute to the poem’s meaning:

—Sorry, we are, too, when a child dies;
but at the immolation of a race, who cries?

 

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In these final two rhyming lines, also known as a RHYMING COUPLET, Blight interrupts the image of a whale with the deaths of a child and a whole race.

RHYMING COUPLETA set of two lines in a poem where the last words rhyme with one another

He leaves the poem with an unanswered question, or RHETORICAL QUESTION, which leaves the audiences wondering about who grieves when a whole group of people is killed.

RHETORICAL QUESTIONAn unanswered question used to create dramatic effect

These are just a few techniques that we picked out in the poem – in fact, there are many more.

Can you spot any we missed?

If you need help naming the technique or you want to build your vocabulary, you can find more in our English Literary Techniques Toolkit, complete with definitions and examples.

 

You can identify techniques, but can you write about them?

Now that you are a master of identifying techniques in texts, you can learn how to explain what the effect of these techniques are. One way we can do this is through a T.E.E. statement, which you can learn how to do here.

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Written by Caitlin O'Brien

Caitlin studies Communications and Creative Intelligence and Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She has been teaching English since 2016 and holds a passion in performance and music. She is currently directing a university show and enjoys playing the drums and guitar.

 

© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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