Criticism & commentary

  • for the practical work of reading and writing, including the mid-term and final papers
  • guidelines
  • a selection of resources

St Lucy of Syracuse
: patron saint of writers, readers, and the blind,
inter alia (Francesco del Cossa, San Petronio, Bologna: 1473). Hence the quill in her right hand, and a somewhat arch and sceptical expression.
As for what’s in her left hand—



  • ON READING: fast reading – slow/close reading – how to be a good reader
  • ON READING AND WRITING: what commentary & criticism are, and how they bring together reading and writing
  • ON WRITING: guide to commentary-writing – some examples of commentaries – grading criteria – composition – style & usage – practicalities: further resources for commentary, close reading, & critical analysis – literary & rhetorical terms

tomb-alienor2 An eternal reader immortalized, or, an extreme case of getting stuck into a book: Eleanor of Aquitaine (tomb effigy, Fontevraud Abbey, early 13th c.).


(1) Fast reading

  • General, broad, even impressionistic, so as to form a good overall idea of the text. As distinct from slow, precise, close reading. In cinematographical terms: zooming out, for a panoramic shot.
  • The first reading: flip through the pages so as to see the shape of the book as a whole: how is it organized? divisions such as sections and chapters? what sort of writing is it (prose, verse)? is there paratextual material (prologue, epilogue, any narrative frames)?
  • The second reading: more slowly, say a page per minute on average. Look at this point for topics, motifs, names that jump out at you (ex. the principal protagonist’s name, other proper nouns, words or phrases that are repeated)
  • Third and subsequent readings: we are now into slow territory (see further below)
  • The incomprehensible, the unknown, new vocabulary, names of persons and places: think twice before stopping to consult a dictionary. Ask yourself if this element seems vital to a broad understanding of the text as a whole. If not, make a mark by it, and leave it. That is: IT IS VITAL TO SKIP AND SKIM. Working out what can be skipped and what can’t is something that comes with reading practice. Some of you may be more confident than others in this regard; some of you may have to gain confidence and learn to trust yourselves.
  • This is the first part of LEARNING TO BE A GOOD READER: figuring out which of your hunches and instincts can be trusted, which can’t, and how to tell the difference between the two: the best way to learn that difference is to make notes of hunches, what action you took, and what the result was.

Caravaggio44jeromeBorgheseEarly multi-tasking: St Jerome (patron of translators, librarians, students) writes in one book whilst reading a second (Caravaggio, Museo Borghese, Rome: 1605/06).

  • If you are not already in the habit of doing so, start writing in/on your texts. Above all, in the form of marginal comments (see example below by Montaigne). This can of course be in the form of inserted post-it notes, stickies, flags, and so on. Read when possible with a pen or pencil in your hand (or between teeth). This is an important part of “active reading.”

(2) Slow reading

  • Slower, closer, more precise: the contrary motion to fast reading. In cinematographical terms: zooming in for a close-up shot, going under the magnifying-glass, under the microscope, and indeed under the skin and into the very fabric of the text…
  • The incomprehensible and unknown: as before, do not look it up straight away. Make a note on your text (a “?” in the margin does nicely).
  • The second reading: check those unknowns. Do they now make sense, in the light of the whole? Can they be guessed? Do they matter, or not?
  • In second and subsequent stages of reading, there will be contextual and intertextual references as well as contemporary and classical allusions that it will be useful to look up. As they will play a part in making sense of the text, and in looking more closely at its construction. Wikipedia and Google are usually a good first start for quick answers (at this reading stage, NB: full-on research is a different story…).
  • This is also the point to start looking out for AESTHETICS AND OTHER WEIRDNESS. Those parts of the text that do not simply convey information: all that is supplementary, goes beyond, the simple transmission of information.

• How are facts presented?
• By whom?
• From which/whose point of view?
• What sort of language is used?
• Are there deviations from the “straight and narrow” (plot development, character focalization, use of language, imagery, any unexpected or jarring element, anything else that makes you sit up with a jolt and says “hang on a minute…”)?
• Are there tangents, gaps, loops forwards and backwards?
• When you spot such deviations and detours, ask yourself what they’re doing, why they’re there at all, why they’re placed in that specific location, and what’s around it?
Always also ask if this is a matter of stylistic eccentricity: i.e. what differentiates one individual writer’s style from that of another.

See this Guide to Writing a Critical Analysis for further questions to ask of your text.

Albrecht_Dürer_Saint_Jerome_1521St Jerome stops to ponder, a.k.a. “meditation” (Albrecht Dürer, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon: 1521).

  • Just as it is vital to skip and skim in fast reading, IT IS VITAL TO STOP AND THINK in slow reading.
  • This is the second part of LEARNING TO BE A GOOD READER: figuring out where to stop and pause, where to reconsider and reread, and as with the first part (above: SKIPPING), it takes practice and self-monitoring to acquire this self-knowledge …
  • … for BEING A GOOD READER consists of two basic elements:
    (1) good instincts/a good eye
    (2) good reasoning/a good mind
    That’s it.

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essais-bordeaux-pageAMontaigne‘s comments on his own Essays (Édition de Bordeaux, 1588).


As you may observe in the image above, reading and writing and reading are interconnected, and one of the main points of connection is COMMENTARY or GLOSS or EXEGESIS. The kind of writing you’re doing in this class, including the comment-/commentary-writing on the weekly blog, focusses on COMMENTARY or CRITICAL ANALYSIS or CLOSE READING. As the names suggest, this is a form of writing that is very close to the text you are reading, and indeed to reading itself.

Note the following images’ ambiguous iconography of literary activity—reading? writing? both?



6.4.christineImages above: Marie de France, St Augustine???, and Christine de Pisan

EXEGESIS hints at a second aspect that is distinct from reading (but in common with what a writer is doing): INTERPRETATION, the movement in an external direction of EXPLANATION and EXPRESSION, and an intention of COMMUNICATION (Lat. cum/com- : “with”). This commonality (be that to share, or to persuade through debate) is another raison d’être for the online discussions:

med-readers3While commentary should be distinguished from the general essay, the two share structural similarities: a beginning, a middle and some development, and an end. You will note that these structural features appear in all the texts we are reading on this course.

The main reason for working on the commentating kind of literary activity is to emphasize the proximity between reading and writing, as interconnected literary activities, and thus to help you to develop as (inter-connectedly) good readers and writers yourselves. Some early Medieval examples: the prologue in Marie de France’s Chievrefoil, and its intertextual relationship with an earlier one: the prologue to Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec and Enide features a moult bele conjointure that is literally a “very fine conjunction”, translated (Kibler 37) as a “beautifully ordered composition.”

What you’re doing in this course is both that “conjunction” (reading/writing, you the reader/your material) and “composition” (your writing about/based on others’ writings).

The following may be useful as supplementary explanations of what we are doing, critically speaking:

The next item is a counter-balance that is well worth reading; a comfort to return to, to remind oneself that reading has a point:

  • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, excerpt from the “Preface” to the 2nd ed., 1971 (online edition 7-14). “This business of seeing what I was trying to do … ” to the end. Passionate polemic on the purpose and role of criticism and of reading: old-fashioned in some respects, unorthodox in many, and still radical as concerns the teaching and learning of literature.

erasmus_elogeThe critic criticized: Hans Holbein, marginal drawing; Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (1st ed., 1515).

Key to the full meaning of criticism is interpretation and judgment: fair and balanced, as in court; taking into account all views and points of view, and including all sides of the argument. For above all, this is your reaction to the text, your literary appreciation: at the centre of this reading, and your writing of it (and discussion in a non-written way, ex. in class) is YOU THE READER. Critic, interpreter, judge.

What we are doing is not pure and unadulterated Practical Criticism, an attempt to produce a clean and OBJECTIVE reading. That is, a reading that is based purely on the text and utterly divorced from anything outside it: intertextual links; the contemporary real-world context; intention, production, audience, and reception; a history of reading that would include a history of critical/scholarly reading; and, last but not least, what you bring to the book. It is arguably a delusion to think that any reading by a human being can be anything other than SUBJECTIVE: that’s in the nature of the beast that is the subjective human / human subject. And so, in a compromise, you may bring to the text all your previous experience, opinions and value-judgments, other reading and research, and all extra-curricular knowledge: but only in combination with a close reading of the matter at hand, and its immediate intratextual relations (i.e., relation of each part of the book to each other part of the book, and of the parts to the whole).

The sole limits to your freedom of interpretation: POSSIBILITY (logic, sense of words, fact) and VERISIMILITUDE (no robots or psychonalysis in the 12th-17th c., please)

The final stage of slow reading, for it to become a complete reading, is a move back out from the microscopic to the macro: this is the moment to consider INTRATEXTUAL RELATIONS (= relate a particular passage to other particular passages elsewhere in the work, and to the work as a whole). When relating your readings to the lectures, and when thinking about projects and the final examination, consider also eventually the INTERTEXTUAL (= between works, especially those that are directly related–same writer, same topic, same form, part of same textual family ex. hero-stories, Lancelot-stories) and the CONTEXTUAL (= the world outside your book: that of the writer and his surroundings; that of intention, intended audience, and subsequent reading history; and the real, historical, material world, warts and plagues and all …).

  • NBBB: brilliant commentary does not necessarily involve any research, or reading of secondary sources (i.e. criticism/commentary written by others, books, journal articles). It can be done entirely from first principles: that is, the combination of a primary text, your good reading, and pure reason.

If, however, one is submitting a piece of writing as a wholly original piece of research (this would be the case for projects and for other kinds of writing, including in 300-level courses and above…), one should check who has written what on the same topic, and cite those who have come to the same conclusions as oneself. This is partly out of basic human civilised politeness, responsibility, mutual respect between authors, and remember that copying others is cheating. Imitation is the finest form of flattery: but unless it’s attributed, it’s theft.

Yet flattery goes in the opposite direction, too: it is not unlikely that more than one person will reach the same conclusions as you about a text, if yours is a well-reasoned reading; consider this an indication of your good taste, and of your intuitive and rational skills having attained a respectable level.

So: While plagiarism is strictly forbidden, you may distinguish it from CITATION or QUOTATION (of a work, a work on the period, another student’s writings on the course blog), which are permitted so long as clearly indicated as such (see STYLE GUIDES etc. below). You should also always cite the editions to which you are referring (printed edition, online text, dictionaries and other reference works), and page numbers where appropriate.

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lemans-int-windowsThe art of harmonious composition: Le Mans, cathédrale Saint-Julien; image, Daniel Clauzier. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The virtuous circle of analysis and synthesis. Logic. Rationality and the reasonable. Order. Sense. Coherence. Consistency. Having a point, uttering it clearly, arguing and developing it. What counts as useful evidence and argument. Conclusions. Persuasion, and the after-effects of your writing: changing the world, one reader at a time.



A recent case of, and on, exemplary close reading:

Four exemplary student midterm commentaries that received “A”-grade marks:

Some samples: not to be used as exempla / models; may serve a dual purpose as cautionary tales… O’Brien, three versions of the same item (further later versions also exist, reconfigured and incorporated into two other items):


  • Reading Critically: Guide to Writing a Critical Analysis (O’Brien, last revised 2012)
  • Commentary/critical analysis grading criteria (O’Brien).
    These are general guidelines: As this is a literature/culture course, most of your grade is for content and structure (good choice of examples, relevance, an intelligent reading, well-reasoned, solid argument, acceptable conclusions with regard to all of the above). Style, syntax, grammar, and spelling will contribute to the grade, insofar as they contribute to the communication of content and structure: bear in mind that this is an exercise in EXPLANATION which will be assisted by clear EXPRESSION.
  • Grading Guidelines for Content-Based Courses (Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies, UBC)



Note that what follows is a mix of kinds of English. We are in Canada. So Canadian, American, British (and indeed Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, etc.) forms are all perfectly and equally acceptable… so long as you’re consistent (ex. choice of spelling convention).



Use of the following technical terms is not compulsory, and O’Brien would be the first to condemn the artistic deployment of jargon and obfuscation where Crystal-Clear Plain English would perform the same job. You may find, however, that some technical terms save you time, effort, and space; and may therefore be judged useful.

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1201_91DO NOT fall asleep, dream, and write it all down as best you remember it on waking (literally or figuratively).

Such things may result in chaos, due to the excessive influence of …
CarminaBurana_wheel... That Pernicious Wheel.

Aim instead for this:
with plenty of
and the further support of

so as to enable the inclusion of ornamental flourishes – which are at the same time the beautiful centre of your work, around which it is built:
chartres-north-roseImages c/o Chartres Cathedral, France; the North Rose Window being part of a gift by Blanche of Castile, daughter of Eleanor – supra – in 1230.

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4 Responses to Criticism & commentary

  1. Gaby says:

    The first photograph of stained-glass windows is not from Chartres Cathedral. It’s a bit ironic, considering that the photo follows your paragraph on plagiarism and citation, that you’ve credited neither the photographer (Christopher Simmons), nor the cathedral (Le Mans).

  2. Juliet says:

    Gosh, how silly of me. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll amend it accordingly.

    Must have got my zillions of cathedral images mixed up! I thought this was one of the ones I used regularly from Wikimedia, and with all attribution comments as per there and correct at the time of writing (which is some years ago now).

    I should add a further situational irony: the image actually serves to introduce the next section, on harmonious construction. On which happy note, I shall love you and leave you, and make the requisite changes.

    • Done!

      And a second thank you, as I found an image that I’d used previously and actually prefer. Had it not been for your comment I wouldn’t have done so, or indeed looked at this page until the next time I was teaching a course involving commentary or something else to do with this site.

      Thanks again, and have a good week and a mellowly fruitful autumn!

  3. Natashia Nisbet says:

    Wow… what a great post! I think it could also be useful for everyone to know how and where to merge documents online. Maybe you would be interested in an online service where you can merge any documents you want. I used it to fill out

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