A Sample 'A' Paper

from English 241: Survey of English Literature II


Things to note:

1) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

2) Rather than making numerous general points briefly, the student always choses to make specific, complex arguments so that s/he can provide an in-depth and extensive interpretation of the text at hand.

2) The student has used a good deal of textual evidence from the poem to support his/her case.

3) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions and passages s/he provides.

4) The paper has very few grammatical and stylistic problems.

"Why Did I Laugh"

[Note that I have included my marginal comments, which are in red]

Why did I laugh to-night? No voice will tell:
No God, no Demon of severe response,
Deigns to reply from Heaven or from Hell.
Then to my human heart I turn at once.
Heart! Thou and I are here sad and alone;
I say, why did I laugh! O mortal pain!
O Darkness! Darkness! ever must I moan,
To question Heaven and Hell and Heart in vain.
Why did I laugh? I know this Being's lease,
My fancy to its utmost blisses spreads;
Yet would I on this very midnight cease,
And the worlds's gaudy ensigns see in shreds;
Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser—Death is Life's high meed.
(1819, publ. 1848)

Life to the Romantic poets was a sublime adventure where one must grapple with the human condition in a fervor of passionate thought and raw emotion. Because the Romantics were not afraid to explore the depths of the psyche or to break conventions, there arose a new concept of living in the nineteenth century. To live was to transcend beyond one's being, to see the oneness of everything in nature, and to enjoy each fleeting moment. Life is an amusing endeavor, as John Keats suggests in his sonnet, "Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell," where the conflict between the Heart and the Mind over the concept of death is explored.(1)

As a second generation Romantic, John Keats was notorious for experimenting with the form of the sonnet poem. Although "Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell" is in the traditional Shakespearean sonnet form, in which the rhyme scheme contains three quatrains and a closing couplet all set in iambic pentameter, Keats ingeniously applies variation to the verse at places where the words demanded creative refinement. To truly understand [Note: split infinitive] the meaning of the sonnet, one must look at each line individually to see how Keats manipulates the form to follow the content. [Marginal comment: amalgamate these two paragraphs into one general introduction that explains how the form itself reflects the struggle you mention in the first paragraph.]

The Mind's dilemma is introduced in the first three lines: " Why díd I laúgh toníght? No vóice will téll:/ No gód, no démon óf sevére respónse,/ Déigns to reply´ from héaven ór from héll." [Marginal comment: ok, but I think that in normal conversation one would be more likely to stress the "why" but I can see why you put the stress where you did.] With each line in iambic pentameter, Keats uses the caesura to break up the flow of the meter in lines one and two. In line one, the reader has been allotted a split second to try to answer the posed question, and[,] even though the question is rhetorical, Keats goes on to verify this by saying that there is no one who can answer: "No voice will tell." The caesura in the beginning of line two also creates a pause which accentuates "No god," and this caesura's placement early in the line is interesting, for it seems to symbolize the traditional God, who is thought to be at the beginning of existence. Yet even more engaging [is the fact that] Keats does not capitalize "god," which might imply the Romantics' prevalent pantheistic ideals, along with the Poets' fascination with the seductive dark side, illustrated by the use of "no demon." Also in lines one and two, Keats uses the word "no" three times to emphasize the finality of the unanswerable query, and to further emphasize [note: split infinitive] that there is no one thing that Man can devise to settle his inner struggles. This finality is expressed, too, with the onomatopoeic quality of the word "severe" where the strict authority of a god or demon cannot satisfy man, even if, in line three, they would "[Deign] to reply," which neither force attempts to do. The gods and demons ignore Man's questions altogether, separating the realms of the abstract immutable forces and the concrete human reality, which results in a sense of detachment that continues throughout the sonnet.

As Keats' thoughts turn inward to reflect upon his inherent confusion, the meter accordingly follows his turmoil. Changing suddenly from iambic pentameter to trochaic pentameter[,] lines four and five read: "Then tó my húman héart I túrn at ónce--/ Héart! thóu and Í are hére sad ánd alóne"; [marginal comment: ok, but in regular speech one would more likely stress "sad," wouldn't you say? Ah, I see your footnote # 2. I'm very glad to see that you considered this possibility.] This change comes about quite quickly, "at once" in fact, jumping excitedly to the proclamation of "Heart!" as though Keats thinks he has found the means of discovering his plaguing riddle. The trochaic meter in line five incorporates a spondee, with two stresses on the words, "Heart! thou," creating another caesura which again forces the reader to read the line much more slowly.(2) Because this line is a turning point in Keats' self-reflection, the change in meter exemplifies the foreboding revelation that he encounters in the succeeding lines.

Once realizing that he is not fully connected with his own solitary, deceptive Heart as well, Keats turns to the Mind's rationality to muse again over the question and to exclaim: "Say, whérefore díd I láugh? O mórtal páin!/ O dárkness! dárkness! éver múst I móan,/ To quéstion héaven and héll and héart in váin!" Thus after posing the question a second time, Keats still does not receive an answer, but he does experience the mounting emotions being battled out within the Heart and the Mind. This "mortal pain" and "darkness" is the anguish he feels at being reminded of the Heart's impassioned desires and the Mind's tiresome limits. This anguish is voiced in the three exclamatry phrases, all caesuras: "O mortal pain!/ O darkness! darkness!" which provokes the Poet's feelings of broken distress and inability to fathom the unimaginable void experienced in lines six and seven. Next, the alliteration of the [h] in line eight, produces a faster and distinct rhythm that brilliantly disguises another variation in the meter. On "heaven and hell" there appears an anapest or two unstressed syllables followed by a stress, with the unstressed [n] sound in "heaven" and "and," then the stess on "hell." Keats probably applied this to maintain the pentameter beat and to allow the key words (hell, heart, vain) to remain stressed. As a result the stresses in line eight pound out and enhance the climactic discovery of the answer to the question, which[,] as it turns out, the Poet has had with him from the very beginning:

Why díd I láugh? I knów this béing's léase--[note: see earlier marginal comment on "Why did I laugh"]
My fáncy tó its útmost blísses spréads:
Yet cóuld I ón this véry mídnight céase,
And thé world's gáudy énsigns sée in shréds. [Marginal comment: here, the stress should definitely fall on "world's"; stresses very rarely fall on definite or indefinite articles

Once more Keats asks the question, yet this time with affirmation, for now the answer is apparent. Not surprisingly, the third quatrain returns exclusively to iambic pentameter, a resemblance to the first quatrain, which represents, again, a confident calmness in the verse, especially since now the truth has been uncovered: "I know this being's lease." Strangely enough, Keats uses the word "fancy," a notion often dismessed by the Romantic poets for its Neo-Classical triteness, to describe his unraveling ecstatic thoughts. Nevertheless, Keats announces the unimaginable possibility of death or the end of the world: "And the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds." Upon ceasing, the Poet becomes essentially free, leaving behind a world that must continue to relentlessly tear [note: split infinitive] itself apart over its petty problems.

The couplet closing the sonnet, "Vérse, fáme, and béauty áre inténse indéed,/ But déath inténser--déath is lífe's high méed," brings in the same idea of relishing only what is truly important--life itself. The thirteenth line switches to trochaic meter and utilizes another spondee to stress "Verse" and "fame." Keats, again, seems to use the change to bring attention to his revelation. Familiarly, a caesura is placed in the middle of line fourteen to set off the closing words, the moral of the sonnet. "Death is life's high meed," is a fabulous simile, which reinforces a profound visual allusion that many of the Romantics adopted--the idea of drinking in either Nature, Beauty, or[,] as in this poem, Life. [Marginal comment: but he isn't drinking life but death. what do you make of this unexpected reversal?] Using meed as the drink of choice, too, plays cunningly with the Romantics' view of Life, because meed is a quite simple and sometimes bitter substance, which any regular person can obtain and take a sip from.

"Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell" follows the trajectory of the internal dilemma of the human condition: every man must encounter the grotesque beauty of his fate in both the Heart and the Mind. Even though the Mind knows that it will die one day, it is the Heart that often beats a vicious and foolish refusal to believe it. There then arises the potential for man to become incresingly furious in an attempt to deny his mortality, but Keats approaches the frightening subject with graceful zest. Yet, why did he laugh? Keats laughed because he is alive! To be able to laugh in the ominous face of death is to also laugh [note: split infinitive] at the absurdity of the world, reminding Man that the ultimate purpose of life is to live.



1. In the footnotes of the Norton, Keats was quoted to have said of the composition of this sonnet: "Though the first steps to it were through my human passions, they went away, and I wrote with my Mind--and perhaps I must confess a little bit of my heart" (786).

2. One could also read the words with a stress on both words "here sad" creating another spondee, but I have chosen to interpret this line by reading it with the stress on "here" then a pause or "phantom caesura," followed by an unstressed on "sad," for it makes "sad" truly sad.