'Seeing' the unseen

Whether it is literature, music, painting, dance, architecture, or indeed any kind of art, the response you have when you see a work for the first time is a vital part of the way you 'see' it finally. What happens in those first few seconds and minutes can say a great deal about the key elements of style being used by the artist, as well as, perhaps, tell you some interesting things about the qualities you look out for, or are particularly sensitive to, when you respond to something for the first time.

Another aspect that is important to note is the need to resist any tendency to see the response you make as an attempt to discover a 'deeper meaning' or what the artist 'intended'. Few artists ever know what their intentions are, at least in a way that is easy to articulate, and even fewer would say they create works with a hidden agenda, or a 'deeper meaning' in order to make the job of responding to a work of art analogous to a detective novel - where there is only one essential meaning that it is your job to locate.

Trust your own instincts, therefore. Any particular work can operate in many different ways, and produce many different kinds of responses; it is your job to examine the way your particular response was generated and why this was so.

It is a good idea to 'practise' the skills of responding to new forms of art, which you can do by and large by simply putting into words the way you think, feel or imagine when encountering them.

The following kinds of questions might help:

  • Does the work make you think of an experience, place, person or thing with which you are already familiar - or does it suggest something strange or alien?
  • What kinds of emotion (if any) does the work inspire in you?
  • Does the work seem to be interested in a particular idea or number of ideas, or to make a particular point?
  • Does a particular aspect of language and/or style strike you as being more prominent than another?
  • Do you feel engaged by the work - i.e. does it create a sense of intimacy with you, or do you feel held at some distance Try to identify why you think either reaction might be so.
  • Based on first impressions, do you like or dislike the work?

The importance of variety

Just as the literature course as a whole promotes the value of reading texts from different cultures, places, times and original languages, so your skills of analysis need to be flexible enough to react meaningfully to stylistic variety. This capability is particularly pronounced in reference to Paper 1, where texts you will not have seen before can come from many different literary sources - of both fiction and non fiction. As a result, try to practise responding to diverse kinds of unseen material.

In the column below are 5 quite different artistic representations. Study each and as you do so, jot down reactions in responses to the questions in the pink box above. You could also choose words or phrases from the column on the right that you feel capture your initial response most accurately.

1. Poem
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
2. Prose

It was the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields, and the autumn breezes on the sea-shore.
For my own poor part, the fading summer left me out of health, out of spirits, and, if the truth must be told, out of money as well. During the past year I had not managed my professional resources as carefully as usual; and my extravagance now limited me to the prospect of spending the autumn economically between my mother's cottage at Hampstead and my own chambers in town.

The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its faintest; the small pulse of the life within me, and the great heart of the city around me, seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun. I roused myself from the book which I was dreaming over rather than reading, and left my chambers to meet the cool night air in the suburbs. It was one of the two evenings in every week which I was accustomed to spend with my mother and my sister. So I turned my steps northward in the direction of Hampstead.

3. Music

4. Painting

5. Film

The language is emotive

I feel confused by some of it


I notice the use of sense imagery

There are some abrupt shifts in tone

Light hearted

A strong sense of rhythm

The speaker seems quite detached


There is a development

An optimistic, hopeful feel

The movement is quite hypnotic

The layout is quite formal

A sense of variety

The language is quite informal

It makes particular use of metaphor

The tone is somewhat bleak, melancholic

I felt quite engaged by it

There are particular contrasts

Thoughtful, reflective

The language is a little archaic

Setting seems to be quite important

I don’t think I like it

There is a strong sense of emotion

The tone feels quite brooding, almost menacing

Structure seems to be quite important

The rhythm is not consistent

Lines are sometimes end-stopped, sometimes run on

The eye is drawn to particular details

It reminds me of another work

It’s quite visceral

The effect is quite instantaneous

You feel disturbed

I sympathise with the narrator/character

It is very compelling

There is a strong sense of atmosphere

There is something stylised, artificial about it

The author seems to be making a point

The opening is quite striking

Positive, life affirming in its overall effect

It feels haphazard, spontaneous

It is quite realistic

A strong sense of intensity

The language is very direct, literal

Tense, uneasy

Vibrant, lively

There is a clear narrative

Sound seems to be quite significant

The extract gains an effect from its use of repetition

There is something moral about it

The meaning feels quite elusive

Chaotic, fragmented

Lines, sentences are quite short and punchy

Lyrical, musical

I feel as though I need to know more

My reaction is quite broad, perhaps contradictory

There is something ambiguous about it

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