An explication is a commentary on a text rather than a summary or paraphrasing. Its purpose is to investigate the figures of speech, setting, tone, content, and context of a piece. In an explication, readers can expect to see an analysis of themes, narrative perspective, the author’s historical context, and more.
Definition of Explication
The word “explication” comes from the French meaning “explication de texte,” meaning “explanation of a text.” They are used to dig into the depths of a literary work and understand how it came together, its elements, and what’s significant about it.
When a reader completes an explication, they should have a much better understanding of a story, novel, poem, play, essay, etc. The author’s language and style should be much clearer and perhaps shed additional details on the content. Usually, explications are created by students who are assigned particular pieces of literature to readers in middle school, high school, or university.
In poetry, explications are shorter analyses that dig into the meanings of words and the relationships between the content, the poet’s imagery, and the other smaller elements of verse. This will include the rhyme scheme and metrical pattern if these things exist in the poem.
Rhyme and Meter
The person completing the explication will figure out what kind of pattern exists or doesn’t in the poem and then try to understand why that pattern was chosen. For example, if the poem follows an alternate rhyme scheme and uses iambic pentameter or if the poem is written in free verse (for example, ‘The Return’ by Ezra Pound: read more of Pound’s poetry here). This will often lead them to connect the pattern with a specific poetic form, like a ballad, sonnet, or villanelle.
Symbols and Images
In a poetic explication, writers also look for symbols and important images. For instance, if the poet uses a particular color to represent an emotional state, like blue for depression and black for death. Or, perhaps the poet uses an albatross such as in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a fox-like in Ted Hughes’ ‘The Thought-Fox,’ or some other animal that’s used to symbolize a particular state.
Read more Ted Hughes poems.
In poetry and in prose, understanding the poet’s history and life can be incredibly important. For example, consider Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy,’ a poem about a speaker’s complex and unhealthy relationship with her father. When a reader digs into her background and learns about Plath’s relationship with her own father, this might help them see the poem in several different lights. Plus, expanding one’s explication into other poetic works, like Plath’s ‘The Colossus’ in which she further expands on her relationship with her father, depicting him as a fallen statue she has to tend to.
Explore more Sylvia Plath poetry.
Figures of Speech
Another important element to consider when completing a poetic explication is the figures of speech the poet uses. This includes metaphors, personification, similes, hyperboles, and more. Often, these elements are some of the most crucial. For instance, the metaphor in ‘The Colossus’ in which Plath compares her father to a fallen statue or Emily Dickinson’s metaphor in ‘Fame is a bee’ (discover more Dickinson poetry). The lines below are a good excerpt from the poem:
Fame is a bee
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Some other great examples include hyperbole in ‘Television’ by Roald Dahl (read more of Dahl’s poetry), in which he uses outrageous details to describe the dangers of television. For instance, these lines.
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
There is a very good example of personification in ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth (explore more Wordsworth poetry), also known as ‘Daffodils.’
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze
Here, Wordsworth uses personification to depict the daffodils as “Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Understanding his use of this literary device ensures that the reader will have a better knowledge of his intentions behind the poem as well as how the literary device affects the overall tone and atmosphere.
Understanding a writer’s use of allusions is another incredibly important part of an explication. Often, a poem or novel contains oblique references to history, mythology, other literature, personal life experiences, the writer’s contemporary historic moment, and more. These allusions are not defined within the text. Instead, a writer references something and then moves away from it. Especially in poetry, knowing why they’ve done so and the meaning behind the allusion is incredibly important.
Two poems by Rita Dove, ‘Persephone, Falling’ and ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades,’ are great examples of poems that are centered around their allusions to Greek mythology. Without knowing the story of Hades, Persephone, and Demeter, it’s impossible for a reader to fully appreciate what the poem is about.
Discover more Rita Dove poems.
Why Do Writers Use Explication?
Writers use explications to dig deep into the content of a particular literary work. This is usually done for academic purposes, but individual readers with an interest in better understanding a novel, poem, or play may engage in explications as well. Often, a literary work is only best understood when the reader knows the historical context, what literary devices the writer used, how they’re applied, and the significance of certain images, as well as the rhyme scheme and metrical pattern if they’re reading a poem.
Related Literary Terms
- Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
- Historical Fiction: a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events.
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
- Blank Verse: a kind of poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.
- Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
- Rhyme Scheme of Sonnets: usually conform to one of two different rhyme schemes, those connected to the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet forms.
- Listen: Rhyme and Rhyme Scheme in Poetry
- Read: Guidelines for the Perfect Explication Essay
- Read: Explication of ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson