AQA Lit B4: an idea for approaching the critical anthology, Marxist element.

In Unit 4 candidates will read widely and independently. They will also be introduced to some critical theories and have an awareness that, in addition to studying set texts, theory itself can be worthy of study and can help readers to become more judicious in their own critical responses. They will also have seen critical material as a ‘model’ of academic writing.
The requirement that Stretch and Challenge is included at A2 is met by a number of requirements in
the specification. These include:
• the possibility of reading and responding to more than the minimum number of set texts
• making connections across the two units and also with work done at AS
• considerable flexibility over the choice of texts to study and the types of texts
• access to theoretical writing on key topics in the study of literature
• examination questions which are open-ended and allow scope for individual and independent thought
• a coursework unit which expects independent reading and the potential for students to devise their own supervised tasks.

(AQA Specification)

To focus discussion on several individual poems by Burns, Blake, Betjeman and possibly, Kipling and Tennyson with a view to addressing the question “How can a Marxist reading shed new light on the poem ….? This question will be varied and with Burns in particular students might focus on rescuing the Marxist thought from the heather and whiskey that surround Burns’ memory… This should provide a good range of reading.

Critical Anthology key points:
Pg 6: 1: Focus on difference between overt and covert in texts with a view to unearthing clear Marxist themes. “To a mouse” and “Red, red rose” might prove interesting here.
2: relevance of status of author to be considered, particularly with Kipling and Tennyson. “Light Brigadfe should be considered in the light of the status of Tennyson. “Slough” might also be read with the same slant.
3: Relevance of Ian Watt’s idea that the Ballad “speaks” for the rural and semi-urban working class. Quoted in section 3 from The Rise of the Novel. This is interesting in that the poems by Burns, Blake and Kipling will tend to adopt this simple form. Given this, students might wish to compare the approach seen in “A’ that” and “If-” with close regard not only to the message, but also to the background of the poets (point 2).
4: Choice of poetic medium in terms of idea that the sonnet and Iambic Pentameter might be said to represent social stability, decorum and order… this can be linked with ideas relating to Stalinist formalism in which work was not valued if the form made it difficult for the masses to understand. This can link to point 3 and also in the case of Burns to the fact that as a composer poet, writing in the vernacular he is making his work accessible for the masses, many of whom would be illiterate.
5: Marxism is closely related to the Romantic ideals and the rise of the individual as a valid voice, challenging the status quo. Burns and Blake need to be seen in this light and the links between the French Revolution and the revolution in Russia sought by followers of Marx are obvious.

The poems I will use for this activity are:

Robert Burns:

For A’ that :
To a mouse:
Red, red rose:

William Blake:

London :

John Betjeman:


Rudyard Kipling:

If- :

Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Charge of the Light Brigade:

Siegfried Sassoon:

Base Details:

These poems can be used individually or as pairs, the better to provide clear debate within the essay.


The essay for this section is suggested to be around 1200-1500 words and need not be based on more than a single poem. The question agreed between the student and teacher should focus on the application and interpretation of the critical anthology and the text chosen for study. In this case, the anthology must be used a s a”text” for the purposes of the essay and must feature throughout in the debate.

Suggested titles are:

1. Having read the critical material on whether it is possible to define the aesthetic nature of literature, explore and evaluate the aesthetic qualities of a poem of your choice.
2. Based on your reading of the critical material, write an argument for the inclusion (or exclusion) of an author of your choice into the A Level Literature canon of texts.
3 To what extent is feminist/marxist criticism helpful in opening up potential meanings in text x?
4. What potential significances can be found when studying the use of metaphors in text y?

The sample assessment material from the AQA web site will be used to allow students to begin to apply the mark scheme and assessment foci for themselves.

Indicative Content:
Typically candidates will:
• write in an appropriate form for the task, such as a short essay, a review, a piece of journalism
• show an informed knowledge of the critical ideas they are testing and of the literary text(s) they are applying
them to
• show how form, structure and language affect the way literary texts can be read
• make connections between the critical material and literary text(s)
• consider possible different interpretations in the light of the critical source material and other ideas including
their own
• consider and evaluate possible contexts of production and their effects comparatively across texts
• consider and evaluate possible contexts of reception and their effects comparatively across texts.

The Assessment Objectives

AO1 Articulate creative, informed and relevant responses to literary texts, using appropriate terminology and concepts, and coherent, accurate written expression
AO2 Demonstrate detailed critical understanding in analysing the ways in which structure, form and language shape meanings in literary texts
AO3 Explore connections and comparisons between different literary texts, informed by interpretations of other readers
AO4 Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received

Quality of Written Communication (QWC)

In GCE specifications which require candidates to roduce written material in English, candidates must:
• ensure that text is legible and that spelling, punctuation and grammar are accurate so that meaning is clear
• select and use a form and style of writing appropriate to purpose and to complex subject matter
• organise information clearly and coherently, using specialist vocabulary when appropriate.

In this specification QWC will be assessed in all units by means of AO1, which includes assessment of candidates’ overall competence in using language accurately and effectively in constructing well-argued responses to assessment tasks in English Literature.


Leading to preparation of a coursework essay in two drafts, students will work in pairs on pairs of poems with a view to engaging with analysis of the poems in a neutral critical manner. This will be followed by application of the “critical approach” to their findings. Using the SOLO taxonomy approach, students should move from a multistructural stage to a relational stage swiftly. The extended abstract might be the development of the final essay question. Ideally the choice of pairing should be up to the students themselves, but there are obvious links here: If/A’ that, Charge/Base details, London/Slough… other poems such as To a mouse might work well on their own.

As an example, this is how A’That might work:

Multi structural ideas:

1. 8 line, iambic tread – simple and accessible – ballad form
2. questions the reader from the opening
3. vernacular
4. repetition of phrase “for a’ that
5. linked ideas are interesting: “coward slave”, the idea of daring to be poor
6. “hamely fare” is a positive spin on poverty
7. link of knave, fool and tinsel with harsh nouns “coof” and “birkie”
8. no capital K for “king o men”
9. Use of 2nd person address
10. prays for change
11. wants all men to be brothers – Schiller echo (1785)

There may be more but a relational approach will begin to make links between ideas and the texts themselves….

1. link to Watt and study of form as representative of social background
2. Idea of Burns as our equal or as our teacher – explore background, idea of non-centralised education and education for all
3. Ease of assimilation for all, even illiterate and ill-educated
4. different interpretations of tone for each repetition
5. emotive language/sense of opposition to ruling bodies
6. focus on the home and the family rather than the state- should a Marxist look inwards in this way or is this signifying an unwillingness to lose touch with the status quo?
7. rebellion implied…links to romanticism becoming evident – which is this?
8. belittling monarch, implies all men equal
9. engages all readers
10. does not advocate direct action – is this Marxist? Acknowledges need to wait…
11. central idea of socialists, but also of Christians… clash?carries latent political message – Beethoven and onward.

Finally, as Extended Abstract, these ideas might be used to explore a question along the lines of: “To what extent should Burns’ poem “For a’that” be seen as a prescient Marxist manifesto?”

There is more to find and more to explore within all these poems – a contrast of this Burns poem with Kipling’s “If-” might bring interesting debate witrh regard to the relative socio-political backgrounds of the two poets, for example. The idea is to try to inspire studetns to explore and develop confidence in their own critical faculties.

Link to anthology in AQA secure key materials – you will need a log in for this which should be provided by the exams officer to teachers of this course: