Friday, March 9, 2012

A Level-7 Essay for IB English Exam Paper 1 - Commentary

Note: This is old.  The course has changed.  After reading this, which many students still find helpful, please go on to read about the new marking criteria and another good example of a level-7 essay, starting here.

Are you looking for help with your IB English? I can help you. Click here for more info.

Some of my students got "The Heaven of Animals" by James Dickey for their mock IB English exams, and when all was said and done, they asked if they could see an example of a level-7 paper. Well, I couldn't find one  on the IB website, or anywhere else, for that matter, so I asked the Nerdvark to write one for me. So here it is, Nerdvark's Level 7 IB English Commentary (Exam Paper 1) on James Dickey's "The Heaven of Animals", complete with his notes.

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Pay attention to the five areas that these papers are graded on. 

First, Understanding (of the poem) - Nerdvark begins his commentary by explaining, or paraphrasing, the poem in order to show his understanding. 

Second, Interpretation - Nerdvark then goes into a detailed analysis of the poem, being sure to mention many Literary Features and their Effects for the third part of the grading. 

Fourth, the Structure of your essay is graded. Nerdvark structures this essay with a solid introduction that hooks the reader, gives his thesis, and outlines his main points, then has a block for understanding, a block for interpretation, being sure to PEEL in each paragraph, and finally, a conclusion that cleverly summarizes the main points and includes his personal response. 

When you take the fifth area of grading, Use of Language, into account, noticing that the Nerdvark has gone over his essay with a fine-toothed comb and eliminated all grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, used an appropriate register, and expressed himself in varied and concise language, then you can see how this paper would earn a level 7. 

Now, go ahead and read the Nerdvark's commentary, and follow along with your IB English Paper 1 - Commentary marking scheme, if you have one:
The Nerdvark spent nearly half an hour dissecting this poem and made careful notes before beginning his commentary.


The Haven of Earth
by the Nerdvark

         Many religions predict that the afterlife resides in Heaven, for humans. What of animals? This essay will explore James Dickey's poem "The Heaven of Animals" to discover his idea of what an animal's heaven is like in Dickey's mind. The main theme explored is the idea that an animal's heaven is right on Earth, in its natural habitat. Furthermore, the poem could serve as a warning to humans that destroying the planet is not only dangerous to our own continued existence, but it brings up important moral issues concerning the animals who also reside on our planet. Dickey utilizes many different literary features to get his message across, namely his choice of structure, vocabulary, and imagery, though there are many more.
         The text itself is very clearly about both predators and prey, how they interact with each other, their habitats, and the process in which they live and die. The first three stanzas describe the heaven in which animals live: our Earth. The very first line, "Here they are." is a reference to Earth. They are here, and nowhere else. They will always be here. The next few lines utilize imagery; "It is a wood" and "It is grass rolling" are examples of the different habitats in which the animals reside. The second stanza is of how animals are not self-aware, rather they rely solely on instincts; "...beyond their knowing./ Their instincts wholly bloom". The third stanza, conversely, reflects on their environments. Since the animals are not aware of anything but their instincts, any natural habitat they belong in is the best place for them; the picture of perfection. If the animal is a woodland creature, its habitat is a wood, and the wood in which that particular animal lives is "The richest wood,". These three stanzas encompass animals as a whole.
         Dickey also mentions predators, specifically. The fourth, fifth, and part of the sixth stanza all refer to the Earth's predators. "These hunt, as they have done,/ But with claws and teeth grown perfect." from stanza four, refers to the hunting of other animals. Stanza five is all about predators stalking their prey. "And crouch on the limbs of trees,/ And their descent/ Upon the bright backs of their prey." clearly refers to a predator stalking its prey. Only the first two lines of stanza six describe the predators; a continuation of the sentence in stanza five. "May take years/ In a sovereign floating of joy." gives away its subject with the word 'sovereign', a word of power. The prey, obviously, is not empowered, and so it refers to the predators.
         The rest of stanza six introduces the other end of the spectrum: the prey; "...those that are hunted". Stanza seven makes clear the idea that being hunted is not a bad thing; it does not upset or terrify the prey to be hunted: "And to feel no fear,/ But acceptance, compliance." Since the animals rely on instinct, that instinct being to live, reproduce, and feed another, their being hunted is not, in any way, traumatic.
         The final stanza wraps the poem up perfectly, bringing the predators and  prey together in a "cycle". While predator and prey are separate entities, they are still part of each other in the same cycle. The last two lines may appear, at first, to be only about prey: "They fall, they are torn,/ They rise, they walk again." However, it is actually nonspecific. "They are torn" could refer to both predator and prey because of the breakdown process which occurs after death. A body, whether predator or prey, will be subject to all manner of decomposition, and so Dickey leaves off on an open note; simply a part of the cycle.
         Interpreting the poem can lead one down many paths. However, a sure start is with the overall structure. There is no rhyme scheme, the themes bleed into each other, and the stanzas have different lengths. It is a very natural poem, more concerned with flow than a rigorous structure. An inference of things belonging in a 'natural habitat' can be found. What does the structure say, if not that being in a 'cage' (rigid structure) is unnatural for animals? This is especially clear in stanza six, where two lines from stanza five occur in stanza six. Further, the two lines, "May take years/ In a sovereign floating of joy." are about predators, while the rest of stanza six is about their prey. This not only shows a relaxed structure, but that prey and predators being together is a natural part of an animal's life, and to separate them is unnatural. It could challenge humans to take better care of the planet. When natural areas are destroyed for human needs, any animals that survive are sent to zoos. The poem seems to ask, instead, to leave the natural areas intact. It would be better to create a reserve, where all types of animals can live together in harmony.
         Although nowhere in the poem does Dickey actually say that the animals' heaven is on Earth specifically, many of the lines may allude to this. As previously mentioned, the line "Here they are." is as close to a giveaway as any line comes. Why "Here"? Surely "Here" should refer to the Earth. If the animals' heaven was somewhere beyond Earth, the poem would not open in such a way. Further evidence for it being here can be found in stanza seven, in the line "Fulfilling themselves without pain." Heaven for humans, in many religions, is a reward for fulfilling a higher power. "Fulfilling themselves" shows no evidence of animals needing to please a superior power. The Earth itself is their reward, "Their reward: to walk" (last line of stanza six), which alludes to Earth being their heaven. Further, in human religions, a 'soul' is required to get to heaven. Bodies, obviously, cannot travel to another plane, so a soul must exist for the human interpretation of a heaven. Dickey writes "Having no souls", perhaps alluding to a different idea of heaven altogether.
         Instead of the human idea of heaven, Dickey seems to explore a different viewpoint altogether. From many instances within the poem, it appears as though heaven, for animals, is simply the natural perfection of the Earth itself. "But with claws and teeth grown perfect" is one of the first instances of a hint towards the perfection theme. "Outdoing desperately,/ Outdoing what is required:/ The richest wood,/ The deepest field.", four lines from stanza three which are pregnant with meaning. The Earth itself seems to be the animals' heaven, as, in its natural state, it is utterly perfect. If an animal should be (re?)born in a forest, that forest is all the animal knows, and in its natural glory, it is the ultimate forest for that animal. Instinctually, it fulfills every need of the animal's, making it, in a sense, heaven for that animal. This idea extends to any habitat in which an animal could live, so long as it's natural. It is also possible to interpret this in other ways. One could say that there is only one forest on Earth which is the richest, and clearly not all forest critters live there, so the heaven must be otherworldly, which is why the heaven "outdoes" the forests of Earth. However, there is further evidence within the poem supporting the allusion that the Heaven of animals is upon the Earth we live.
         An examination of the wording within the poem reveals a lexis of positivity and perfection. "Upon the bright backs of their prey", from stanza five, seems out of place. Surely an animal which is preyed upon should not be easy to spot. Such wording can be justified as Dickey's method of saying that predators are meant to catch the prey, as is the natural process of things. Bright, a word with a positive connotation, is one of many such words within the poem to indicate that death and predation is not a negative part of an animal's life. There are also two words which may be direct references to the Bible. "In a sovereign floating of joy", in which 'sovereign' is used. Sovereign alludes to one in charge, but it is a very holy word. The other, "Of what is in glory above them," where 'glory' is found, being a word used in the Bible frequently. The two words, in the Bible, refer to God, but Dickey uses them, in both cases, to refer to the predators. This indicates that the animals' heaven is the Earth, in and of itself.
         Another lexis which makes itself present is the humble aura of the poem. Dickey uses many 'ground's-eye view' words. For example, "walk" and "feet" are both used several times throughout the poem. Imagery such as "the landscape flowers" gives the impression of a low, simplistic beauty. Even in stanza five, where Dickey describes the predators on the limbs of trees above their prey, he uses "crouch". So what? This not only creates a sense of equality among the animals, strengthening the sense of the animals fulfilling themselves, it also reinforces the idea of a cycle.
         The last stanza mentions a cycle, which is perhaps an allusion to animals being reborn. Evidence of this includes the line "They rise", which is present in both the beginning (stanza two) and the end (stanza eight) of the poem. As well as this, "They fall, they are torn,/ They rise, they walk again." refers to animals dying and reliving. It  indicates rebirth, although rebirth requires a soul. Perhaps, as Dickey would have been aware at the time of writing this poem, it refers to their genes being reborn, within every subsequent generation's DNA. In this way, Earth is effectively an animal's heaven.
         Although interpretation is up to the individual, one could take away from Dickey's poem a warning. In today's technological and consumerist society, natural areas are quickly being diminished. As a mentally superior species, do we not owe it to our animal Earth-mates to keep their areas safe? Do we have the right to destroy their homes, their heaven? Regardless of these complex moral issues, there can be no mistaking Dickey's meaning in "The Heaven of Animals" that the Earth itself is an animal's heaven, providing what it needs in the natural order it needs it in. Through his wording and style, he has taken us through exactly why it lives up to the standards of a heaven for all the Earth's children.

To learn more about how to kick butt on Paper 1 in the IB's new "Language A" course, click here.
Now that you have studied hard, it's time for a study break! Written by K.I. Borrowman


  1. Very helpful. Thank you :).

  2. hmmm....i think you're being kind of arrogant setting this up as the perfect commentary. for the most part your language is clumsy, you state the obvious and narrate rather than interpret. also, too much moralizing and flaunting of your personal opinion. you have hardly any ideas and have not grouped them together - very incoherent on the whole. I'd say this was a level five. If your teacher actually marked this as a seven, your school's obviously not a very 'quality' place.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. Of course, we all know that the humanities are always very subjective. This essay was written for me after graduation by a student who got level 7 in IB English, and since IB papers are graded by IB examiners, not the school, we will have to assume that the writing is worthy of a level 7.

    Hopefully these posts have helped some IB students improve their literary analysis and writing skills. But since the course has changed, I'll be taking these IB posts down soon anyway.

    1. I have my Engligh HL P1 exam tomorrow and I just read this essay and found it very helpful.

      I think that everyone has a different writing style, mine is certainly very different to this, but it is still very helpful to see the different ways in which you can approach an analytical commentary.

      Yes the course has changed, but I still found this very helpful! Thank you very much and congratulations to Nerdvark for getting a 7 in English, I know that is very hard!!

  4. Super helpful! Thanks loads and wow that's brilliantly written!!

  5. There is either a typo or a misspelling where he talks about " "Fulfilling themselves" shows no evidence of animals needing to please a superior power. The Earth itself is thier reward their reward to walk" ". Thier.

  6. Hello! I'm just starting my commentary and I'd just like to ask..
    Are we not allowed to voice some connections?
    For example, would this be considered imposing my own opinion?:

    Through the repetition of the words “one man”, (lines 153, 155, and 157) Cassius emphasizes the incapability of Caesar to rule over Rome alone. [Due to Rome being a powerful empire, it would be unsuitable for one man to control the land without the counsel of others]

    The sentence in the square brackets, is that imposing my opinion? Is that acceptable to writei n a commentary?
    Ty and please answer as soon as possibleif you could... it's due in 2 days and I'm hoping I'd get some professional help! :)
    Thank you!

  7. Hello, Anon.

    That's certainly a good way to analyze the writing. It would be improved by giving the effect on the reader, by the addition of a sentence: "This use of repetition shows the reader that Cassius is adamantly against Caesar, and encourages the reader to feel the same way." For more on this, see my post on PEEing (31 Jan, 2013)

    Giving your personal response would be more about how effective the writing was on you, such as "I found the repetition to be very persuasive. The more times I read the words 'one man,' the more I agreed that Caesar would not be able to rule such a vast empire."

    Thanks for reading! Good luck in your studies.

    -the Nerdvark (Nardvark's hidden nerd)

  8. I have trouble completing my commentaries in the time given for the English IB examination. Can this commentary be written in 1.5 hours?

  9. This was a Higher Level commentary, written in two hours, but keep in mind that practice makes perfect! Make sure you use The Writing Process - pace yourself and give yourself some time to PREWRITE (read and make notes on the extract), PLAN (memorize the five-paragraph essay plan so you can just plug your ideas into it), DRAFT (write the essay), REVISE (re-read your essay and add anything you can think of to improve it) and EDIT (re-read it again, checking for errors.)
    For more on this, check my posts on The Five Paragraph Essay Format (2 October, 2012) and Writing a Five Paragraph Essay (19 October, 2012).
    Thanks for your comment!

  10. This is a pretty good analysis of the poem. However, the language and the sentence structure, I partially agree with one of the comments, is quite clumsy and lacks a formal structure. Considering the strict markings of the IB literature papers, I consider him to be quite lucky to be getting a 7. Though I appreciate his effort in demonstrating an effective method to tackle paper 1 commentary. Overall, it's a very good presentation of what is expected to be said and analyzed about a literary work.

  11. just finished my paper 1. I read this 20 minutes before the exams, and it was really helpful. :)

  12. Hi, I like the way you have analyzed the poem and would like your inputs on my own writing. I have done an analysis on "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen which is an interesting poem but I can't seem to substantiate any concrete ideas. Pls help me out with the ideas along with the structure.

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