AP English Literature: How to Tackle Poetry for Multiple Choice Questions (Part 2)

By Jonathan Wilson

(Published On 28 April 2021)

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In my previous blog, we looked at how to read and paraphrase poetry for the AP exams, and with the next exam coming up on May 5th, we don’t have much time left to get ready! This blog will build off of the strategies from the last one, and help guide you through answering the questions quite reliably. For your reference, the poem that we looked at last time is here:

To Autumn

(1)      Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

(5)       To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

(10)     Until they think warm days will never cease,

For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

(15)     Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

(20)      Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

(25)     While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

(30)   And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Aside from reading this classic poem, we offered a paraphrase of the first stanza to help us follow along its progression and reach a pretty good understanding of how it contributes to the poem as a whole, assuming that we do the same for the remaining stanzas. If you recall, last time we said that the first stanza more or less states: Autumn works with the sun to make the fruits, flowers, etc ripen and the bees prosper. This paraphrase will suffice for now and will help us to answer the following questions. Let’s look at the first of these next.

  1. Lines 1-11 characterize autumn as a

(A) ——————————

(B) ——————————

(C) ——————————

(D) ——————————

(E) ——————————

You’ll notice that I have removed the answer choices for the time being, and that’s because I encourage students to ignore them and not rely on the process of elimination until we’ve followed several steps first. The first of these is to make sure we understand the question and paraphrase it if necessary. With this first question being rather simply worded, we might not need to do that, but we have to at least be sure what we’re looking for. In this case, it will be something about how autumn is depicted in the first stanza.

So, the second step that we need to take is to go to the passage and start scanning for evidence of how autumn is characterized. We know from our paraphrase that it works with the sun to make the fruits, flowers, etc ripen and the bees prosper and if we want any other supporting evidence, or if we want to double-check our understanding, we might find some useful details from the passage that will help us answer.

(1)     Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

(5)       To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

(10)     Until they think warm days will never cease,

For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Highlighted above are some of the details we may have noticed are contributing to this characterization of autumn. From here, we use that evidence to fulfill the third step, which is predicting the correct answer. The reason why I teach students to do this step is because it allows them to work from the passage to the answer rather than from the answer choices. The answer choices consist of four trap answers and only one that is correct, so if we look at the answer choices first, we can talk ourselves into justifying that a wrong answer is right. This is perhaps the biggest mistake that you can make on the multiple-choice portion of this exam. Instead, let the passage guide you to the correct answer. Above, particularly from the highlighted information, we can see that many images of fruitfulness and abundance characterize Autumn, so that is going to be our prediction.

The fourth step is to choose the answer that is closest to the predicted answer that we came up with in step 3. In this case, we want the answer choice that is close to saying that Autumn is fruitful and abundant. Now we can look at the answer choices.

(A) fickle god of vegetation

(B) natural force created to satisfy human needs

(C) period of over-ripeness and decay

(D) time of preparation for winter months

(E) benevolent agent of earthly abundance

We see right away the closest answer choice that we have to our predicted answer is E, and E is correct. If we need to exam further to eliminate wrong answers along the way, we can do that too.  While Autumn was personified as a “bosom-friend” it isn’t really a god or a fickle one, at that, so we can eliminate A. It doesn’t explicitly exist to satisfy human needs, and the only explicit needs being met seem to be those of the bees, so we can get rid of B. The “over-ripeness” mentioned in answer choice C is close, and while the “clammy cells” are somewhat gooey and gross, there are no references to decay, so C is out. There are also no references to any humans or animals preparing for the winter, and ascribing this to the bees’ activity would be a stretch, so D is gone too. That leaves E, which was quite close to our predicted answer, and E is right.

I welcome you to try this strategy again with the following question, also on the first stanza.

In line 3, “Conspiring” refers to

(A) a plot between the farmer and nature

(B) a figurative alliance between autumn and the sun

(C) the combined efforts of the sun and the moon

(D) the secret influence of a pagan deity

(E) the literal interactions of the sun and the earth

To recap, the strategy is as follows:

Step 1: Read and paraphrase the question if necessary (ignoring the answer choices).
Step 2: Look for evidence from the text.
Step 3: Make a prediction based on what the text says
Step 4: Choose the answer that is closest to the predicted answer

Some issues we might face when trying to employ this strategy are that perhaps our predicted answer isn’t that close to any of the answer choices, or that the question doesn’t really allow us to make a prediction at all because it is somewhat open-ended. While these issues will come up in our exam, keep in mind that the strategy that I have shown you works far more often than it doesn’t and gets me correct answers practically every time I use it. I encourage you to try and I wish you happy studying!


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