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Essay Hack: The Portrait Argument

The Problem

Picture the scene:

You’ve been given a poem – or maybe a short passage of prose – and you’ve been asked to analyse it or provide some sort of commentary.

To your horror, you realise that…

… this text just appears to be a description of someone or some people or some place or something

… and that’s it.

Not much happens.

Adapted from Un bar aux Folies Bergère (Manet)

You are at a loss: what do you write? Why do English teachers and Literature papers keep asking you this stuff?

Perhaps you are familiar with this scenario? If so, I’m here to help:

The Solution

I’m going to show you a brilliant trick to put you on the path to writing a great essay when you’re in this situation.

If done well, this approach will give your entire essay a lift and help you to find new meaning, purpose, and direction in what you’re writing.

This approach works well if:

  • You’ve been given a short poem or prose extract
  • The text describes one individual person or group of people OR
  • The text describes one individual scene or place
  • ‘Not much happens’

That last bit is important. It’s important that ‘not much happens’.

So here’s what you do.

It’s simple:

Introducing: the Portrait Essay

You recognise that the thing you’re being shown is a portrait.

You: OK… so it’s a portrait… so what?

So… the whole point of a portrait is to capture or present these 3 things:

  • What someone or something is/was like
  • At a particular time
  • From a particular point of view

So most of your job is going to be explaining what that ‘someone’ or ‘something’ is like in the text you’ve been given and then justifying your answer.

You: What is the point of that?

The point is that this is something that human beings have found useful and meaningful for hundreds – if not thousands – of years. Portraits have always been big business – and they still are.

Van Gogh self-portrait sold for +$70m (in 1998!)
Rembrandt self-portrait sold for +$18m (2020)

Portraits matter.

And whether or not they sell for millions of dollars, and whether they are composed through painting, photography, drawing, or writing, they can be meaningful and powerful.

So it’s a powerful thing to be able to recognise and acknowledge that the poem or extract you’ve been given takes the form of a portrait.

Acknowledge the portrait

And here are some expressions that you use:

[The text you have been given] takes the form of a portrait.


[The text you have been given] offers a portrait of [whatever is described]

You, in your essay

Because once you’ve done that, you’ve established the purpose of your text. And in many cases, there’s just one thing left for you to do:

Explain what the subject is like

And that requires you to deploy all your well-honed skills in character analysis, right?

A good place to start might be my list of +1000 Adjectives, with special lists for describing characters.

For some readers, the ‘cue’ that I have just given you may be enough.


If you’re really looking to nail an essay on a portrait-style text, here are some ways you can add extra depth and shine to produce something really impressive:

What does the portrait do to the subject?

When you’ve established what the subject of the portrait is like, you could consider what the portrait does.

Here are some useful words. Select these with caution, according to what you think the author’s intentions were.

Capture, Present, Project, Offer, Reveal, Unveil, Imagine, Reimagine

Here are some ‘portrait’ poems that often appear in English Literature exam anthologies and get taught in schools.

How does the portrait treat the subject?

Dignifies them (useful term! this is common in portraiture)
Aggrandizes them
Sensualizes them
Sexualizes them

And here’s another ‘treatment’ that the portrait can give. A portrait can recast someone in a new role.

We do this all the time – for example, we make heroes out of sportsmen.

Recasts an individual as:

In an heroic role
As a leader or master
As a ‘chosen one’
As a (tragic) victim
As an Everyman
As a patriarch / matriarch
As a fool
As a villain
As a scholar

From what point of view is the portrait offered?

Although this is a complex question, here are a small number of answers which will cover a multitude of possibilities.

  • A detached or indifferent point of view (possibly ironic)
  • A sympathetic point of view
  • An affectionate or nostalgic point of view
  • A satirical point of view
  • An embittered or resentful point of view

In most cases, you can offer powerful insight in your essay by choosing ONE of these and justifying it. BUT –

I would avoid trying to dedicate a specific paragraph to this idea. Instead –

This is the kind of observation that you are likely to make in your introduction and/or conclusion. In fact, if you only consider this question in your conclusion, then it can be a nice way of finishing your essay with a creative flourish.

What is the dramatic effect of the portrait?

Portraits can move us and shift our own points of view in many ways.

Check through my list of dramatic effects to see whether any of them arise from the text you are writing about.

Some examples of ‘Portrait Poems’

Muliebrity (Sujata Bhatt)
Follower (Seamus Heaney)

Dulce et Decorum Est, Disabled (Wilfred Owen)
Two Old Black Men on a Leicester Square Park Bench (Grace Nichols)

And here are some less well-known ‘portrait’ poems that you may wish to practise with.

Accident and Emergency (Nessa O’Mahony)

Believe it or not, you also get ‘portraits’ in Shakespeare

Kent: Did your letters pierce the queen to any
demonstration of grief?

Gentleman: Ay, sir; she took them, read them in my presence;
And now and then an ample tear trill’d down
Her delicate cheek: it seem’d she was a queen
Over her passion; who, most rebel-like,
Sought to be king o’er her.

Kent: O, then it moved her.

Gentleman: Not to a rage: patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like a better way: those happy smilets,
That play’d on her ripe lip, seem’d not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence,
As pearls from diamonds dropp’d. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved,
If all could so become it.

King Lear (IV.iii) adapted from MIT online edition

And here are some poems which might trick you into thinking that they are portraits – but they are not:

Particularly, beware of the ode!

The Tyger (William Blake)

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