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UPSC English Literature answer-writing

This is in the interest of all UPSC aspirants with Eng. Litt. as optional subject. The ones undecided about optionals and having Litt. as a probable choice can also benefit by knowing the question types asked and the answers expected. This is especially helpful for those without a literature background.

Sure, the answers posted here may not always be perfect (as this is a platform to help one start writing answers and sharpen your skills over time), but with the collective effort of members and guidance by senior players in the subject (mains qualified candidates) I think we can reach quite close to what UPSC expects of us.

To maintain quality of questions, it is recommended to attempt and post answers to only previous year UPSC questions.


  • Here we go then:

    1. Short note: Auden's poetic sensibility as revealed in 'Partition'. [2004, 10 marks]

    Ans: As a poet, Auden looks far beyond the events that led to partition than any geopolitical analyst would.

    One could prove the event of partition as dubious on rational grounds. However, only a poet looks at the intent behind an act. If that isn't noble, he out-rightly rejects every action that follows. An event driven by necessity, lack of time for "reconciliation or rational debate" is dubious at the very outset. Auden the poet therefore rejects partition as "better or worse" for the people.

    Auden delves at the individual level to bring out those arguments as only a poet can. By referring to the ill heath, fear of life and incorrect data as serious obstacles to one's coherent thinking, Auden presents a string case to absolve the lawyer who implemented the partition, at least in the eyes of the readers.

    As a poet, Auden doesn't take sides and regards both the haste of the British and venal passions of Indians as responsible for the bloody event.

    Auden's poetic sensibility opens new vistas through which this even event can be viewed.

    (180 words, ~8 mins)
    Note: The actual paper had this question worth 20 marks, but has been reduced to 10 here considering the recent trends.
    The answer has been written as a timed-test (where 10 marker should be written in approx 7 mins). It is expected that answers attempted in test-conditions only will be posted here, as the entire idea is to make answer-writing as close to exam situation as possible.
    Also, since PT is near, we don't expect this discussion to be very active till the next month's end, but it should, nay, must pick up from then on...

    @phoenixx ---- Cleared UPSC Mains-2013 with Eng. Litt.
    @wasif @L_Étranger
    cordially invited to join this discussion... bring others along if you can... Thanks
  • Thank you @bitkin for initiating this..
  • It will be better if other seniors comment on your answer because I still don't feel qualified enough to comment on it..
    I will post my answer in afternoon..
    On a side note from where you get this 2004 question paper buddy..is it available in market?
  • “if I had two to three years , I might have improved on what I did”- Cyril Redcliff
    This line sums up, the virtue in distress that he felt during the tense environment of Partition.
    W.H. Auden too grew up during great depression and world war so his sensibilities are perfectly shown and sketched up in many of his poems, whether it is September 1, 1939 or the shield of Achilles.
    This is the creativity and artistic nature of Auden, which allows or make him able to choose words that perfectly describe the poetic scene and dwells into the feeling and emotions of reader.
    “Two people fanatically at odds” and “solution in separation”, “assassins” set the background in melancholy.
    “unbiased” civil servant, with very less time to do the gigantic task of settling boundaries , where maps and census are outdated and incorrect, still he “settled the fate of millions”, shows his virtue.
    Further, the action is described in words that stir the body, “assassins”, or the “hot weather”, or the fear of “getting shot”, telling the gravity and dangers of place.
    The stylistic excess “different diets and incompatible gods” shows the expression and at the same time exaggeration because diet cannot be completely different. It brings out the difference between two parties.
    But all in all only the Auden could have showed it, with the careful choice of words and expression the sensibilities of dividing a continent by a man who was really unprepared with virtually no time in hand.
  • it may have lot of errors, i am really sorry for it, i don't know did i really understand the demand of question..whatever it is , it is at front of you. please check it once and give me your valuable suggestion, criticism or comments.
  • i just saw it i wrote it for 20 marker
  • @LOVETHEROVER87 Welcome aboard
    Thanks for commenting and posting your answer....
    Your answer looks very good to me.... it captures the essence of the question (poetic sensibility closely relates to the beautiful style and expression that a poet uses to present an event, thought or situation to the readers)...
    Only a few points for further improvement (these are my personal opinions which may be incorrect, but still..)
    1. Details outside the realm of poem can be excluded (you know it is Cyril Radcliffe who executed partition, but it isn't mentioned in the poem and isn't necessary in the context of the question).
    2. Similarly, name of other poems wasn't required as the question mentioned you the particular work to focus on.
    3. In the virtue point, the justification for your claim is missing. Besides, virtue is an umbrella term, which one do you mean should be clarified.
    4. Use of absolute qualifiers "only Auden could've..." indirectly denigrates other poets of the time, so best to avoid.
    Overall, your language is excellent and thoughts clear... if this is your first attempt at writing UPSC questions, congratulations!

    P.S: There is a small book published by "New Vishal Publications" having previous year UPSC (Main) questions. It is available for all optional subjects. You can get it at any bookstore (if you reside in Delhi), else you can contact the publisher directly by mail.

    Aspirants with Eng. Litt. optional, please join and contribute...
  • Thank you so much @bitkin your word has really boosted my confidence...I was so apprehensive after my mains...this will be my third attempt and second attempt with English literature. Last time, I scored 79 in paper I and 75 in paper II with no answer writing practice what so ever.
    Seriously I prepared it without any guidance and in isolation but I love this subject, that's why I again opted for it.
    When I saw the earlier thread related to English literature, only then I come to know about literary theories and proper drill of preparing a text although I still have lot of doubts and question related to that.

    But brother...thank you so much for reviewing my answer...the improvement that you have suggested are really valuable, I just want to give explanation why I wrote them in my answers...it is not a defence for mistakes but the psyche I had while writing that answer.
    1) When I wrote about Redcliffe I thought it will show the background knowledge.
    2) I name other poems just to establish interlinks, this two poems also focus on Auden poetic sensibilities...I thought in this way...May be I am wrong.
    3) By mentioning virtue...I meant virtue in distress, it is a characteristic of sensibility.
    4) Use of absolute qualifiers ...well I think it is mistake...I still do not have any reason for putting it there.

    Again a very heartily thanks to you, finally I am able to see some light...
  • @bitkin where are you sir, how was your pre?
  • Hi friends count me in am also with English literature :)]
    carpe diem
  • @kurushetra Welcome buddy, is this your first attempt with English literature or have you already appeared with this optional?
  • Hi all Literature aspirants...
    After a week-long and much deserved break after the prelims, let's start the mains preparation for this beautiful subject in the right earnest...
    Many speculations regarding PT cut-offs are doing the rounds... believe me, it will never end... but if you're even half sure of getting through, it would be downright foolish to waste any more time on those threads...

    Right, here is the plan then:
    1. One answer-writing practice every day. Anybody can post a question. If none entries are received for the day (let's fix a cut-off time, say by 7:00 pm), I'll do it. Questions can be from previous-year UPSC papers or even self-made, but should conform to the latest standards.
    2. Evaluation can be done by anybody, but should be constructive.... No unnecessary or scathing critiques. Idea is simply a constructive platform where everybody goes with improved answer-writing skills.
    3. By October, I plan to upload full-length test papers for practice (say 2~3 papers). Test answers can be uploaded for group evaluation.

    Any other suggestions, please contribute...

    Hi dear... was off grid for a while, sorry 'bout that... good that you are experienced in this subject... that will be a great help to all...
    PT papers were way tougher than last year. However, am hoping to clear it (around 235 score).. that's what counts in the end... what 'bout you?

  • please do share the strategy needed to cover this subject efficiently :-B
    carpe diem
  • Hello Fellas

    I m Siddharth
    Me too Eng lit optional
  • Anyone know of eng litt. successful candidates from cse 2013? Their ranks and scores?
    “The past is always tense, the future perfect.”
  • @bitkin brother scoring around 223-225..already left speculation stuff..recently went through pride n prejudice and tried writing some answers..
    Anyways looking for some critical material on swift..Norton editions are too costly..suggest something what to do.
  • Here's the question for today:

    Short Note: The theme and setting of Larkin's poem, 'Next, Please'. [10 marks, 150 words]

    Your PT marks are good, and should see you through, in all probability.
    Refer the link:
  • The theme and setting of Larkin's poem, ' Next, Please'.

    Larking writing in post war Britain shares the crisis of one mighty nation which powers are declining. People of the nation are still hopeful about future promises to attain the past glory and that’s how they “ pick up bad habit of expectancy”, expectancy of good future.

    They wait for this ”sparkling armada of promise” come nearby, like a person who waits for the ships standing on a bluff. But these ships of hope are slow and consume lot of our time.

    They approach “leaning with brasswork prinked” and “each row distinct” but they result in utter disappointment as no one “ never anchors” and “ never unload all goods” in our life.

    After dealing with the setting of ship and seashore, larking confronts us with his most favorite theme of death. Here death is in the form of a black ship, it is seeking us and it will come for sure. In this ship waters nothing breed or break.

    The melancholy expressed in the form of futility of hopes and the title 'Next, Please' indicates as if we are in some queue for a service, may be for death and death will serve us all turn by turn. (199 words)
  • over shooting word limit, tried keeping it short but still i am at 199. I would humbly request Other mates to please comment on my mistakes, what i have missed and what is unnecessary.

  • My answer:

    'Next, Please' describes the futility of life lived in expectations disregarding prospects presently at hand.

    Theme of this poem centers around the adopted human behavior of being forever attached to the future and the poet, through the symbols of ship with distinct ropes underscores human desire for endless opportunities. Yet when the ships sail past without offering anything worthwhile, the futility of a life lived in expectations is brought home.

    The poem isn't set in any particular historical epoch but is nevertheless eternal in its setting for it is woven to human life. Within the poem though, the setting is of a place near a huge water body, a symbol of life on which individuals stand on their platforms (bluffs) while waiting for opportunities (ships) to arrive, when finally they are carried away by death.

    The theme and setting of the poem is consistent with the title as every ship signalling opportunity passes from one person to the next without stopping and the lone ship of death too, followed suit in their wake.

    One can say that together, the theme and setting of the poem make it interesting and involving.

    (190 words)

    The answer was framed some months back..... we see the word limit has been exceeded here too...

    Your answer is beautiful. I think you've approached the question by mentioning the points in the order as they appear in the actual poem, isn't it... I think it fits well, but we shouldn't make it as a rule....

    We both have exceeded the word limit (and probably the time limit for a 10 marker too)... so why don't attempt it again tomorrow, with focus on these limits... let's see whether we can squeeze words down to around 160 without diluting the points...
    So the challenge question for today remains the same...

    Others.... please jump in...
  • @bitkin your opening is more direct and desirable..just my 2 cent the first para of ans would get more strength if you would have added death too.. Because in 2nd para setting is dealt beautifully but that black ship which seeks us is still missing.

    So adding theme of death and reinforcing it with symbols in second para will make it more solid.

    In concluding para meaning of title relating it with theme will make the ending nice and you have done it really well.

    Let's compress it tomorrow..thank you mate
  • Theme and setting: 2nd attempt---

    Next please thematically deals with the futility of an 'over-expecting' life and the inevitability of death. This theme is realised through the setting of a sea shore and approaching ships.

    Each such ship is symbolic of opportunities and goodness that we expect in life, that life owes us for our long wait. Their "brasswork" entices us, and sparkle dazzles our over-worked ambitions.

    Yet when the ships arrive, they disappoint the waiting souls on the "bluffs". Even with each mistake of over-expectation, we tend to look at the next ship to compensate us that doesn't happen in a lifetime.

    The ship that truly delivers is the "lone-black" one, which is neither attractive nor expected. This is the ship of death, that subsides all expectations and in its wake, there are no ripples of hope (waters don't breed or break).

    Theme and setting of this poem are linked beautifully to drive home Larkin's exceptional wit.

    (153 words)

    Self analysis:
    1. Didn't use symbols from the poem (couldn't recall actually), but that actually happens in exam too unless one has learnt poem by heart. So, an improvement point--- revise more.
    2. Replaced the generalist conclusion earlier with a more specific one here.
    3. Overall, compression didn't dilute points, but still scope for further brevity.

    Take a break on Sunday... new question tomorrow.

    Thanks for your comments... it was very useful.. couldn't implement all of them in the answer above though... will improve with further practice....

    Regarding your earlier query on an alternative to Norton Edition for critical reading.... Probably the only place you can get them fro cheap is Kamla nagar or Nai sarak in N.Delhi. There aren't many alternatives to Norton.. and since research takes time and effort, they aren't available free on net too.... Also needs lots of digging to find and connect scattered pieces thrown on net.... poor return on investment... so better buy it....
  • theme and setting second attempt-

    Theme of the poem deal with the futility of future hopes, the melancholy of life, and the ultimate reality, the reality of death which seek us and never fail to come.

    The contemporary people are more engrossed in future, a “bad habit” , they wait for it as someone standing on the “bluff” at seashore wait for ships. Ship may be of relative, a friend approaching or which will be carrying help or beautiful things.

    Each ship has different ropes and “ brasswork prinked”, but they “ never anchors” and fail to “unload all good” in their life.

    Out of these unfaithful, slow moving ships there is one black ship, now larkin confronts us with the grim reality of life because this black ship is the ship of death. In his waters no life breeds and no one can breaks away from the talons of his.

    The title ‘ next, please’ also indicates as someone is standing in queue, and the service provider after serving one person calls another next, please , may be you are at queue of death. ( 174 words)

    tried compressing it, but not much success still it is of 174 words, now cant do anything, well bitkin bro, leave it here. If 20 words are doing justification with answer and relevant i dont think this is a big issue.
    waiting for the next question.

    @wasif where are you sir, we were expecting you on this thread and still waiting for you, please join us.

  • Today's question:
    Short Note: Two contradictory readings or the double logic embedded in the closure of 'Among School Children' [10 marks, 150 words]
    [Question source: "Among School Children"-- W.B Yeats]
  • Hiya! I have also taken eng lit as an optional. this will be my first attempt at the upsc exam if I clear the prelim. I am just about beginning my eng lit prep and was very happy to find this discussion. Iwill be preparing on my own but not quite sure how to go about it. I went through last years' papers and was wondering about the word count for 30, 40 , 60 marks questions. It would be great if someone could point out the word limit for different marks and the essentials for going about the prep. Many thanks. pls do get back :-/
  • @ cinetamris welcome here, for a detailed strategy you can go through bitkin earlier post there he has mentioned a link to mrunal, that particular article is highly relevant for strategy part.
    Coming to your next query in last year exam 25 marker had to be answered in 400 words and 10 marker in 150..I think this trend will continue for next two years atleast. I don't think they will shift to 60 mark questions. But this is upsc one should be ready for surpises.
    I hope it will help.
  • Double logic question--Among School Children- My answer:

    Yeats double logic is clearly evident in the final stanzas of his poem "Among School Children".

    Yeats argues the distinctness of body and soul when he disapproves of a life lived to please the soul by depriving the body. He takes nuns as an example who undertake stringent abnegations to realise God. Yeats points out that even they, like others, end up disappointed, Hence true happiness, as per Yeats, lies "where body is not bruised to pleasure soul".

    And yet, in the same stanza, Yeats mentions a dancer and his dance as inseparable entities. Here he portrays the harmonious blend between body (dancer) and spirit (his dance) and asks rhetorically how can one tell the dancer from the dance. This image of body and soul unity is further underscored with mention of tree which is one with its fruit, roots and trunk.

    The double logic provides both a climatic ending and holds the secret to Yeats' message in the poem.
    [160 words]

    Welcome to the dynamic world of UPSC-CS!!
    Analysing past year question papers is a van excellent strategy for orienting your preparation.... Don't worry too much about the word limits... only be concerned 'bout the time you should devote to a particular marker. Word limits, if any, would be mentioned in the question paper. Even +/- 10% on words will be perfect if your answer is so!
    Lovertherover is right... era of 60 marker is all but gone... now UPSC is very particular about a candidate's coverage of entire syllabus, and that can be checked only by more questions (and thereby less marks per question).

  • Two contradictory readings or double logic embedded in the closure of ‘ Among School children’

    Time and eternity are indispensable part of yeats poetry combined with reference to greek mythology, private experience and political condition.

    The double resounds more than once. He do not have a “ leadaean body” and a “scare crow”, but he remember once he was handsome.The “plato parable” or the metaphor of “yolk and white”, shows the unity. Towards the close from stanza vi he talks about Aristotle, Pythagoras, and plato but despite of their knowledge old age came to them. He is concerned with old age now.

    Stanza vii the image of nuns and mother and their love and piety for child and god, seems bearing no result as both marble image and old age of the child breaks the heart, and are “ mockers of man enterprise”. What is the way then?

    Double logic reconcile it, the contradiction Stanza vii provides the breakthrough and answer lies here, labour of mother and of nun is not waste, one has to see the all part, not the separated leaf or bole of tree can tell us about the chestnut tree, similarly old age is the part of life and no one can tell about a dancer ( the real person) from his appearance ( dance). ( 201 words)

    @ bitkin bro not very sure about this answer, please review it. one more thing i want to ask is it necessary to have an intro in short notes, as you can see i have an intro in above ans, and if i will remove it the ans would be around 180 words.
  • @ bitkin on coming to your answer,
    1) nicely framed and presented, especially the nun example of supporting your earlier statement that yeats disapprove the life of pleasing the soul depriving the body, brilliantly put
    2) emphasizing the unity part again supporting it with evidence from poem
    3) the small but to the point ending, as if locking a room after showing it visitor

    some learnings from your answer
    1) first para should attack directly on what the question is asking
    2) present your case but support it with evidence from the poem
    3) lock it properly with conclusion
    4) use theme or title or a symbol but it should justify what you are presenting.

    thankyou bro, review my answer please i am not very sure of answering it properly.
  • thank you @LOVETHEROVER87 and @bitkin. I will keep that in mind. I understand from your previous posts that you're writing these answers as you would write them in the exam but for that I assume you're really thorough with the prescribed texts and reading. I am still to go through it all and will not be able to participate in your answer writing under the laid down conditions. However, can I still post my answers after I have read the poem(above) and gone through the critical analysis of the same? In other words my answer would not be spontaneous but prepared after reading. That would still help towards the final exam(:
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