Prompt: Up-Close Analysis


Contributed by Jen Schell

Analysis of Edmund Burke’s Enquiry Into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

The selections from Enquiry Into the Sublime and Beautiful that you are about to read are quite difficult.  Part of the problem is that you are dealing with a philosophical book written in the eighteenth-century.  Another issue is that Burke’s prose is often dense and hard to understand.  He uses obscure words; he makes many allusions to other texts; and his sentence style is somewhat archaic.  This paper is meant to give you an opportunity to linger over one of the sections in the reading and explore it in some detail.  For this paper, what I want you to do is to select one of the numbered sections from the reading–one that is giving you problems, one that you find interesting, one that you find strange–and summarize/analyze it.  

In the first part of the paper, I want you to sketch out a summary of the section.  Provide some context: Where does this section appear in the reading? What other sections surround it? What is the overall book about? Then, make sure to describe your particular section, but do not re-type it.  Work slowly and carefully through each sentence, and explain what each one means.  It’s kind of like making reading notes, but your paper should be in complete sentences.  While this may look like an exercise in summarizing, I want you to do a bit more than just translate what Burke is saying into easier to understand prose.

In the second part of the paper, you should explain what you think are the most important points of the passage.  Explain why these points are more important than others.  Use short quotes from the paragraph and try to analyze them.  Pay attention to Burke’s use of language and his descriptive and rhetorical techniques.  Think about why he chooses to use certain words, expressions, and examples.  If the passage uses difficult or unfamiliar words, look them up in the online Oxford English Dictionary (available at  Try to explain what these words mean and why Burke might be using them.  Some questions to think about as you are formulating your analysis might include:  What do you expect from philosophical writing? How does Burke meet your expectations? How does he not? What do you expect from older writing? How does Burke meet your expectations? How does he not? Where does Burke use language creatively or poetically? Where does he not? Does Burke use figurative language (similes, metaphors, symbols, sensory imagery, irony, etc.)? Why did you choose this passage? How does this passage connect to the reading as a whole? How does this section connect to other sections? What is philosophical writing supposed to accomplish? What are Burke’s goals? Does he accomplish his goals? Where do you agree with Burke? Where do you disagree?

Helpful Hints:  This is not a traditional five paragraph essay.  Your paper should have two basic parts or sections–the summary and the analysis.  Also, the paper topic asks many questions.  Do not answer them in the order they are posed. Also, do not answer all of them.  As you are thinking about your passage and your plan for your paper, choose anywhere from two to three questions that you would like to address.  The questions are meant to get you thinking about possibilities for your paper.

Technical Things:

  1. Double space the paper.
  2. Use one inch margins all around.
  3. Have a title.
  4. Use page numbers.
  5. Use 12 point font (preferably Times New Roman).
  6. Use quotes and don’t forget to put the page numbers in parentheses after the quote.
  7. Make sure your name is on the paper somewhere.
  8. You can use first person, and you probably should use first person if you’re stating your opinion.
  9. The paper should be about 2-4 pages, or as long as you need to adequately answer the question.  You may need more or less prose depending on how you tackle the question.
  10. No hard copies will be accepted.
  11. Microsoft Word attachments preferred.

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