Annotating with Purpose

Normally we have a purpose for reading. Sometimes we read simply because a teacher assigned a reading. Other times it’s to find out how to do something or for entertainment. Knowing your purpose before reading helps you to determine what to annotate.

If you’re not sure of your purpose, think about what you want to learn or recall from the reading:

Although it might take you a while to read all the surrounding materials, they give important clues about what you need to learn from the reading.

Let’s consider a school scenario.

Your teacher has asked you to synthesize the main ideas in two poems: “The World Is Too Much with Us” by William Wordsworth and “Variation on a Theme by Rilke” by Denise Levertov. After reading the poems, you are supposed to answer a set of questions.

The poems appear in your textbook. Several pages, including authors’ biographies and pre-reading activities, precede the poems. You have photocopied all of the pages, including the poems, so that you can annotate them freely.

The following are the photocopied pages from your textbook. Read through each page before you begin annotating. After you have a purpose in mind and have read through the poems, begin your annotation. You can download each PDF and print it to annotate the pages that follow, or you can copy and paste the text in your notes and annotate it electronically.

Download PDF #1

Download PDF #2

Download PDF #3

Again, use the annotation ideas provided earlier to mark up the introduction to the readings and the two poems (PDFs #1 and #2). Keep your purpose in mind. When you are finished with your annotations, use them to answer the literary analysis questions (PDF #3).

After you’ve annotated the first page of your PDF, think about these questions and write down your answers.

  1. What ideas in the biographies seem to relate most to the poems? Did you annotate those ideas?

  2. What will be the literary focus of this lesson?

  3. What can you guess about the poems based on the information you have from the biographies and the pre-reading activities?
Check Your Understanding

Sample Responses:

  1. Wordsworth’s idea that he was disillusioned with society and Levertov’s writing about nature

  2. The focus will be on comparing literature.

  3. The poems will deal with nature and humans’ reactions toward nature.



Now look at the first poem you read and annotated, “The World is Too Much with Us.” Think about these questions and write down your answers. To see my response to these questions, check your understanding below.

  1. Based on your own annotations, how would you summarize the entire poem?

  2. How will your annotations help you when you look back at this poem to compare it with the poem “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”?
Check Your Understanding

Sample Responses:

  1. People have become too materialistic and have lost sight of their connection to nature. He would rather return to the worship of gods of nature because it would allow him and others to reconnect with nature.

  2. It will remind me of the poem’s message and what was similar or different.


Let’s look a little more closely at my annotation. I’ll point out just a few of the marks I made on the poem and in the margins. You can see from the amount of writing on the page that I’ve had a serious conversation with this poem!

Annotated Exerpt
  1. I circled the title and first line in pink because they are the same sentence, and because I think this could be the main idea of the poem. I’m not sure, but I’m going to circle it anyway.

  2. I used a pink highlighter to mark all the references to nature. There are a lot of them, so I think they might be important.

  3. I used orange to highlight all the mythological references.

  4. I used a green highlighter to mark figurative language. There is a simile, and before that, there is a comparison of the sea with a woman, I think.

  5. In the middle of line nine are the words, “Great God.” I circled that because it sounds like the poet has come to some realization with those words.

  6. I’ve circled a lot of other words so that I can come back to them and think about them more or look up their meanings.

  7. I’ve also noticed that the poet capitalizes words that are not at the beginning of the sentence. “Nature” is capitalized. I’ll have to think about that. Maybe that word is more important than some others.

  8. I have a bunch of questions I’ve written in the margins that I can see as I reread the poem. I think the last question is really important. Why would he want to go back in time and be a pagan in ancient lands? Why would he prefer an ancient life to the time period he’s living in?

Let’s move on to Denise Levertov's poem, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke.” Think about these questions and write down your answers. To see my response to these questions, check your understanding below.

  1. What ideas did you highlight, underline, or circle? Why?

  2. What information did you write in the margin?

  3. How would you summarize the poem?

  4. How did you use annotations to begin making comparisons with “The World Is Too Much with Us”?
  5. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Responses:

    1. Certain, presence, bell, metallic, sword, singing, it, sky, air, light. Answers will vary.You might have noted “it” because you want to think about who or what “it” refers to. You might circle the words that refer to nature because you know that you are making a comparison to another poem about nature. You might note “sword” and “bell” because they seem to have an important place in the poem, and you might want to think about them more in the context of the poem.

    2. I would write the word “nature” in the margin, and I would note that “nature” and “it” could be the same thing. I would also write personification where the speaker talks about being a bell awakened. I would write “metaphor” in the margin because the speaker is comparing himself/herself to a bell. There are other possibilities for you to note, but these are some examples.

    3. The speaker is awakened or perhaps reawakened to the power and beauty of nature. There is the idea that nature and the speaker have a powerful and majestic connection. It appears as if nature is conveying an honor to the speaker similar to the way that kings knight their subjects. The use of the words “sword” and “bell” suggest power and beauty.

    4. Answers will vary again, but you could look at both poems to find the words that connect their ideas about nature. You might note words that suggest the tone(s) of each poem and the attitude(s) of the speaker. For example, Levertov compares the speaker to a bell, which is a positive image. Wordsworth, on the other hand, would have his speaker go back in time and worship the old ways;the speaker’s attitude in this poem is not as optimistic as Levertov’s speaker.


Now let’s discuss the literary analysis questions on the last page of the Annotation PDF.

Think about your annotation for literary analysis questions.

  1. How did the questions inform your annotation of the poem?

  2. How did your annotations help in answering the questions?

Now let’s look at the literary analysis questions and see how you responded to the questions themselves. Click on “Check Your Understanding” each question to see my responses.

Literary Analysis

  1. What does Wordsworth mean by “The World Is Too Much with Us”?
  2. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    He means that people are too focused on materialism rather than nature.


  3. The speaker in “Variation on a Theme by Rilke” uses the word “struck” in what way?
  4. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    The speaker in “Variation on a Theme by Rilke” says that nature “struck” him/her, but when we read on, we find that the image is about a subject being knighted by a king, so struck takes on a different meaning, which makes the experience positive for the speaker.


  5. What details does Wordsworth give to describe nature? How are those details similar or different from Levertov’s descriptions?
  6. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    His details focus on the sea, winds, and sleeping flowers. Her details talk about light, sky, and day.


  7. Levertov’s speaker hears the metallic sound of the sword but then says that it could be the sound of the bell that the speaker has become. Why the question in the speaker’s mind about the sound?
  8. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    If the sound comes from the bell rather than the sword, it lends a positive tone to the poem since we as readers use our experience with bells to hear what the speaker hears.The speaker is also confirming the power and beauty of nature and a personal connection to it.


  9. Why does Wordsworth’s speaker say that he’d rather be a Pagan? What is it about the Pagan gods that would make the speaker feel less forlorn?
  10. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    Pagans worship gods related to nature. The two gods he mentions are both gods of the seas, and were he to be a Pagan, he might feel a connection with his gods when he looks at the sea.


  11. What do Wordsworth and Levertov suggest about a human’s relationship with nature? How are their messages similar? How are they different?
  12. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    They both suggest the importance of humankind's relationship with nature. Wordsworth mourns the loss of connectedness to it and Levertov celebrates it.