Ashbourne College organised an English Literature Essay Competition for the first time this summer 2020. The competition welcomed entries from both Ashbourne and external students with a cash prize of £500 and a chance to interview for our 100% A-level Scholarship.
Entrants were asked to write an essay of no less than 1000 words on the question:
"If human nature does alter, it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way." - E.M Forster
Literature can have a powerful and formative impact on our personal perspectives. Tell us about a piece of prose, poetry or drama that changed your outlook or perspective.
Although it was the first year we held an English Literature competition, the number and quality of submissions completely surpassed our expectations. Many of the submitted essays showcased incredible research and writing techniques of university levels. It was not an easy task for our judging panel to select a winner. After much deliberation, we finally had our winner... Ashbourne's Year 13 student Lewis Andrews for his essay on John Clare's poem Remembrances.
We had a chance to catch up with Lewis and learn more about his love for English Literature, how he approached the competition and his experience of studying at Ashbourne.
What made you choose this particular piece for your submission?
I chose a poem by John Clare called 'Remembrances'. I read it about two years ago and it is about memory loss. I discovered it in two stages – I read a few pieces of his poetry whilst preparing for studying English Literature at university about 8 months ago. When the competition came up, I immediately thought of that particular poem.
Whilst reading a book about the history of English Literature, I noticed that John Clare only got one sentence in the entire book. This interested me and made me want to know about him as a writer. I found that his poems are so rooted in where he is from. He is often put down as a peasant because the language he used is not as sophisticated as his Oxford/Cambridge educated counterparts. This is one of the reasons many critics overlook him.
If you look at his poetry in more depth you will find it often has sonorous qualities from labourer songs. Clare also writes about the enclosure and the environment. Local farming lands were becoming increasingly privatised and, at the time, there was not only a literal change but during the Age of Enlightenment there was growing rationalisation, which many poets, including Clare, were resistant to.
Also, you can still see the effects today, not only is his rootedness authentic but it's mirrored in our relationship with the natural world today.
After diving into the piece itself, how did it change your perspective?
It made me think about how we treat nature, especially with the climate crisis and the fact that rather than us destroying nature, we are in truth destroying ourselves. In Clare's poem, he talks about Langley Place, which used to be like a mini Stonehenge, and how nature transcends the movements of man. We need to think of the planet in a similar way or we are going to need to be saved if we don't change.
Clare talks about memory also, and you can see how it's reflected in himself. He lost all of his money at one point and in a way he lost himself and was admitted to a mental institution, losing the ability to write poetry. It makes you think that we need to appreciate small things because we will miss them when they're gone, like how recently I am thankful that I have been able to see more of my parents before I go to university.
It's fascinating how John Clare's poem has implications for the current climate. Did you notice these links when you first came across the poem or were they new reflections during the COVID-19 lockdown?
There was a particular stanza that stood out, I highlighted it and thought it was an excellent use of techniques. But I basically left it there. When the Ashbourne English Essay Competition asked for a piece of literature that changed my perspective, I immediately remembered that stanza. It spoke to me. I always have it up on my wall, but this time when I looked at the poem, I went a lot deeper.
I did a lot of online research, using things like JSTOR. I like to think that Ashbourne has helped me come up with my own criticisms and ideas. I went on and studied Clare's history. I learnt that this man had never moved 8 miles from his house, which may explain why he treasured his land so much, and also why he was not appreciated at the time.
What was your experience of studying English at Ashbourne?
I only have praise. When I joined, I read a lot of books, obviously. Still, I don't think I would have got anywhere near Oxbridge or even won this competition without Ashbourne.
You mentioned that I was proactive in my research, but that has been given to me by my teachers, and student clubs like critical theory and the Dante reading club. When we do set texts in class, we always seem to go beyond A levels in some ways. Looking at things like the context of the author and text, the way I approached the poem was in ways I had been taught by Ashbourne. Using tools provided by the college's learning facilities like JSTOR have helped me grow my knowledge and research skills.
I am very indebted to not only my subject teachers but Ashbourne as a whole. It's not just trying to get an A*, it helps you find a passion for English and getting strong grades without losing the love for the subject. In Drama, being able to see so many plays in London also gives me another layer when looking at the text.
If you want to find a way to fall in love with your subject, it's very easy to do that at Ashbourne.
How do you feel about the skills you gained from those extracurricular clubs and classes?
You not only learn about an A-Level, you learn about life. In the same way that John Clare changed my perspective, those clubs and classes changed the way I think also. You get other approaches, and that takes it beyond an A-Level. Ashbourne has a university feel - here is the knowledge, now take it away and do what you will. Here is everything you need and try and bring forward your own material. It's more independent learning, not everything just being given to you.
Now that I have picked up these skills, I can apply them to helping mentor other students this summer. I have picked up a passion for the subject and I enjoy sharing this with other students.
When it comes to the extracurricular activities at Ashbourne, which one was your favourite and why?
I loved several of them. We went on a lot of drama trips, those were brilliant. I also loved go-karting which was great fun. I secured work experience through Ashbourne and worked at Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster (KCW) Today publication. I joined with another English Literature student and we had a great time there. The staff were really welcoming. Although at first, we were very nervous about writing our own articles, by the end of the week, we both had published articles. It was a brilliant experience and really helped with my interview with Cambridge. I could illustrate how I used my English skills beyond academic settings, and I think the interviewers appreciated it.
How did you prepare for your Oxbridge application?
I attended the Oxbridge Programme meetings and was always informed of the timeline. I was never close to missing a deadline and that was thanks to Ashbourne being on my case. Encouraged by the Oxbridge Programme Coordinators, I did an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), which I might not have done otherwise. It definitely added value to my application, and it showed my independent learning/research abilities. The Oxbridge Programme tutors helped me through it. James, my English teacher, also provided a lot of help with my personal statement. I was able to go in and out of his office, he had an open door in that way. I must have gone in about 6 times with different drafts. I also had practice interviews with the Oxbridge Programme tutors, which boosted my confidence coming into the real interview.
Daniel, my Drama teacher, and Drama as an A-Level itself helped me to build up confidence and speak purposefully. It may seem a small thing, but being able to engage with the interviewers definitely helped.
What was your EPQ about, and how did you come up with the topic?
I did my EPQ on Max Weber, who I got to know of through the Critical Theory seminars at Ashbourne. They planted a seed, and I took it from there. I went to Wesley, the EPQ Coordinator, and asked whether the theories in 'The Protestant Ethics and Spirits of Capitalism" could be seen in art. He asked me: "Why don't you focus on Dutch artwork as it was the golden age during the context of the book?"
My topic for the EPQ ended up being: "Does Dutch Golden age art provide as evidence for the theories in Max Weber’s 'The Protestant ethics and spirits of Capitalism'?". This immediately became a talking point with the interviewer at my Oxbridge interview.
At the time when this interview was published, Lewis had achieved outstanding A*A*A in A-level English, Drama and History and secured a place to read English Literature at the University of Cambridge. These are well-deserved rewards for his hard work and genuine love for the subject.
We congratulate Lewis on his incredible achievements in his 2 years at Ashbourne. This is only the start of his inspiring journey, and we will stay in touch with Lewis for even more exciting updates on his student life at Cambridge University.
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