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(L-R) An Anglo-Saxon claw beaker; Gerard Manley Hopkins

2017 Undergraduate Essay Prize - winners announced

July 2017

The winners of the second Merton College Undergraduate Essay Prize have been announced, and once again the judges have included a runner-up as well.

Winner of this year's first-year prize was English student Patrick Naylor, whose essay was entitled “'You are what you eat': codes of consumption in spheres of Anglo-Saxon experience”. Patrick explains how he landed on this topic:

“This essay was the last one in our tutorial cycle, and rather than writing on or around a single text, we were given an open field to write about anything that we’d found interesting. I had been struck by the centrality of drinking in Old English poetry, and in this essay, I argued that its story of consumption is a narrative of cultural conflict.

“I wanted first to explore a connection between consumption and affect, such that feasting and drinking become shorthand for political and nostalgic forms of belonging. But where there is a normative style of consumption, atypical styles emerge which signify creatures and characters who endanger the normative heroic culture.

“In the second section, I looked at a cultural fascination with ‘the monstrous’, focussing in particular on blood-lust and cannibalism. There was a third cultural force to consider in the Christian responses to heroic forms of consumption, and this response often uses monstrous creatures in order to characterise greed and gluttony.

“Finally, I looked at Old English Christian poetry and homilies which open up a new and corrective vision on ‘the proper function of the mouth’, that is to preach and to take the eucharist.”

Patrick added:

“I was thrilled to receive the prize, and am grateful to the Junior Research Fellows who make these competitions possible.”

Runner-up for the first-year prize was Abdikaliq Ige, a History & Politics student, with an essay entitled “What are the sociological and institutional determinants of party systems? What are the major weaknesses of these explanations?”

The winner of the second-year and above prize was last year's runner-up, Molly Clark, a third-year English student; her essay was entitled “What is an ode?”.

Molly says she was really delighted to find out she'd been given a prize in this competition, because, “I love writing essays, and this was one I had particularly enjoyed and had spent a long time thinking about.”

She explained:

“I wrote this essay as part of a course I was taking on The Ode from Wordsworth to Hopkins. Its title was 'What is an ode?', a question that I was very daunted by, and which I probably didn't succeed in answering very definitively even by the end of the essay!

“An ode is not easily definable, and so I didn't try to invent any artificial rules or parameters, but I tackled the question from the angles of genre, theme, form, tone, and literary expectation.

“My analysis included a close reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves. Researching this question also sparked my interest in the relationship between odes and hymns, which I have been thinking and writing about in more depth since then.”

The Undergraduate Essay Prize competition was open to all current Humanities and Social Science undergraduates, with a single prize of £150 for the winning essay. The essay had to be one which had already been submitted for a tutorial, and could be no more than 3,000 words in length.

The entries were judged by Merton’s Junior Research Fellows in Humanities and Social Sciences, who considered:

  • clarity of thought and expression;
  • logical and effective organization of ideas to build a coherent argument;
  • effective integration of supporting evidence, where appropriate;
  • effective use of elements of style to enhance meaning;
  • independence of judgement; and
  • accurate referencing, appropriate to subject-specific conventions.