Can anyone please tell me if I am asked questions in present tense from a prose and poem, should I give answers in present tense or in past tense?

Here is the poem 'The Owl' by Edward Thomas from which A question was asked in my exam:

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Here is the question that was asked in the exam:

  • We generally add salt to our food to improve its taste. So, what does the poet mean when he says 'salted was my food'? Why does he feel that way?

Answer: Salt improves the taste of food. But here the poet uses the word 'salted' in the sense of 'oversalted'. His food appeared to be tasteless to him.

It is the thought of the miseries of the helpless poor people and the soldiers serving at the front which makes him feel that way. Unlike him, these people suffers the biting cold of the North wind, without food and shelter.

I gave the answer written above. My question is should I answer in present tense as the question is in present tense or in past tense. As the poem was written in the past and everything happened in the past, does the present sound appropriate there?

  • You have a number disagreement there, BTW. It should be these people suffer. Aug 10 '18 at 10:43
  • prose is uncountable, so we'd say "a piece of prose" or "a prose work". Sep 14 '18 at 19:56

I don't think there's a strict rule for a situation like this. But because the question is written in present tense, it makes sense to respond with an answer that is also present tense. And if the poem were written in past tense, I would try to preserve that as well. So if I were to paraphrase the poem in my analysis, I would try to paraphrase the actions that take place in the poem in past (or past perfect) tense.

Generally, you don't want to change tenses unless there's a real reason to do so, and I don't see a good reason to depart from the voice the instructor has decided to use. The present tense is often employed to increase the immediacy of dialogue -- almost as if you were having a discussion with your instructor over a cup of coffee. The present tense helps remind us that we're not talking about some stodgy, ancient poem about people long dead; rather, we're having a vibrant discussion about writing that is still relevant today.


It is conventional to speak of what a text says rather than what it said when we are referring to it as part of the present moment:

I'm holding in my hand a letter from my cousin in Antarctica.
--That's exciting. What does it say?

or when we are referring to a literary work, and then we speak of the work as though the author's voice were present in it:

The poet says that his "repose" was "salted ... by the bird's voice".

We use the past tense of texts normally when placing them in the context of some past action or event:

When I got home that night several weeks ago, there was a note on the fridge.
-- And what did the note say?

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