Approaching Poetry in your English Literature GCSE Exam: Section C: Unseen Poems

There are two questions in Section C and all candidates must answer both of them. The first question is an analysis of a single unseen poem. This question is worth 24 marks. The second question introduces an additional unseen poem. You must then compare the two poems. Curiously, this second question is only awarded 8 marks, so you can see that you must not spend much time on this. Ideally you should spend about 30/35 minutes on part 1 and about 10/12 minutes on part 2.

The unseen poems come at the end of a long, complicated examination paper, so it is crucial that you have your timings all worked out before the exam. You will need to make sure you have the time (and stamina!) to give Section C your very best shot.

Preparation is key!
Just as with Sections A and B, preparation is key. These are unseen poems so you cannot actually learn them in advance. You can, however, practise your technique. Borrow a collection of poems from the library, use the internet, or use the poems from your Anthology which you have not studied, to practise coming face to face with an unseen poem.

Part 1

The question will be, for example: In ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about her daughter?
(See the AQA Specimen Paper if required.)

When faced with an unseen poem, it’s a good idea to SMILE:
Structure – what is the structure and form? What does this add to the effect?
Meaning – what is the literal meaning?
Imagery – what poetic devices, e.g. similes, etc, are used? To what effect?
Language – what type of language is used?
Emotional effect – how does the poem make you feel?

Once you have SMILED the poem, you should have a good understanding of it. You can now look again for deeper meanings. Is the metaphorical meaning different from the literal meaning? In the example mentioned above, the poem appears to be about a girl learning to ride her bike. However, the title of the poem and other language and clues in the text suggest it is more about a daughter growing up.

Context is not assessed in Section C, but do consider the name/dates of the poet. Do they give you any additional clues to what it is about?

Plan your answer
It is important that you spend some time planning a careful, considered answer. Just as with Section B, to score a high mark you need a structured, conceptualized response, not just a stream of unrelated paragraphs. You need to plan a detailed answer which considers the language, structure and form of the poem and includes relevant quotations.

Part 2

You are not given much time to focus on this second unseen poem. Take about three minutes to quickly SMILE it. The focus of the question is on comparison. For example: In both ‘Poem for My Sister’ and ‘To a Daughter Leaving Home’ the speakers describe feelings about watching someone they love grow up. What are the similarities and/or differences between the ways the poets present those feelings?
(Both poems available on the AQA Specimen Paper).

This question is only worth 8 marks and the examiners want to see that you are able to confidently compare the language, form, structure and ideas in the two poems. Luckily, you have plenty of experience in comparing poems from Section B. You will need to work quickly to plan a short answer, addressing these points. Remember, the key focus is comparison.

This concludes my series on preparing for this exam. I hope what I have said will prove useful when you finally come to sit down and put pen to paper, and lastly, I wish you all the best of luck.

We might have thought that the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III, beneath a car park in Leicester in 2013, would have ended once and for all the debate about possibly the most controversial of our monarchs. But in truth, “final” answers have bred more questions.

Once the remains were subjected to the most stringent scientific analysis, using the most modern techniques available, we were able to learn a great deal, not just about the manner of Richard’s death but also such minutiae as what he ate in the last few years of his life. They have even revealed that, suffering from scoliosis, he did indeed have a curvature of the spine. Dry bones, however, can only tell us so much and, rather than narrowing the debate, they seem to have widened it (If Richard had scoliosis, does that prove he was the ‘crookback’ vilified by the Tudors and portrayed as such by Shakespeare? And, if so, can we conclude that his mind was as warped as his backbone?).

Leicester’s new Richard III Visitor Centre ( has opened in the building adjacent to the excavations and incorporates the burial site. It is a fascinating place to visit if you get the chance. Viewing the grave, now encased under a sheet of glass, it becomes evident just how close it was to being obliterated forever; the foundations of a Victorian wall are just a few centimetres away from where the skeleton was found and, even then, no feet were recovered. We are, therefore, incredibly fortunate that it existed at all. The excavations were endorsed and aided by the staff at Leicester University ( and motivated by the meticulous research of the Richard III Society; in particular, through the vision of one woman Philippa Langley. There is a Channel 4 documentary which follows the process, ,which is well worth a watch.

The rediscovery and reinternment of Richard III has been of immense value to students of history, not least because it has underlined the fact that there can be no neat endings. Instead, we need to appreciate that even such an important historical discovery is nothing more than a single link in an unpredictable series of events, although it is also part of a very enjoyable, if elusive search for the truth.

Section B – Comparison of two Anthology poems

The question in Section B will ask you to compare two poems from the fifteen which you have studied. The examination paper will choose one poem; you must choose the other.

Preparation is key! It is absolutely vital that you are comfortable and familiar with all the poems. This is no mean feat, so do take it seriously. This is a tricky examination and students (and teachers!) are understandably a little nervous about this. Read through the poems until you are sure of each one. Can you confidently explain the structure, form, imagery and themes in each one? Have you learnt some key quotations for each and every poem?

  • Quick Quiz

Love and Relationships
(1) Which of the poems are about marriage?
(2) Which of the poems are about love between parents and children?

Power and Conflict
(1) Which of the poems consider the power of nature?
(2) Which of these poems are written after the conflict?

If you can, ask a friend or relative to help you revise. Give them a list of the poems you have studied and ask them to read it to you. Give a brief synopsis of each poem.

  • The Question
    Your question will be something like this:

Love and Relationships
‘Compare how poets present the idea of romantic love in ‘Love’s Philosophy’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.


Power and Conflict
‘Compare how poets present the idea of power in ‘Ozymandias’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.

  • Planning your answer

Look carefully at the question and consider what is being asked. You will have the text of the poem in front of you. So what ideas of romantic love are presented in ‘Love’s Philosophy’? You will need to look at the language, structure and form. Consider also the wider context of the poem, e.g. Shelley as a romantic poet. Annotate your poem quickly. Remember to focus on the question being asked. You are not being asked merely to analyse the poem, but to prepare a considered, conceptualised response.

Once you have annotated the first poem (spend about five minutes on that), turn your attention to choosing a second poem. You will not have the full poems in front of you, but you will have a list of them you can read through. Look for comparisons and similarities. Which of the other Relationships poems focus on romantic love? Which of the Conflict poems discuss power? Give yourself a couple of minutes to decide this (and then stop thinking about it and move on!). From memory, jot down key features (language, structure, form and context) of the second poem. How does the poet present ideas about romantic love/power in the poems?

You now have your two poems and notes about each of them. Spend an additional five minutes drawing together a plan. You should aim for about three or four good paragraphs. It is important to not just list the features of the poem; you must explain why they are there and the impact they have. Skilled answers will move beyond a basic comparison and begin to create a conceptualised narrative considering the question of, for example, romantic love/power.

And Finally… Start Writing! A question like this will probably require 10-15 minutes serious planning. A good plan on your exam paper shows the examiner that you understand the question, have considered your answer and you know where you’re going. If you start to edge towards the 15-minute mark, however, it is time to move on. You have revised for this, you have learnt all your quotations and you have prepared a solid plan. Now you need to start writing!


A final blog, on approaching Section C, the Unseen question, will be published on this site next Thursday.

Is your coursework deadline looming? It’s easy to panic about getting all your studies completed, especially when a percentage of your grade is riding on how good your coursework is. However, it can be a great advantage to have part of your GCSE, A Level or other result safely under your belt when you go into your exams. You’re not under the same intense pressure that you would be in an exam situation, so your work is likely to be of a higher standard. Here’s how to make sure you get it right…

  •   Get a clear understanding of what is required

If you have an essay question, for example, write it down before taking it apart. Look at each word of the question and write what it means. If you’re in any doubt about what you’re being asked to do, talk to your tutor or teacher. You should also check how many marks are being allocated for each part of the coursework: the number of marks will dictate how much time and detail should go into each section. If possible, read a few sample answers to get a good idea of what you need to do to get it right.

  •  Plan your research

Whatever the subject of your coursework, you will need to read texts and do research online to arm yourself with everything you need to answer the questions that are being put to you. Make a list of all the sources of information you will be using, and allocate specific amounts of time to spend reading and taking notes for each.

  •  Don’t rush the writing

Your coursework plan should include plenty of time to write your essay and answer the questions posed, or to present your findings. Do not leave this until the night before. Despite the fact that lots of students might say this works for them, you will just feel unbearably stressed and pressurised, and your work will not be to the highest standard it could be. Give yourself a few days to complete the bulk of the writing at a relaxed pace with time for breaks, and your coursework will be much more likely to help you get that grade you’re after.

  •  Factor in editing time

No matter how hard you’ve worked, the first draft of your coursework will not be your best work. Allocate time for drafting well in advance of the deadline so that you can correct mistakes and make improvements. If you find it difficult to read your own work with a critical eye, ask a friend, family member or tutor to offer ideas on how you can make sure that your work is the best it can be.

The key to successfully planning coursework for any subject is allowing plenty of time, and incorporating as much detail as possible into your schedule. This is your chance to make sure you’re going into the exam knowing that you’re part of the way there, so don’t waste it!

To answer the question, let’s start with the basic facts…

Paper 2 of your English Literature examination consists of the following three parts:

  • Section A is a question about the modern prose/drama which you studied.
    Section B is about your poetry Anthology.
    Section C is about unseen poetry.

You will need to spend approximately 45 minutes on each Section.

For Section B, there is no real choice. Find the page which lists the poems you have studied (i.e. either Love and Relationships or Power and Conflict) and that is the question you must answer. Every candidate must answer both the questions in Section C.

  • What poems will I be examined on?

You will have been studying a series of poems in preparation for your examination this summer. You (or more likely, your teacher) will have chosen whether to study of collection of fifteen poems about Love and Relationships, or fifteen poems about Power and Conflict. You must be able to write about any of the fifteen poems from your chosen cluster. A new twist this year is that the exam is closed book. This means that students are not allowed a copy of the Anthology in the exam. This is a change from previous years.

  • How do I answer the Section B question?
    Section B is one 30-mark question. You will be given the text of one poem from your cluster. The question will ask you to compare a theme in that poem with one other poem of your choice (from the other poems you have studied). For example:

‘Compare how poets present the idea of romantic love in ‘Love’s Philosophy’ and in one other poem from your cluster’.

You will notice that the question is asking you to think about how the poet writes. You will need to focus on the poet’s technique in your answer. What imagery do they use? Is is effective? What is the voice? Do they move you?

An advantage to the closed book is that you will be more focussed in your answer. Preparation is key here and you will need to have learned key themes in advance. If the question asks you to consider romantic love, you need to be able to quickly consider the poems you have studied which address the issue and then decide which would work best in the comparison with the text selected. You will not be able to spend lots of time deciding between which poem to discuss or which quotations to use. Your quotations need to be in your head already! For more advice about answering Section B questions, see a separate blog post, to be published next week (March 2nd).

Lastly, how should you approach the Section C questions? Well, there are two questions in Section C and all candidates must answer both of them. The first question asks you to consider one unseen poem. The second question asks you to compare the first poem with an additional unseen poem. The first question is worth 24 marks, whilst the second is only worth 8 marks so you can see where your priorities need to lie. Again, more help with tackling an unseen poem will be given in another blog post to come (Thursday 9th March).

On 18th February 1797, while Napoleon Bonaparte was embarking on his conquest of central Europe, a French invasion comprising of four ships and 1400 troops set sail from Camaret, France, under the command of the elderly Irish-American, Colonel William Tate. Napoleon had ordered Tate to land near Bristol and destroy it, before crossing into Wales. The weather was not on their side however, as severe gales made it impossible for the French warships to land anywhere near Bristol. Instead they set a course for Cardigan Bay in southwest Wales.

On Wednesday February 22nd, the French warships sailed into Fishguard Bay to be greeted by cannon fire from the local fort. Unbeknown to the French, the cannon wasn’t being fired at them, but as an alarm to warn the local townsfolk. Nervously, the ships withdrew and sailed on until they reached a small sandy beach near the village of Llanwnda, where men, arms and gunpowder were unloaded early on the morning of Thursday February 23rd. The ships, with a small crew, then returned to France with a special despatch being sent to Paris informing Napoleon of the successful landing.

However, after only two days many of the invaders were too drunk to fight and, having also met fierce opposition from the Welsh population, the invasion collapsed. Tate’s force surrendered to the local militia, led by Lord Cawdor, on February 25th, 1797 (depicted above).

As Napoleon had been so successful across much of Europe, news of this unusual invasion raised alarms bells across Britain. When reports of the event hit London, panic led holders of banknotes to demand that the Bank of England convert their paper money into gold. As the total face value of the notes in circulation was almost exactly twice the actual gold reserves held by the Bank of England, Parliament was forced to act fast. On 22nd February, they passed the Bank Restriction Act, which made all banknotes inconvertible notes. This meant that banknotes issued by a central bank could not be redeemed for the underlying wealth that they represented, a precedent that has defined the modern use of banknotes ever since.

On 8th February 1587, at the age of 44, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringhay Castle, under the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I,

The only child of James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary was born in December 1542 in Linlithgow Palace. Mary was only 6 days old when her father died and she became queen.
As Mary was too young to rule, her mother acted as regent in her stead, and arranged for Mary’s betrothal to King Henry VIII’s son, Edward, when she was 5 years old. However, when the time grew nearer, Mary, herself already a strong Catholic, had Catholic guardians who were opposed to a match with a Protestant. To prevent it happening, they took Mary away to Stirling Castle. This breaking of the proposed marriage agreement made Henry VIII very angry, and he ordered a series of savage but unsuccessful raids into Scotland. These attacks became known as The Rough Wooing.

Rather than marry Mary off to the English monarchy, her guardians arranged an alliance with Francis, the four-year-old heir to the French crown, and sent Mary to be raised at the French court. In April 1558 they were married and the following year Francis became king, briefly uniting the French and Scottish crowns. Only the year after this, however, King Francis died from an ear infection, leaving Mary a widow at the age of 18.

Returning to Scotland, Mary found herself a Catholic living in a country that was officially Protestant, and this meant many people regarded her with suspicion even though she initially ruled with patience and understanding.

In 1565, Mary married her cousin the Earl of Darnley, but the marriage quickly broke down, and Mary became fond of the Earl of Bothwell instead. Darnley became increasingly suspicious of Mary, and in 1566 he and a group of Protestant nobles murdered Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio, believing him to be having an affair with his wife. After the birth of Darnley and Mary’s son James in June 1566, their relationship became even worse, and, when in February 1567 Darnley was murdered via an explosion outside his house in Edinburgh, the main suspect was the Earl of Bothwell. Further, Mary married him only 3 months after Darnley’s death. It was an act that turned the majority of the Scottish nobility against her. Bothwell was quickly sent into exile and Mary forced to abdicate from the Scottish throne in July 1567. She was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, and her infant son James was made king.

With the help of a few loyal followers, Mary escaped Lochleven in 1568 and fled to England to seek refuge from her cousin, Elizabeth I. She had expected Elizabeth to help her, but the Queen of England found herself put in a very difficult position because Mary had a strong claim to the English throne. To keep her throne safe, Elizabeth ultimately had Mary imprisoned for the next 19 years.

Even though she was constantly watched, every time there was a plot against Elizabeth, Mary was blamed by the Queen’s supporters. Despite this, Elizabeth herself gave her cousin the benefit of the doubt until 1586, when she discovered Mary had corresponded with Anthony Babington, who was plotting to depose Elizabeth. These letters convinced Elizabeth that Mary would in fact always be a danger to her position as Queen of England.

Mary was tried for treason and condemned to death in October 1586. It was still 5 months before Elizabeth finally agreed to sign the death warrant which sent Mary to the block, but in the end it was inevitable. Not for the first time, a crown had become a poisoned chalice.

Born in Dublin on 2nd February, 1882, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was to become one of the most revered writers of the 20th century. The eldest of ten children, Joyce displayed a rare intelligence and a gift for writing from an early age. He even taught himself Norwegian so he could read Ibsen’s plays in the language they’d been written, and continued to learn as many languages as he could afterward.

Despite a lack of money, due to his father’s drinking, Joyce’s family pushed him to get an education. He eventually studied modern languages at University College Dublin. After graduating, Joyce started a new life in Paris where he intended to study medicine. Sadly his dreams were cut short as his mother became ill, and he returned to Ireland.

After the death of his mother in 1903, Joyce stayed in Ireland for a while, meeting Nora Barnacle, a hotel chambermaid from Galway who became his wife. He had his first short story published in the Irish Homestead magazine, before moving to Croatia in 1904. While he was there, Joyce taught English and learned Italian, one of 17 languages he could speak by then.
While working, Joyce continued to write. In 1914 he published Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories, and in 1916 he published his first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Shortly afterwards, Joyce began the book which was to become his signature work: Ulysses.

Ulysses recounts a single day in Dublin: June 16, 1904, the same day that Joyce and his wife met. The novel follows the story of three central characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, and his wife Molly Bloom. However, it is also a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, with the three main characters serving as modern versions of Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. The content of the book did not meet with universal approval, though. Such was the level of adult material within Ulysses, it was banned for several years after it was published in France. In the USA the Post Office even confiscated issues of any magazines that had published previous works by Joyce. This negative press only went to increase interest in the novel however, and American and British readers still tried to get hold of the work. In 1934, the case of Ulysses went to court in the USA, and the judge declared that it was not pornographic. Finally, by 1936 the book was readily available again.

Plagued by health issues and poor sight, it wasn’t until 1939 that Joyce published the long awaited follow up novel, Finnegans Wake. The coming of the Second World War forced Joyce to move family away from France to Zurich. It was here, in January 1941, that James Joyce died, after an intestinal operation, at the age of 59, leaving behind him a series of stories that would be held up as examples of literary excellence for the next century and beyond.

January 24th saw the anniversary of the death of one of Britain’s most famous statesman, Winston Churchill. He is best known for his leadership of this country through the days of the second world war, but also led in his younger years a varied, eventful and sometimes dangerous life.

Born on November 30th 1874, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and Jeanette Jerome, a New York socialite. He was also the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, John Spencer-Churchill.

A rebellious child, Churchill was sent to Harrow boarding school near London in 1888, in the hope that discipline would settle him into his studies. This proved to be not entirely successful. Not a natural academic, it later took Churchill three attempts to pass the exam for the British Royal Military College so he could enter the forces. Once in the British Army, he joined the Fourth Hussars in 1895 (pictured above in his uniform); serving in the Indian northwest frontier and the Sudan. While in the Army, he wrote military reports for newspapers The Pioneer and The Daily Telegraph, and wrote two books on his experiences, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) and The River War (1899).

After leaving the Army in 1899, Churchill became a war correspondent for the conservative newspaper, Morning Post. It was a hazardous job, and while reporting on the Boer War, he was taken prisoner by the Boers while on a scouting expedition. However, he managed to escape, and travelled 300 miles to Mozambique, before getting back to Britain.

Churchill’s political career began in 1900. He became an MP in the Conservative Party for Oldham. Unconvinced that the Conservative Party was committed to social justice, though, he switched sides to the Liberal Party in 1904.

Although Churchill achieved many things during his political career, it is for his war time work that he will always be remembered most. But this should include what he did before World War Two. From 1919 to 1922, Churchill served as Minister of War and Air and Colonial Secretary under Prime Minister David Lloyd George. As time went on, though, fractures in the Liberal Party led to Churchill rejoining the Conservative Party.

By 1938, as Germany began controlling parts of Europe, Churchill had become a critic of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement toward the Nazis. He would ultimately be proved right and on September 3rd, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the war cabinet. By April 1940, he was chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee. Then, on May 10, King George VI appointed Churchill Prime minister and Minister of Defense.

Churchill formed a coalition cabinet of leaders from the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties, and began cultivating a relationship with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. By March 1941, he had secured vital U.S. aid to bring supplies into the UK. After the United States entered World War II, in December 1941, Churchill was confident that the Allies would eventually win the war, and again, he would eventually be correct.

After the war, Churchill proposed plans for social reforms in Britain, but he was defeated in the general election in July 1945. He was not finished with politics yet, however, and in 1951 he returned to government as Prime Minister.

In 1953, at the age of 78, Churchill was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Sadly, later that year he suffered a series of strokes at his office and retired as prime minister two years later. He remained in Parliament until the general election of 1964, when he retired fully.

On January 15th, 1965, Churchill suffered a severe stroke. He died at his London home, at age 90, later that year.

Life writing is a style of fiction where the author takes experiences from their own lives and twists them, often quite dramatically, to tell a story.

Most creative writing is autobiographical to some extent. After all, it is easier to write about someone fictional if you base their characteristics and adventures on your own. Life-writing goes beyond this and is closer to biography. It involves places you’ve been to, and can therefore help describe perfectly, for example, how the wind felt against your face walking one winter afternoon, or what a place smelt life. You can write about objects you’ve used or owned, therefore accurately describing to your readers how that item feels and what it looks like, and the sound it makes when put down on a shelf or other surface. These small personal touches from your own reality add texture and believability to your fiction.

There is a difference between life writing and biographical writing, however. Whilst life-writing encompasses everything from real life, its purpose is as a sharp tool with which to turn the factual into the fictional. It borrows the idiosyncrasies and habits of people you know, such as how their hair falls, the way they dress, walk, talk, and so on. For example, if your partner has a small scar on their face, you could use that as a starting point for a story by asking yourself a series of questions and then inventing the answers in a manner that suits the style of story you wish to write; How did the scar get there, where were they when were they injured? Was it an accident or were they deliberately hurt? Did they go to hospital? Were the police involved? Did it need stitches? It should be a long and thereby useful list. Each question can mould your fictional character to make them quite different from the real person who inspired you in the first place – which is not the purpose of the exercise and sometimes wise!

One of the most popular phrases used when teaching creative writing is “Write what you know.” This particularly applies when you are using the life-writing technique. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has a unique voice and perspective when it comes to writing. By using your own life experiences, emotions, adventures and opinions in your fiction, you can understand what you are writing better, and therefore create a more rounded, believable and relatable story.

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