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.

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.

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.

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.

Prior to the Seventeenth century, news had been spread via word of mouth, short pamphlets or posters. Political songs and ballads often told of the news of the day, frequently sensationalizing what was happening in parliament and the country as a whole.

During the Seventeenth century periodicals began to emerge, but they still blurred fact, fiction and rumour. Periodicals were different from newspapers in that they were only published occasionally, sometimes only once a month. As the century progressed, news-books and the first newspapers began to appear. These were produced at least once a week. Printing, which was still in its infancy, was strictly controlled in England at the beginning of the 1600’s. As a result of these restrictions, the first newspaper in English was actually printed in Amsterdam in 1620 by Joris Veseler.

When permission was finally granted in England for the printing of papers in London, the format reverted to the old style pamphlet rather than sheets of paper. These pamphlets, known as newsbooks due to their regular publication, went from strength to strength until their production was abruptly banned by the Star Chamber in 1632 (the governing body of England at the time), as the circulation of news was considered inflammatory to society.

Public pressure ended this period of printed newsbook suspension in 1638. The control over printing relaxed again after the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641. Such was the demand for news during the Civil War, that special war reporting pamphlets and newsbooks began to be produced in earnest. These publications were often biased, taking either the Roundheads or the Cavaliers as their champions.

Following the Restoration of the Monarchy, when Charles II retook the kingdom from Oliver Cromwell, the number of news publications rose. They began to take a form that would be more familiar to us today.

The London Gazette and the Oxford Gazette both began in 1665. Newspaper publication was controlled by the Crown under the Licensing Act of 1662, but the Act’s lapsed from 1679–1685 and then from 1695 onward, spawning a mass of news titles. From a staggered, biased and censored beginning, the modern newspaper was born.

There’s something about Christmas fiction that appeals to more than just the regular reader, enticing people who aren’t in the habit of reading during the rest of the year to pick up a book.

Whatever the genre, the special- or magical- feel of the associated festive season can provide an extra layer of description, tension, romance, or even snow covered fear.

The most famous and consistently most popular Christmas story in the UK is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Written in December 1843, this festive novella is a ghost story which perfectly encapsulates the hope and resilience of the human spirit which, Dickens argues, is reflected on at Christmas, more so than at any other time of the year.

It is in the world of children’s fiction that the Christmas story has its greatest audience. From the wordless yet hugely descriptive The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, to How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss, and the fantasy of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the magic of the Christmas fiction endures year after year.

One of the best loved modern classics, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. The Polar Express is the story of a little boy taken for a train ride to the North Pole with hundreds of other children, to where Santa and his elves are gathered to give the first gift of Christmas. The story perfectly captures the joy of Christmas, and the magic of the season which adults find so hard to keep hold of.

Whether it’s the need to curl up on the sofa with a glass of mulled wine, mince pie, and light hearted romantic tale, the comfort of being safe and sound under a duvet while you read about being chilled to the bone in a winter frost, or the magical smiles inspired by children’s festive stories, every year Christmas fiction makes many of us feel better, happier, safer and warmer.

It’s getting colder and colder outside now. If you have to wait for a bus to work in the morning you may have noticed! What words would you associate with the experience? Bitter or biting, perhaps? When creating a story or a poem it is easy to forget to include the elements that turn a flat narrative into a rounded work of creative writing, and so remembering such everyday experiences can help better describe what your fictional characters are feeling, or create a greater sense of atmosphere.

By getting caught up in your basic plot-line, the concept you are trying to convey, or the message you want to put across, you are in danger of producing work that has no colour or texture. This will lead to a story or poem that reads as a dull account of events rather than engaging prose. The most powerful pieces of writing encompass the experiences that the world around us affords in the shape of what we can hear, see, smell, touch and taste. Our five senses provide the descriptions and emotions required to add interest to your work.

For example, if you’re writing about fruit, why merely describe apple as just red or green? Does the skin shine in the light, or is it matte, bruised, or dull? Think about how the fruit feels in your palm. Are the apples rough or smooth, or both? Do they have a scent before they are bitten, or do they cut up? Or does the fruitful cider-like aroma only come after the skin is removed? What sound is made when a knife slices the skin and then dives into the apple’s flesh? As you bite an apple, how does it taste? How does it feel against your tongue? How does it sound as you crunch into it?

This method of thinking about your senses in relation to food should be applied to anything you’re writing about. Whether you are describing a place, item or person, think of the whole picture. What you can see; what you can hear? Are the birds singing? Can you feel the air on your skin? Is the bus seat hot from a previous passenger or cold? Can you smell chimney smoke? Does the dust in the abandoned room look like it’s been there for a week, a month, or a year?

While we frequently write about what we can see without a second thought, it takes the backing up of the experiences of the other four senses to add dimension and feeling to a piece of work. By asking yourself questions about the surroundings you are inventing, you will be able to convey a more rounded reading experience to your audience.

Renowned author Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland on November 29th, 1898.

Lewis had a lively imagination from an early age. When he was 4 he announced his name was Jack, and his family called him Jack from then onwards. Foreshadowing some of his most famous work later in life, during childhood with his brother Warren, Lewis created the imaginary land of Boxen, which had a complicated history and housed many incredible creatures.

Graduating in literature and classic philosophy at Oxford University, Lewis was then awarded a fellowship teaching position at Magdalen College. It was during his time in Oxford that he joined The Inklings, a group of writers and intellectuals who included Tolkien among their number. It would be conversations with his fellow Inklings that led to Lewis embracing Christianity. This would be a great influence on him and his writing, and during the Second World War, he broadcast popular radio shows on his faith.

Lewis’s first book, the satirical Dymer , was published in 1926. Ten years later another work, The Allegory of Love, won the Hawthornden Prize. Post-war, In the 1950’s, Lewis started to publish the seven books that would comprise The Chronicles of Narnia children’s series, beginning with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Set in the magical world of Narnia, the tales are filled with mythical creatures and talking animals. Throughout the series, a variety of Biblical themes are presented; the main being the representation of Christ through the character of Aslan, the lion.

In 1954, Lewis moved to Cambridge University as a literature professor, and in 1956 he married an American English teacher, Joy Gresham. Sadly, Joy died of cancer in 1960; Lewis’s subsequent unhappiness was detailed in his book, A Grief Observed. The Oscar winning film Shadowlands tells the story of Lewis’s relationship with his wife.

Resigning from his Cambridge post in 1963 after experiencing heart trouble, C.S. Lewis died on November 22nd, 1963, in Oxford, leaving a legacy of dozens of books, religious papers and poems. Many of his stories have since been made into television programmes and films, most famously those from The Chronicles of Narnia, and this will most likely continue to be the case.

Born in Soho, London, on November 28th, 1757, the poet William Blake came into a Dissenter family. Largely educated at home by his mother, The Bible was the main source of Blake’s early influences. At four years old, Blake claimed he was experiencing visions. His friend, the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson, wrote that Blake once claimed to have seen God’s head appear in a window.

By the age of 10, it was clear that Blake had an incredible artistic talent, and he was enrolled at Henry Pars’s drawing school. When he was 14, he was apprenticed to an engraver, and by the age of 21, he was studying at the Royal Academy of Art and Design.

In August 1782, Blake married Catherine Sophia Boucher. Catherine believed in her husband’s visions, and encouraged his creative talents. The following year, Blake spread his artistic talents into the world of poetry, privately publishing a collection called Poetical Sketches.

In 1787 William’s brother Robert died from tuberculosis, aged just 24. This brought another vision to Blake, who said he saw his brother’s spirit ascend through the ceiling. The following year, Blake claimed it was Robert who, in yet another vision, told him to try a new method of printing his works, which Blake would call illuminated printing. This method of production allowed Blake to control every aspect of the production of his art. He used it to produce scenes from the works of Dante, Shakespeare and the Bible.

In 1800, Blake moved to the seaside village of Felpham to work with the poet William Hayley. While in Felpham, in August 1803, he found a soldier, John Schofield, on the property and removed him by force. Schofield accused Blake of assault and sedition, (meaning Damning the King). This was a serious crime, and it took a full year before Blake’s lawyers were able to get the charge acquitted. Also that year, Blake began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (a plate from which can be seen above), something that would take him until 1820 to fully complete. He then began to show art in exhibitions, but this work was met with scorn. Reviewers referred to Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic.” Devastated, Blake withdrew from society and sank and paranoia. Blake continued to sketch, however, and in 1819 he began a series of “visionary heads,” claiming that historical and imaginary figures had appeared and sat for him.

Sadly, although he remained artistically busy, it wasn’t until after his death on 12th August 1827, from an undiagnosed disease that he called “that sickness to which there is no name”, that William Blake was recognized as a major influence in the literary and artistic world. One of a number of great artists who have only come to appreciation posthumously, it could be argued that his greatest, visionary inspirations were, in his time, the greatest barrier to the success he deserved.

Celebrated English novelist George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans, on 22nd November 1819. Raised in Warwickshire, Mary was forced to leave school at an early age after her mother died in 1836, so she could become her father’s housekeeper. In 1841, Mary and her father moved to Coventry, where she looked after him until his death in 1849. Mary then travelled around Europe, before eventually settling in London.

Although Mary had inherited strict religious views from her father, she was always open minded and, once she was free from her family, became a freethinker. In London, Mary joined a circle of intellectuals that included Tennyson and Dickens.

In 1850, Eliot began contributing to the Westminster Review, a leading journal for philosophical radicals, and later she became its editor. Adopting her male pen name in the hope that she’d be taken more seriously, she published Amos Barton, a short story which was later to appear in Scenes of Clerical Life (1858).

Amongst her literary friends, Mary met George Henry Lewes. George was a married man, but despite this, they came to live together as a couple until his death. This caused a society scandal which led to Mary being shunned by friends and family alike.

George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede‘, was published in 1859 and was a great success. Her other novels include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), Middlemarch (1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876).

It was the popularity of Eliot’s novels which earned her social acceptance back. Soon her home with George Lewes became a meeting place for fellow writers. After Lewes’ death in 1878, George remarried. Her husband had been a friend for many years; John Cross, who was 20 years younger than her.

Mary ‘George Eliot’ Evans died on 22th December 1880. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London, leaving an incredible literary heritage behind her.

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