Approaching Unseen Poetry

If you’re taking the same spec as us, then you’ll know that in year 2, you have to compare one of the Poems of the Decade poems with an unseen poem. Obviously, this is pretty daunting. They’re going to give you something that you likely haven’t seen before, and you’ve not got very much time to respond. I’ve got an exam tomorrow, so I’m going to do an unseen, and take you through it with me 🙂

Okay, so I’ve chosen a random book off my shelf. It’s called “Emergency Poet”. I think I got it for my birthday. It has that new book sort of smell. I’m flipping to a random page…

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Okay so this is what we got. I can safely say I’ve never seen this poem in my life, but I actually really like it. Now we’re going to read it, read it, read it again.
1. What is the overall message of the poem? How does it make you feel?
2. What stands out to you? What bits do you particularly like or dislike? Highlight them, which I’ve done above. How can these be linked back to the message?
When you’ve read it a few times, something will have jumped out at you. Start by zooming in on this, trying to identify an intent or a technique. Here are some thing’s I noticed. Yours might be really different, but all interpretations are valid!
Meaning: So I’ve read this a few times, and personally I think its about preparing yourself for loss, and developing an understanding that not everything in your life is consistent. In the final stanza, there is a direct address, so I am assuming that the poet has lost someone themselves, perhaps through death, or the end of a relationship.
What interests me:
– The first tercet has an ABA rhyme scheme, which creates quite a bouncing, jovial tone. When we look at the words however, the topic is quite sentimental. Perhaps she is using this rhyme to evoke a sense that we try to appear upbeat/relaxed in the face of loss.
– “The art of losing.” The irony in this phrase really grabs me. An art is something that you have to practice and perfect, and losing things, like keys, happens because of the opposite: carelessness. Maybe she is using this phrase to suggest that when it comes to losing truly important things, we must work to accept it.
– “Lose something everyday.” Caesura always stands out. This phrase is in the imperative mood, and she cuts it off with a very finite full stop. Maybe if we make a habit of losing small things, losing bigger ones becomes easier.
– “And look!” this sudden exclamation caught me by surprise. It seems like she’s addressing us directly, but having read the whole thing, I think she might be addressing the “you” at the end. This tone makes the poem quite conversational, which links to the fact that the subject is treated as very matter-of-fact.
– Structure. As the stanzas progress, I noticed that the things she loses increase in magnitude, from her everyday possessions, to realms and rivers, to somebody close. This build up creates a sense of tension, which is mirrored in the use of tri-colon “realms I owned…a continent.” To me, this deconstructs the idea that losing isn’t hard to master, and instead implies that it is hard and drawn out process. The last stanza is the only one to be four lines. It creates a sense of closure, but also ends on the word “disaster”, showing that the process of losing is never entirely complete.
So it’s ten o’clock at night, and I’m thriving off some microwave rice I ate about five hours ago. I don’t think that I can tackle a comparison tonight, but if you’d like us to compare an unseen with a spec poem, let us know!

Ode to the West Wind by John Keats

What’s it all about?

Ode to the West Wind compares the strength of the wind to the movement of change and rebellion, and also presents it as bringing change and hope to the poet. The poem marvels at the beauty of nature as well as its harsh power. There’s multiple interpretations about what this poem may mean. Perhaps it is about rebellion, with the wind representing the drive for social change. Perhaps it is purely introspective, a discussion of Shelley’s own depression, and the hope that happiness might come again with the summer. 

Basic analysis: 

‘Vaulted with all the congregated might’. This line evokes an image of a church, but Percy Shelley was actually an atheist. Consider the idea that here the wind is assuming the place of god, usurping his position and becoming a creator itself. You might link this to the concept of pantheism, the belief that their is not anthropomorphic god, but that everything in nature encompasses a form of divinity. Almost every tercet has some sort of exclamatory phrase, as if Shelley is praising the wind in a prayer. 

‘O wild west wind’ a very simple and subtle choice. Look at the soft consonance in this line, which creates the whispering effect of the wind itself. Shelley is allowing the sound of the wind to diffuse its way into the poem.

“Destroyer…preserver” The wind is personified as a really powerful force. It has the will to overcome the “pestilence” that Shelley sees in the world around him. The seeds are compared to “corpses”, but the wind restores life to them. Can the wind be a metaphor for restoring the spirit of protest, for restoring the self?


This ode is from the book “Prometheus Unbound”, which was a lyrical drama. The lyric poem, here told in five cantos (sections), is usually about subjectivity and emotion. For this reason, a lot of people might argue the poem is about Shelley searching for flavour and strength in his life. Notice that as the cantos progress, the poem adopts a more triumphant tone, as if the power of the wind itself has seeped into the text.

Context: This was written shortly after the Peterloo massacre, where innocent people protesting peacefully were killed by the cavalry. Perhaps Shelley is expressing his helplessness at being powerless to stop this injustice, especially when he was known to be so politically charged. Alternatively, we might interpret the poem to be about his own depression, and the loss of his young son. Shelley is waiting for good times to be brought by the west wind, the same way it brings the warmer weather. 

This wasn’t too detailed, but I hope it provides you with a spring board for your own notes!






Where’s the romantic verse at?

We’ve had a few requests to update the blog with notes on all of the Romantic Verse section. You can find out which ones we have already by clicking the specification page, where they are all hyperlinked. Slowly but surely, we’re getting through the texts, and we aim to have all of the notes up in time for you guys to use them in your revision. If you have any burning questions, don’t hesitate to email, and we can give you a personal response to any ideas you might have.

Maria x

Essay Planning – how do I do it?

Hey again! We’ve got our mock exams coming up and I’m sure that a lot of other people do. To prep for our exams, we’ve been told to work on essay plans, and so we thought we could take you on this less than riveting journey with us.

So this is an essay I got set by my teacher. The most common question we get via email is “how do I approach a exam question like this?” The way I’m going to doing it is just one possible route. There are loads and loads more, and I’m sure the other two bloggers would do this completely differently.

Explore Shakespeare’s presentation of virtue in “Othello.” You must relate your discussion to relevant contextual factors and ideas from your critical anthology.

What is the key word here? Obviously in an exam situation you won’t have a dictionary to hand, but I find that when I’m working at home, it’s useful to write out a definition. Here’s one for virtue. Virtue: behaviour showing high moral standards. 

So now we have a definition, we can think in detail about how this is displayed in the play. I start by asking myself a series of questions: Who displays virtue? What does virtue mean to our characters? What does virtue mean to Shakespeare? 

In an essay, you’ll probably be making three or four points, so I won’t bore you with more than one. Let’s look at Desdemona. Desdemona is seen as virtuous for preserving her virginity. In the 1600s this was a mark of a woman’s worth and purity, and while an entirely patriarchal concept, a measure of her virtue. By reserving her body for Othello alone, she conforms to the moral standards of her era, demonstrating herself as a paragon of subservience and meekness. Later in the play, we know that this image of her is deconstructed by Iago, and her virtuous image is destroyed…

Find your evidence. I’ve chosen this line from Act Four Scene Two. “Oh thou weed who art so lovely fair”. This juxtaposing phrase of Othello’s in act four scene two demonstrates the conflict between the virtuous image of Desdemona, and the corrupt one created by Iago. The imagery of the “weed” is much like the lexical choice of the garden that Shakespeare makes in Iago’s speech (Act One, Scene Three), where he ridicules virtue itself – “virtue, a fig.”

(Now I won’t lie, I spent about twenty minutes just staring at this fig line and wondering what it meant. I figured I couldn’t be writing an essay on virtue, and totally ignoring a line which literally defines it. After typing “fig symbolism” and “figs what do they mean” into google multiple times, I came up with my idea of what I thought it meant. If you have your own interpretation, please email us so I can sleep soundly at night)

In the Bible, figs grow in the garden of Eden, and are used by Adam and Eve to cover themselves when they realise their nakedness. Perhaps Iago perceives virtue as having the same use as figs, an exterior image or “convenient mask” ( EAJ Honigmann) which ultimately is no more than a disguise for sin. Alternatively, the line may be read as ironic: Iago compares virtue to something which is cursed by Jesus in the Bible, suggesting it is essentially worthless and easily destroyed, like the image of Desdemona. 

So we know that Iago doesn’t think highly of virtue. What happens when his language starts to seep into Othello’s speeches? Well, in Othello’s speech to Desdemona, we are effectively listening to Iago. While he may lambast virtue so keenly, he is also aware of its importance to the other characters. By deconstructing the image of the virtuous Desdemona, he essentially devalues her in Othello’s eyes.

So what does this teach us about virtue? It is both highly prized in a woman, and easily manipulated by a man. It is a measure of Desdemona’s worth, but as a concept it is incredibly fickle. Now is the moment to decide your opinion on what Shakespeare is trying to tell us…and that’s your first point complete.

I hope this was at least a bit useful, and that everyone isn’t getting too stressed about their exams. We’d also like to apologise for not replying to all of your comments straight away! If you’ve got a burning question, drop us an email and we’ll always make time 🙂

Maria x


The Sick Rose by William Blake

The Sick Rose by Willam Blake is a short but complex poem. Here are a few ways you might interpret it. Feel free to email us with more…

Sexual imagery:

“the invisible worm” has phallic connotations, the fact that it cannot be seen suggests that the owner is someone concealing it. We might suggest that the worm arrives without the woman’s consent.

“The howling storm” might symbolise an orgasm.

“Crimson joy” is suggestive of blood and perhaps a woman’s virginity. We might interpret the poem as being about intercourse, though it is darkly suggestive of an unwanted advancement and power divide through “thy life destroy”

Imagery of England:

A rose is symbolically an English flower. We might suggest that the “howling storm” is the roar of the industrial revolution and the “sick rose” is the disintegrating country which Blake once loved. The invisible worm might suggest the parasitic power of industry.

Sexual Disease in London

The symbol of destruction may be interpreted as a sexual disease, which may have been the result of prostitution. The vaginal symbolism of the flower has been corrupted by the penetration of the male. When Blake was living in London, there was a lot of poverty and prostitution, which likely led him to see England as “sick.” It is also likely that female sexuality was demonised, hence the idea that sex=death pervades this poem. 


Maria x

Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull – Revision Notes

“Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull” by Lord Byron is a poem that is both obsessed with and downplays the significance of death in a human life. In a way, Byron creates an afterlife for the skull-cup, “substitut[ing]” its “brains” with “wine”, but throughout the poem, the reader is aware that the skull-cup is not alive, even in the world of the poem. Byron does not even make an attempt at disguising this: the title declares that the “lines” are “inscribed upon”, rather than “written by”. While reading the poem, we are held within a state of contradictions, beginning with this fundamental contradiction of life and death, but maintained throughout the poem.

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‘Gatsby’ and America’s changing identity

The Great Gatsby is a novel set in rather turbulent post-war America. Here’s some background about the infamous ‘Land of the Free’…

The concept of the ‘American dream’ is often seen to equate to wealth and social success. However, the idea of having this set of innate American values was first laid down in the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, which described “Unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What all Americans ‘dreamt’ of, then, was not initially huge achievement and economic gain, but rather stability, contentment and freedom. The Great Gatsby presents a different set of American principles, however, with its focus on the reckless and extravagant lives of the elite. Why did Fitzgerald choose to write about this time in American history?

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Comparing Frankenstein and The Handmaid’s Tale

When I first started studying these texts, I was honestly bemused. What does a monster made of human remains have to do with a dystopian theocracy? Quite a lot, it turns out.

We’ve had a few emails from other students, asking if we can help them compare these two seemingly very different texts. I’ve decided that since this is such a widespread question (and rightly so!) I’d put together a few ideas to help you get started. Largely, I’ll be framing this post as questions which you can ask yourself when you revising, perhaps in mindmaps or bullet lists. This is a new way of organising a post, but I hope that it will be helpful!

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