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

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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Example Essay – Education and Social Class (Poems of the Decade)

Image © Artistmaterial

Here is another Poems of the Decade essay, this time on the question:

Explore the ways in which poets present the theme of education and social class in ‘Out of the Bag’ by Seamus Heaney and ‘Poetry’ by Tom Leonard

Click here to download the file (PDF)

‘Poetry’ was an unseen poem – it isn’t currently available online (that I can find), but you can read other poems by Tom Leonard on his website.


Commentary From Roderick Ford on ‘Giuseppe’

Image – Sicily © Radio Times

A follower of this blog, Anees Malik, has generously shared with us an email she received from Roderick Ford (the poet who wrote ‘Giuseppe’) detailing his own inspiration for and interpretation of the poem, which you can read below. However, it is important to remember, as the poet himself states, that any interpretation is valid, and you will still gain marks in an exam for a reading of a text which does not match its writer’s intention. It is also useful to keep in mind that AO3 is not assessed in the modern poetry unit, so referencing Ford’s views will not automatically gain you marks unless you link it to your argument (in the A2 exam, it should also ideally be linked to the unseen poem).

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Romantic Poetry Context

Image © The Wordsworth Trust

Broad Romantics – Dated between 1789 and 1848

Preceding – Augustan Age (1700-1750) was about wit, classical, well-educated: Alexander Pope, Age of Sensibility (1750-1798) was about emotion: Samuel Johnson

Jean Jacques Rousseau – “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. Believed that children are born naturally good and puts emphasis on creativity and the imagination which sought children out as said philosophers and closer to God. He challenged traditional moral and religious teaching, claiming “man is naturally good, loving justice and order”. He also argued that the ills of man would be cured with a return to nature.

Denis Diderot – Was a philosopher around the same time as Rousseau who believed future should be built on reason. He wrote the first Encyclopædia, mapping human development without God.

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