GCSE Unseen Poetry: Sample Response

Hi all,

Here is the sample response to the Unseen Poetry question from today’s class.


And here are the sentence starters:





Year 11: ‘How does the writer…?’

Hello Year 11,

Here is a sample answer to the question we had a go at today in class:

How does the writer convince us that he was not very academic or good at school work?

The writer also uses humour, describing his grades as a ‘line of Pac-Men doing the Conga’. The simile is a very light-hearted way of suggesting that he got a series of G grades, but the humour is convincing; we do not feel that he is exaggerating the truth, but that he has a clear view of what the situation was. Similarly, his tone of voice is convincing; even when describing painful memories of ‘chilly emptiness’ he remains he isn’t particularly upset or emotional. He seems detached and objective, which emphasises his certainty and makes us feel that we have no need to doubt him.

Rayner uses emotive language to convince us of his past failures. Words such as ‘dread’ and ‘humiliation’ are suggestive of the intense emotions that he felt as a child when unable to complete the homework tasks set. They make it seem as if he really struggled with his school work, and that his efforts were very much below the standards of his peers, and therefore humiliating.

The journalist also uses triplication in the list of three memories, which lends a certain truth to his writing. Even though these are, indeed, memories (and distant ones from years ago, at that), the effect of listing three of them makes them seem factual. Structurally, this long sentence is then followed by a short one: ‘The fact is that I was not especially academic.’ This makes Rayner sound certain; he presents his opinion as fact.

When describing his attempt to complete his son’s maths homework, the writer comments: ‘This I used to be able to do. Or at least I think I used to be able to do this.’ This is interesting, because it suggests that his memory is not perfect. It is an admission of his humanity which, rather than suggesting that we should doubt his memory of the past, only confirms that he is flawed, like everyone else, and that in all probability he was never any good at maths at all.

A3: ‘What impression…’

Hello Year 10.

Here is a sample answer to the question we looked at this morning:

What impression do you get of Miss Snell in lines 7-22 of ‘Fun with a Stranger’?

I get the impression that Miss. Snell is a traditional, old-fashioned woman. She is ‘probably sixty’ and ‘seemed to smell of pencil shavings and chalk dust’. This makes her seem musty and old. It also gives us the impression that teaching is a big part of her life and has perhaps taken over her identity.

I get the impression that Miss. Snell is quite a harsh teacher. Her eyes are ‘sharp’ and when she speaks it is a ‘snap’. These words make us feel that she has edges – she isn’t soft. She speaks using commands: ‘Don’t mumble’ and ‘Stand up’ which give the impression of an authoritative, perhaps dictatorial figure and her tirades at the pupils are described as ‘lectures’ which emphasise her authority.

She is also highly perceptive; I feel as if she has eyes in the back of her head. They are ‘sharp’ and she ‘almost always’ catches pupils who are talking in class.

This also gives us the impression that Miss. Snell is experienced as a teacher. She4 is used to working with children and has her own idiom for teaching: ‘Proper Supplies’.

She also uses a lot of questions in her speech: ‘Is it…?’ ‘Have you…?’ which makes it seem as if she is interrogating her pupils. We get the impression that she is strict and intimidating. She certainly doesn’t seem much fun. The word ‘humourless’ suggests she never sees the lighter side of life and the word ‘determined’ implies that she will not let others do so either.

Finally, she ‘seemed to have no favourites, and ‘picked on’ one of the good girls. This makes her seem unfair and heartless, or perhaps even gives the impression that she is a bit of a bully. However, it could also imply that she is fair, which creates a slightly more positive impression of her.



Dulce et Decorum Est

Here is an exam response to this magnificent poem by Wilfred Owen. It is for part a) only, which is:

In this poem Owen explores ideas about war. Write about the ways in which Owen presents war in this poem. 

This poem is one of the most powerful and well-known poems of the First World War. Written during Owen’s time at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, it is a passionate and bitter reflection on the horrors of trench warfare. It was at Craiglockhart that Owen met Sassoon, whose poems also convey a passionate anti-war sentiment. Unlike the poets before them, the poems of Owen, Sassoon and others such as Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg are written by soldiers with first-hand experience of trench warfare and its horrors. Consequently, they have little time for the romanticised propaganda of their predecessors. War, Owen suggests, is not noble or glorious at all. Quite the opposite: it is a crime against humanity. The poem ends with a chilling indictment to readers to acknowledge this; anyone who suggests that to die for one’s country is ‘noble’ or fitting is nothing short of a liar.

The first stanza sets the scene: soldiers march towards their ‘distant rest’ away from the ‘flares’ of the front line. Owen uses similes to describe them; they are ‘like old beggars’ and ‘[cough] like hags’, suggesting that these men, once young and full of life, now resemble the elderly and decrepit. The imagery is designed to shock; yet it only becomes more disturbing as the poem progresses. For beggars and hags may not be the most attractive of folk, but they are at least human, as is the soldier in the gas attack in the second stanza: ‘like a man in fire or lime’ (my emphasis). In the final stanza, however, the similes no longer describe that which is human. As the gas begins to take effect and we witness the slow and agonising death of the ill-fated soldier, his face is ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’. This is the face of a gargoyle, a demon, a twisted contortion of the human face, no longer recognisable as the soldier that once was. The hags and beggars of the opening lines seem healthy in comparison. The destructive effect of the gas is captured in two final similes: ‘obscene as cancer’ and ‘bitter as the cud of vile incurable sores’. Both serve to emphasise Owen’s message: War is a poison, toxic to those who ingest it. Its effects are those of a terminal disease, causing only suffering and ending only in death. His anger can be heard in the harsh plosives: ‘bitter as the cud‘ and his disgust rings out in the sibilance of ‘obscene as cancer’.

Verbs play a key part in the poem. Owen uses them, firstly, to show the passing of time. In the first stanza, they are construed in the past tense: ‘cursed‘, ‘turned‘, ‘marched‘ and ‘limped‘ depicting the slow and painful process of the soldiers’ journey. During the attack, they shift to the present continuous: ‘fumbling / Fitting‘, ‘yelling‘, ‘stumbling‘ ‘flound’ring‘ and ‘drowning‘. This contributes to the sense of immediacy and action that dominates the second stanza (and is the result of the frequent caesura and fragmented speech there). Secondly, they create an atmosphere of emergency and panic. The verbs appeal to the sense of sound: we hear the ‘yelling’ and then in the third stanza, the ‘choking’. The sounds become less commonplace (the coughing and trudging of the opening stanza) and more peculiar, until the final verb, the ‘gargling’ of the man’s lungs. (The filling of the lungs during a gas attack had the same effect as when a person drowns.) The effect is cumulative; there is a sense of rapid degeneration as the soldier, and we who watch him, descend into hell.

Adjectives and adverbs also deserve our attention. Owen uses these to create the surreal atmosphere of a nightmare. There is a dreamlike quality to the gas shells that fall ‘softly’ as the men march ‘asleep’. This is further emphasised during the attack in the second stanza: the scene is ‘dim’ and ‘ misty’ and everything is bathed in a light that is ‘thick’ and ‘green’. The effect is one of hazy confusion (it is no wonder the helmets, or gas masks, are ‘clumsy’) and this, juxtaposed with the emergency and and panic created by the syntax, has a distorting effect on the poem. It, like that which it describes, feels wrong, perverted, unreal.

This dreamlike atmosphere is significant in two ways. Firstly, it is the repeated dreams (nightmares?) of the attack that haunt Owen in the days (months? years?) to come, and ‘smother’ him with the conviction that war is an abomination. Secondly, it distances us from the horror of the action. Whilst the use of tense creates the sense that the action is unfolding right before our eyes, and is horrific and graphic, it is perhaps too horrific for us to digest. We cannot stomach the reality of such horrors, and it is only fitting that we should in some way fail to comprehend this scene. In this context, the poem’s final message:

…you would not tell

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori

is a wake-up call. This is the truth, and it has a clarity that rings clear and loud in contrast to the chaos and confusion of previous stanzas. Owen leaves behind his unreal vision to let his message resound: the propaganda is a lie. War is an abomination, and to die in it is not noble. It is the stuff of nightmares.