English Literature Exam Revision
; About the exam
; Using these notes
; About the poems
About the Exam
There is one exam with two sections.
Section A: Answer one question about the PROSE piece you have
Don‟t get confused by all the other questions about other
books or anthologies.
Section B: Answer one question about the poems you have studied:
Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage and the Poetry Bank.
You will only be allowed your anthology if it is totally clean. Otherwise
you will be given a brand new anthology in the exam hall.
This is the exam where you need to write:
EVIDENCE or QUOTE (whichever you know)
Remember: You must write about 4 poems to get a decent grade,
even if it means only writing ten lines on one of the poems.
Using these notes
Each poem has two short paragraphs of notes.
The first paragraph explains the plot.
The second paragraph gives ideas of some language comments you could make.
It is language comments that get you a C grade or above.
Don‟t read the notes on their own; use them to help you look back over the anthology.
About the poems
Carol Ann Duffy
Duffy‟s poems are often characterised by a focus on famous figures (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Hathaway etc) or strong characters (like murderers and thieves) or strong emotions (like devoted love or hatred). Sometimes these themes are mixed up in one poem (for example, all three in “Havisham”). Because her characters are larger than life they tend to stick in our minds – often disturbingly.
This angry poem seems to be the men-hating thoughts of a woman abandoned on her wedding day. Duffy has borrowed the lonely, miserable character of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens‟ story, “Great Expectations”.
Comments: the contrasting emotive words, such as “sweetheart” and
“bastard” (line 1) show both her anger and her confusion; the words break the rules of spelling to represent her losing her grip on her mind: “Noooooo” (line 6). The regular stanza structure suggests she appears normal on the outside, whilst the colours represent her moods and emotions: “green” implies jealousy (line 3).
Elvis’s Twin Sister
This poem is told by the imaginary sister of Elvis Presley. She introduces us to her life as a nun in a convent, but every so often in her quiet life we catch glimpses of her brother.
Comments: how Duffy has gone some way to capturing the difference between the sexes by making this Presley calm and contented, discussing her “wimple” and “rosary” (lines 16 – 17) and how it is a
“Long time since I walked down Lonely Street” (line 28). She hints of her brother constantly, either obviously in words: “blue suede shoes” (line 20) or subtly in rhythms; eg. Lines 2-5 mirror the rhythm of the song “Blue Suede Shoes” – one for the money, two for the show, three to get a-ready, and Go, cat go!
Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare‟s wife, but in his will he only left her his second-best bed. The poem‟s narrator is Anne, who describes how actually this bed is a token of their passionate love. (The best bed was kept for guests)
Comments: how the narrator has written a classical Shakespearean sonnet with three quatrains and a rhyming couplet – rhyming scheme
ABABCDCDEFEFGG = to show her love for Shakespeare; how the poem is bursting with images to represent the great range of romantic dreams and experiences Shakespeare gave her: “forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops” etc (line 2); how sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste are all brought into the poem to emphasise how complete an experience loving Shakespeare was.
This is yet another poem taking its inspiration from a famous character. In the bible Salome (a prostitute who danced for the King) asks King Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a plate – and gets thit. The narrator here, however, is a 20 century version – a drinking,
smoking, loose woman who murders her unfortunate lovers.
Comments: the careless, conversational tone of the poem which is shocking because it seems she really doesn‟t care about her actions: “and doubtless I‟ll do it again, sooner or later” (lines 2-3); the frequent
„t‟ based half rhyme at the end of the lines which makes us feel uneasy, as if we are getting trapped: “matter”, “matted”, “lighter”, “flatter”, “pewter” and so on; the way that, on a deeper level, this character
seems to be purposefully attacking Christianity – all the men‟s names
she mentions are from the disciples: “Peter? Simon? Andrew? John?” (lines 14-15); the irregular layout emphasises how random a murder this is: “bitch” (line 35) shocks us and prepares us for the grisly truth.
Before You Were Mine
This is a personal poem for Duffy, written about her mother. She imagines the fun her mother had as a girl before getting pregnant and tied down to motherhood. She remembers how when she was very young her mum was still fun – teaching her to dance, for example.
She thinks her mother must have been like Marilyn Monroe.
Comments: the emotive words: “shriek”, “thousand”, “sparkle” and colourful images, laughing “at the pavement”, in a “polka-dot dress”
like Marilyn Monroe, “fizzy movie tomorrows” all emphasise how much fun her mother once had, and how she lost it all to have a child; the repetition of “before you were mine” has a menacing effect, reminding us that the narrator stole all this fun away by being born and
becoming “possessive”; the cleverness of saying she remembers “clear as scent” (line 14), mixing sight with smell because smell is the most powerful sense and we realise how strong her memory is.
We Remember Your Childhood Well
This poem takes the form of a series of denials by unnamed parental characters. The reader realises there is a second point of view which we never hear – the child‟s.
Comments: the 3-line stanzas are each like another verbal attack – an
effect emphasised by the way they all end in full stops; the repetition of “nobody” and “no” gives childhood a very negative feeling; the power of the occasional emotive word “death” (line 6), underlining how part of the child‟s happiness has been destroyed when they throw the
comic into the fire; “Hell” (line 17) – suggests that the parent figures
strongly deny the implied accusations – but are doing so with even
Education for Leisure
In this poem we hear the thoughts of a bored, unemployed character who starts killing things, apparently because he has “had enough of being ignored”.
Comments: the disturbing way the size of the narrator‟s actions / crimes grow, as we can see from his victims – a fly, a fish, a cat and
finally, us; the frightening way the poem starts off in the narrator‟s
world and forces the reader to enter it: “I touch your arm”; the metaphor of “boredom stirring in the streets”, as if boredom were a dangerous animal – which, considering what this character does,
seems to be true.
This poem takes the form of a youth telling us about „his‟ stealing habits, and how he once stole a snowman.
Comments: the sadness of a young person seeing themselves in the coldness and loneliness of a snowman, and wanting to steal it: “a mind as cold as the slice of ice within my own brain” (lines 4-5); the
fascination with and hatred of other people‟s happiness: “part of the thrill was knowing that children would cry” (line 10); the sad sense of failure throughout the poem – none of the stealing makes him happier,
and even though he has explained himself to us, we “don‟t understand a word”.
Some of Armitage‟s poems don‟t have titles. He wants us to think of them as random, independent thoughts – not anything grand or
Mother, any distance …
This poem is addressed to the narrator‟s mother. It is based on the time Armitage bought his first house. Up in the attic he seems to be breaking free from his mother, far below at the other end of the tape measure.
Comments: this poem is like a sonnet – 14 line love poem – with the
words “to fall or fly” overflowing on line 15, just like the narrator is on the verge of overflowing from his youth into adulthood; the measuring tape links him and his mother metaphorically like the umbilical cord once did; the metaphors “acres of walls”, “prairies of the floors” make
the new house seem almost like a new land, a new frontier; the looseness in the structure of the last stanza mirrors his new sense of freedom.
My father thought it bloody queer
This poem looks back on how Armitage‟s father was abusive towards him when he had his ear pierced, and how, years later, Armitage still feels the pain of this attack.
Comments: Armitage compares the moment your ear finally releases its last drop of water, long after your swim, with a tear that has been buried in your eye for many years. When his father was abusive to him as a child, Armitage never cried, but now, at 29, he feels the pain coming out “released like water”; the way the poem ends with his
father‟s words still ringing in his ear, reinforcing to the reader how long he has suffered; the emotive, charged words “bloody queer” show offence at two levels – “bloody” being generally rude, and the word
“queer” accusing him of being gay and attacking him for it at the same time.
This poem begins by reminding the reader of the comforting, trust-building exercise where you fall backwards trusting that someone will catch you. Then we learn how a schoolgirl is told off for her favourite yellow jacket getting dirty, and runs out of the house late at night to use a callbox to phone a friend. Finally her Dad comes out to bring her in and make the peace. The poem finishes with Armitage wishing he could have been there that night, but he didn‟t meet the girl (who
became his wife) until many years later. He wishes he could have been a yellow jacket for her – in other words, her comfort.
Comments: The metaphor of a lover being like a comforting jacket gives us an idea of tender love: These fingers make a zip” (line 20); the use of colloquial language (everyday expressions) make it seem a bit like a soap opera, and makes the parents‟ anger seem more sudden and unthinking: “puts two and two together, makes a proper fist of it”;
the way the poem is wrapped up in comfort, with the trust exercise at the beginning and the jacket at the end – like the narrator wants to
wrap up his wife in comfort.
This is a sad poem in which we hear the thoughts of the narrator as they accompany someone as they take their grandmother to live in either a nursing home or a hospital. They both know she won‟t be coming out again.
Comments: The short end-stopped stanzas and short sentences rob the poem of any momentum or energy and sink us into the sadness of the narrator: “It is time John” (line 7); the final couplet suggests they are not going to feel “alive” much and seals the poem on a depressing note; the shocking nature of the imagery: “bloodless smiles”, “slack breasts”, “monsters” (lines 7-8) shows the reader how unpleasant old age is; the effective use of the title as a metaphor for life – as the
month is November (towards the end of the year), the grandmother is at the November point of her life.
This energetic poem seems to be the angry thoughts of a younger male who has now grown up. In his mind, he is ranting at the older male he once looked up to for not having spent time with him: “let me
loose to wander”, for his affair with a “married woman”, and for achieving so little: “nothing in the walk-in larder”.
Comments: all the lines end with an “er” sound – giving them a
feminine rhyme – which tumbles each line into the next one and propels this poem along at a furious pace, showing how wound up the narrator is – the fact that there is no break in the poem helps this; comparing the male characters to cartoon characters makes the whole relationship they had appear pointless; Batman‟s helper, and the narrator, suggests that the real hero of the story is Robin – the quiet
one; the use of alliteration at the beginning with four stressed syllables in a row: “Batman, big shot”, gets the poem off to a thumping start, again emphasising the strength of the narrator‟s resentment.
Those bastards in their mansions
This sonnet-like poem of 14 lines seems to be abusing rich people on the basis that the narrator feels they “shriek” at him as if he had “poisoned the dogs” and started a revolution. It is as if, he says, he had armed the ordinary people with “the iron from their wrists and ankles” – ie, set them free and given them weapons made from
handcuffs. The narrator compares himself to Prometheus, from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind. As a punishment, he was chained to a rock where an eagle tore at his liver. This seems to be a poem about class difference, and the unbending hatred the narrator shows for the upper class is frightening: “I stick to the shadows, carry a gun”.
Comments: the emotive words in this poem give it a quality of real vengeance: “bastard”, “burning”, “gun”; many of the lines of the poem are linked with a loose rhyme: “ditches”, “britches”, “lifted”, “torches / houses / ankles / castles / beagles” which give it energy like the
narrator‟s anger – notice also the feminine endings again which
constantly move the poem onwards; the short, hard last word of the poem, “gun”, contrasts sharply with these other more flowing words, closing the poem with an angry thud; the narrator tells us at length about things he hasn‟t done, which leads us to think he may be more
talk than action; the way Armitage has cut up the poem suggests a disturbed mind inside what appears to be a normal man.
I’ve made out a will…
This sonnet-like poem of 14 lines has the narrator telling us how he is leaving his body to the NHS (presumably by Donorcard). He compares it to food: “bilberry soup”, architecture: “catherdral of bone” and mechanics: “coils and sprockets”. His heart he compares to the pendulum of a clock, and he says he won‟t leave that to the NHS.
Comments: Armitage uses long, flowing clauses to describe all the things he is leaving to the NHS (lines 2-7), but short, end-stopped clauses to emphasise how the heart is a different matter altogether: “but not the heart, they can leave that alone” (line 8); how the sense of
something being over and finished at death is emphasised by how “the ticker” is to be left “where it stops” – ie, where it is no longer a “ticker”
because it no longer ticks; how all the rest of the body is described as sticky or insignificant things: “bilberry soup” or “coils and sprockets” but the heart is described as a pendulum – clean, a component that is
separate from all others, and vitally important; how Armitage uses the final two lines of the sonnet in a traditional way – to make a point.
This simple poem is the tale of how the narrator kills a hitch-hiker.
Comments: the tension between the regular-looking stanzas and their disturbing content reflects the casual outer manner of the narrator and his gruesome nature; the last line of each stanza is calm, illustrating how quickly the narrator regains his cool after some horrific deed –
like the hitch-hiker “bouncing off the kerb” (line 18); the way the two characters are the “same age” (line 19), and how their contrasting lives
cause the narrator to get suddenly angry: “the ansaphone kept screaming: one more sick note, mister, and you‟re finished. Fired!” compared to “he was following the sun, from west to east.”
Pre-1914 Poetry Bank
These poems are characterised by a much more rigid form, for example: iambic pentameter (10 syllable lines); rhyming couplets (where lines rhyme in pairs); strict rhyme schemes; regular structure (stanzas all the same length) or the poem being a structured sonnet. The older poems tend to be about simple themes – love, death, old
age and friendship. The later poems start to comment on new ideas such as narrators being murderers or the beauty of nature.
On My First Sonne
The poet mourns the death of his seven year-old son. He loved his son so much that he thinks God has taken the child as a punishment for his becoming too involved in earthly love. He questions why he mourns his son‟s death when his son has escaped all the illnesses and sadness of growing old. He considers his son his “best piece of
poetrie” – ie, the greatest thing he has ever created..
Comments: the rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter reflect the poet‟s belief in order, and that it is his place to follow it; the contrast
between what the narrator anticipates for himself: “fleshes rage”, “miserie”, “age” and what he hopes now for his dead son: “Rest in soft peace” show us how hard life was in those days and how much they hoped for heaven; the sadness of the final line, that Jonson will never again “like too much” – for fear that person will be taken from him by God too.
The Song of the Old Mother
This is almost a modern poem but it is written in a very traditional way. An old woman describes how she must work all day, while youth can just daydream away their time.
Comments: the firs is a metaphor for the old woman‟s life – every
morning she must work hard to coax the previous day‟s fire back into life, but every day “the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold” (line 10) –
like her; the rhyming couplets and the rhythm of each line – with two
clear stresses at the end: “kneel and blow / flicker and glow” lend this poem a musical quality – as if it is indeed a song; the contrast between the luxury of youth: “dream…of ribbons for bosom and head” (lines 5-
6) and the old woman‟s harsh life: “I must scrub…till stars are beginning” makes us feel extra sorry for her.
The Man He Killed