Sample GCSE English Literature poetry essay

So, what should you write? How should you write? You’ve got 45 minutes to write about two poems, answering a given question, like this one:

Compare how the results of war are shown in Futility and one other poem from Conflict

I start by making sure I’ve written about both language and structure. Usually, I try to make four big points. One of these is usually about structure.

I also try to make sure I keep using the words of the question and make sure that both the beginning of each paragraph and the end of it goes back to the words of the question as well. This makes sure I stay focused on the question. I’m not supposed to just write about the two poems.

I try to focus on the connections, not the differences. Of course the poems are different. Otherwise they’d be the same. Duh! So I start with what they do the same, and then I say how they’re different, so I do both.

I try and write confidently and back up what I say with quotes. Usually, I’ve got the quotes highlighted before I even start.

I make sure I pick another poem that helps me answer the question. I like to compare Futility with The Fallen Leaves or next to of course god america i but it didn’t fit. Neither of those poems are really about the ‘results’ of conflict – whereas Come on, Come back is really about the results – the aftermath

I tried to make sure I had a conclusion that brought everything together and I picked out the four key ideas and rephrased them in my answer.

This is my 45 minutes to show off to the examiner. This is it. My one chance. I need to make sure I have the right vocabulary to express what I think. So I’m going to use words like nihilistic and existence because they’re better than any alternative I’ve come across. I get nothing by dumbing down.

I know the mark scheme inside out. I know what I need to show and I know if I can’t, I can’t get the full range of marks. So, I know I need to explore the poems and analyse the language and/or structure and/or form.

I know I need to use quotes to support my response. And I know I need to pick out the best quotes – something really insightful. If it’s not that important in the poem, why am I including it?

I know I need to write about ideas and/or themes.

I need to compare analytically and compare ideas/themes/language/structure/form.

This is my response:

In Futility and Come on, Come back, we see the results of wars past and wars future. Futility shows how war affects the living, how it makes them contemplate life, how it makes you question everything, particularly existence. In Come on, Come back, we see how war devastates the mind, how it leaves people longing for peace and salvation, even if they can’t remember what it is they have done or seen.

Owen uses the structure of Futility to convey a single event and the subsequent thoughts it evokes. He uses the simple sonnet form to find the essence of what a death brings to him – the feeling of utter pointlessness. Even though it is much more brief than Come on, Come back, he epitomises the feelings of nihilism and emptiness that death can bring. He uses half-rhyme to create a disjointed, unnatural feel that makes the poem feel strange and creates a strange disjointed harmony. It doesn’t quite sound right. This is superbly appropriate for the subject itself. Even though the dead soldier looks as if he is just sleeping, he isn’t. It isn’t quite right. He also builds on the series of questions he asks in the poem to build up to the most profound of all: “Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil/to break earth’s sleep at all?” Here we see how he cannot understand why the universe bothered to raise anything, to build a civilisation, when it is all for nothing. We destroy each other.

Although Come on, Come back is a narrative poem, it still uses the structure to build up to a climax, just as Owen did. The line lengths and the way the lines fall, as well as the odd rhymes of ‘stone’ in the first stanza are also disjointed and fragmented. Thus we see how the poet uses rhythm and rhyme (or half-rhyme in Owen’s case) to create a sense of a fragmented, confused, disharmonious world.

The personas in the two poems are also different: Owen’s is a first-person narrative whereas Come on, Come back is third-person narrative. Owen’s use of a persona is helpful: it is insightful. We get to see into his mind and see his thoughts. This helps us empathise with him and gain an insight into his feeling of utter despair and despondency. In Come on, Come back Stevie Smith writes about ‘Vaudevue’, the ‘girl soldier’. Using this persona is interesting and thought-provoking. A ‘girl soldier’ is something unusual. Women often don’t fight on the front line, as this girl has, mainly because women are seen as not being able to cope with the front line and what they see. We’re instantly thrown into wondering if it’s acceptable for women to see such things, and if it isn’t, is it any better for men to see such things. Not only this, but Smith calls her a ‘girl’ – something more fragile, more innocent than a man. Naming her makes her identifiable. Unlike ‘him’ in Futility, a soldier who could represent anybody, Vaudevue has a name and we see her actions. Both are powerful. One makes us think that the dead soldier could be anybody. It could be our brother, our father, our husband. The other makes it personal. In fact, Owen doesn’t even say that this man is a soldier, or even that he is dead. There are several things we can take from this. One is that he doesn’t even know who the soldier is – which shows us the absolute tragedy of war. This man will not be remembered as an individual. It is not personal. Either we all mourn his death or nobody does, because he is nameless. The other thought is that by keeping the soldier anonymous, Owen is deliberately trying to show that he could be anyone. Both show the effect of war – one by using an anonymous man to show Owen’s own thoughts, therefore the effect on him personally. Smith shows the effect on one individual. Both take one individual and show the consequences of conflict on them – and by seeing one person, we learn about the effects of war on the individual. It becomes more personal.

The effects in both poems seem largely psychological. In Futility, the damage done by conflict is in how it makes Owen question everything: mostly, it makes him question our existence, the whole point of our lives: “was it for this the clay grew tall?” – in this God-forsaken man-made war, he cannot see God, or the point of existence. Science gives him no comfort. Yes, the sun gave conditions on earth the ability to generate life. And that work all seems pointless. It leaves Owen desperate for answers and despondent about life. In Come on, Come back, Vaudevue comes to the same conclusion. She too asks: “Aye me, why am I here?” and although the question is ostensibly about her memory loss, we sense something much deeper. Conflict has left both Vaudevue and Owen with a profound sense of pointlessness.

The war seems to have more of an effect on Vaudevue, however. She doesn’t just stop at questioning her existence. Her next action is to go to a lake. She removes her uniform, ‘lunges’ into the water and lies, ‘weeping’ before letting the ‘waters close over her head’. Here, Smith uses a deep symbolism. We have the symbolism of the water – something that soothes and cleanses. Water purifies. Water is used in many cultures and religions as a way of cleaning yourself. Indeed, in Christianity, water is the symbol of baptism, whereby the holy water washes away sin and leaves you reborn. Yet this water is ‘black’ like her mind. This water does not clean her or wash away her sins. When the ‘enemy soldier’ calls her back and carves out a pipe from the reeds, we get a sense of something more primeval – something pre-Christian, something pagan. This, too, is a Godless world. Without religion, we have no sense of anything after death, so not only do both question their existence, but without the promise of eternal life, life is completely pointless. Vaudevue, even without a memory, is so affected by her ‘black’ mind that she seeks comfort and protection from the water, which envelops her and protects her from the world, just as the lake did with Syrinx when she sought to escape from Pan. She is safe there. War has left her in need of comfort and solace – something she finds only in death. In contrast, in Futility, Owen is left in need of comfort and solace, though this is provoked by death which provides no comfort and solace at all.

Finally, both poets use natural images to show war and the results of it. In Come on, Come back Smith shows that the natural world is left behind once the war passes over. It might be ‘rutted’ but the moonlight, water and meadows remain. Nature is what consoles Vaudevue, giving her sanctuary. We see how, once war has passed, nature is left. It’s almost as if Vaudevue is the last human on earth – apart from the enemy sentinel. Nature softens the wounds that war makes. In Futility, this is different. Nature doesn’t offer consolation or solace or hope or safety; it simply reminds him of the pointlessness of life. The sun, a powerful and evocative image of life, has no power. Unsown fields remind Owen of the wasted potential of the dead soldier’s life. He is reminded that nature is powerless and pointless against war.

In summary, both poets show similar results to war. War destroys the mind, war provokes nihilistic questions about the whole point to life. War reminds us of our pointlessness and the brevity of our lives. Both poems show how war fragments and fractures, its psychological effects. War leaves us questioning life, questioning existence. Whilst nature may be left, this is cold comfort to Owen, although it comforts and protects Vaudevue.

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17 thoughts on “Sample GCSE English Literature poetry essay

  1. Very helpful! May be even more if it comes up in my exam tomorrow?!

    Just out of curiosity, why did you not mention the death of the girl in your answer?

    Thanks again!

    • Are you sure she dies? I’m not. She “sleeps on”, which could be a euphemism for death as it is in the Owen poem, but in a 45 minute essay, you simply don’t have time to write about it all. Not sure what I would say about it either, other than to find it in common with the Owen poem. In my book, I said “whether she’s dead or sleeping, we don’t know”. You could argue that the water is a metaphor for death, but you could equally argue that it is just water. Likewise, you could argue that “sleeping” is a metaphor for death, or that she is just asleep. I don’t like to be definite when the poem is decidedly and purposefully ambiguous. If you have seen ‘Shane’ where Shane rides off, wounded, on horseback, you can see how writers play with us and leave things uncertain. Owen does it, as does she!

      • Thanks! Never thought about it from another view.

        I always assumed she died – “Treacherous undercurrent’, ‘icy-amorous embrace’ and ‘waters which close above her head’.

        I thought that in the last stanza when Smith states “In the swift and subtle current’s close embrace’ he was saying that it’s better to drown than to dye through the use of chemicals.

        I therefore thought it was ironic when he says “Sleeps on, stirs not, hears not the familiar tune” as he’s saying that she’s now safe from the distress she experienced earlier, but dead.

        I also assumed that she died because it’s after “her death” that he stops starting stanzas with verbs.

        But I can now see that it could go either way. I really hope I get to compare this tomorrow!

  2. Don’t forget… Stevie Smith is a woman! I’ve sent an email to the account for this with some stuff for you that you might find interesting. Good luck with the exam

    • I think you can see in each paragraph how I discuss the ‘results’ of war (i.e. the effect, the outcome, the consequences) And the introduction outlines what I think the main results are in each poem, with the conclusion ‘In summary, both poets show similar results to war. War destroys the mind, war provokes nihilistic questions about the whole point to life. War reminds us of our pointlessness and the brevity of our lives. Both poems show how war fragments and fractures, its psychological effects. War leaves us questioning life, questioning existence. Whilst nature may be left, this is cold comfort to Owen, although it comforts and protects Vaudevue.’ taking you through the layers of effects and consequences of war. A result of war is that it makes you question everything, existence even. A result of war is that it leaves psychological consequences. Hope that is a little more clear. Feel free to respond with a genuine email address and I’d be happy to explain further.

      • Once I read the essay over-and-over, I finally got how you ticked the criteria, perfectly. Thank you so much, this essay has been a great inspiration to me – and I needed this — especially since my mock exam is this week. Any more tips?

      • I think you’ve got the right idea – you obviously get that you need a tight focus on the question. Pick poems that give you an easy ride for that question, rather than the ones you understand best. Pick out four things in common. The mark scheme specifically mentions FORM (shape & structure/organisation) and language – many people do not talk about how the form contributes (most have got very fragmented structures except, for example, The Charge of the Light Brigade which has a very regular, rhythm to it – more jingoistic, more like a hymn or a rhyme or a ballad) and then pick out two quotes from each poem to exemplify your points. The best revision is practice. Past questions are a superb source of revision. You will find similar questions and become more confident writing. Any particular poem you are worried about?

    • Hi,
      I’ve sent you an email to the address you used to make this comment… you should find a couple of pages of thoughts about Hawk Roosting. You’re right, of course, that conflict is harder to root out in this poem but there are interesting things in it about nature and about killing which work well with other poems, as well as symbols like the hawk (you’ve got the lions in ‘Next to god’ and ‘Charge’…) and with other poems that aren’t particularly about war, like ‘Futility’ or ‘Falling Leaves’ – often the ‘conflict’ context is not clear and it’s almost like you need telling the poem is about war to know that it is.

  3. Beautiful response, i have my English lit poetry GCSE tomorrow and if this question appears i will be prepared (i wont plagiarize if that even possible).

    Also any additional help would be appreciated as I need all the help i can get especiallly for mametz wood and Charge of the …..

    p.s you are extremely beautiful

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