I wanted to explore what the differences are between the way “normal” people write about poetry without exam training and how we expect our students to respond to poetry in their GCSE English Literature exams.
To find out, I did a bit of an experiment.
It could be a bit nuts as it’s not very sound in terms of linguistic research. However, the dubious results are, I think at least, quite interesting.
What kind of nutter would agree to write an analytical response to poetry in their own time?
To do this, I asked four people to read Shelley’s Ozymandias and Blake’s London. I then provided them with some background reading and links to a number of videos about the language, structure and form of the two poems, though I had obviously selected the sources of information. As far as possible, I wanted to remove myself from the teaching input on the two poems. In particular though I offered them no material linked to how they were to structure their answer to the task.
What are Ozymandias and London in a nutshell?
Two weeks later, I sent the respondents the following question and told them to spend no more than forty five minutes answering it in the way they saw fit.
Compare the ways Shelley and Blake present ideas about power in the poems Ozymandias and London?
The first two writers both have university degrees, so they have a record in academic writing, though only the first has an A-Level in English literature. They both completed their degrees over a decade ago. The second pair don’t have a formal academic background, though they do read regularly and have an extensive vocabulary. All four had been out of formal education for well over ten years and, in the case of the latter pair, over forty years. This all made it likely that they would have a good level of general literacy, but unlikely that any of them would have been explicitly taught a formulaic approach to paragraph writing such as PEE, which became more prevalent after the turn of the millennium. What I really wanted to unpick was whether something like PEE emerged in their writing or whether some other commonalities in structure became apparent.
I’ve typed up all four scripts below for you to examine further if you wish to read them. However, based on this clearly limited sample, here are my hypotheses. These are based on the differences the responses display between each other and the differences between them and the AQA exam board’s only openly accessible exemplar script. Unfortunately, this exemplar script is based on Ozymandias and My Last Duchess but it is the structure more than the content I wish to look at:
- All four responses below include an introduction of some kind. Two of these make a statement of intent. One makes a straightforward comparison of the two poets before launching into some contextual information about Blake. The fourth makes a generalised point about poetry before a linked opinion on these two poems. Only Response 1 uses its introduction to offer a specific direction to the essay as a whole. The exemplar from the board has no sense of introduction beyond a first sentence which makes a link between the kind of power presented in the two poems. The rest of the initial paragraph reads as if it is the first comparative point and focuses on the arrogance of Ozymandias and the Duke. Introductions are rarely done well, in my experience, under exam conditions. I’ve heard a number of people recommend not including any kind of introduction. The theory is that introductions don’t tend to include the kind of content credited most highly by examiners. I want students to do well, but I want them to write academically so I think we need to consider the kind of introduction which could help them to do both.
- Only two of the responses wrap up with a conclusion and, in the case of response two, the style of conclusion suggests it has been included as the writer felt it ought to be there rather than having a clear sense of what a conclusion to a literary response might contain – either that or they’d run out of time. Response four has a sense of an ending as it works through the poems in sequence from stanza one to the final stanza. Again, it would be worth considering whether students ought to include a conclusion and, if so, the kind of conclusive statements which would be most highly credited but also well constructed.
- All four responses, to varying degrees of success, comment on language and structure.
- There is a greater focus on contextual information which is disconnected from the question in responses three and four. In retrospect, there was a disconnect between these two things in the materials I distributed, highlighting a need to ensure that, when we expose students to contextual information, we carefully link it to and interweave it with students understanding of the text itself. Interestingly, there is no social, historical or political contextual details at all in the example offered by AQA. It does cover, however, AO3 in terms of discussing ideas (see here for my take on this). If you’re still teaching context as if this were the old specification, this is worth some really careful consideration.
- Responses three and four also took less notice of the phrase “the ways” in the task, focusing more on context. It’s possible they didn’t fully know what “the ways” tends to mean language form and structure in literary analysis, didn’t realise it was as important as it was or that they took more of an interest in the contextual than the literary content of the materials I shared. These are certainly important to consider.
- Finally, none of the four responses here use a PEE structure or another similar approach. Neither does the AQA exemplar – though it is arguably more formulaic in its style. Despite this, the vast majority of the paragraphs are coherently structured. There is a very strong argument that, instead of teaching students to write formulaic paragraphs which all contain the same ingredients, we should teach the ingredients of a successful whole response to them.
Here are some pretty salty responses to those two poems.
I want to explore how Shelley and Blake present ideas about power through the lens of empowerment. I aim to show that it was Blake’s intention to reveal how disempowered, downtrodden and oppressed the people of London had become at the time he was writing while I believe Shelley was trying to show a more optimistic response to conventional portrayals of power.
Blake’s adoption of more traditional, regimented iambic tetrameter and a regular rhyming scheme lends a physical, concrete and regimented quality to his poem which reinforces the overriding sense that the inhabitants of London are themselves locked into a social hierarchy and an exploitative relationship with institutions: the church’s exploitation of young orphans as chimney sweeps, the monarchy’s exploitation of young men in the military and young women working as prostitutes.
Blake’s use of language throughout the poem seems intended to sadden and leave the audience as miserable and hopeless as the Londoners themselves – there is no anger or call to action – he seems to be painting an image of neglect, hopelessness and apathy.
Whilst there are brief attentions to the major social institutions of the “palace” and “church” his final stanza where he “most” hears the “youthful harlot” is focused on the impact of social breakdown on the institution of marriage and the family itself with the quasi-oxymoronic “marriage hearse.”
Contrast Blake’s dismal presentation of the citizens of London as victims of power with the sculptor in Shelley’s fizzing sonnet, Ozymandias. Here, the king can be interpreted as being the victim of the ravages of time as “the lone and level sands stretch far away” serving (aside from the fragments of the statue) as a sign of just how little of his “works” remain to be looked upon.
In spite of it being a “colossal wreck” the statue does partially remain and this fact, coupled with the mention of the sculptor reading the “sneering,” “frowning,” “cold commanding” “passions” of Ramases II suggests that Shelley feels art, imagination and creativity outlive earthly power which stamps on lifeless things like stone.
In a sense, Shelley is presenting an alternative view of power to the claims made by the arrogant text on the pedestal which we are led to believe are spoken by Ozymandias but which are actually conveyed by Shelley, relating the tale told by the “traveller from an antique land” but originally carved by the sculptor.
To look upon the works of the king is to see almost nothing and therefore realise the irony of the claim. His works have all but been destroyed: all except the limited remains of the statue. And, technically, the works are those of the unnamed sculptor.
In presenting the power which creativity has over traditional concepts of hegemonic power held by tyrants and dominating rulers Shelley is also surely speaking to his own time – much as Blake was. In the context which both poems were written power was in flux across Europe, with the French Revolution causing upheavals and social unrest in many parts of the continent. However, where Shelley appears to see art and truth as a means to answering traditional power dynamics within the social hierarchy, Blake seems to only witness despair, apathy and powerlessness: his men cry, his children cry, his faces are marked with weakness and woe.
Blake does not appear to have any answer to power in this poem. His Londoners are shackled to their fate with “mind-forg’d manacles,” tethering them to existing orthodoxy with no visible means of improving their lot. But, in that crucial time (and, in contrast with Ozymandias demand for those who look upon his works to despair) perhaps Blake’s “manacles” do offer hope of a change to the Londoner’s victimhood. The allusion to the “mind-forg’d” nature of their chains is a suggestion that all that needs to change is their imaginations, beliefs and mindsets for them to see a new way to live, free from the exploitation and misery and tyranny.
Shelley and Blake seem to share a number of the same ideas about power, I feel. Through looking solely at their two poems, London and Ozymandias, I hope to explore some of these similarities and differences below.
To begin with, the poems are written from different perspectives. London is written from Blake’s one point of view as an observer of the impact on the ordinary man of the actions (or failure to act) of those in power. Ozymandias on the other hand is written as if Shelley is recounting a story he was told whilst travelling.
Blake’s point of view as observer puts him close to his subject matter and he uses emotive language to describe the sights, sounds and feelings he experiences. This can be seen in lines such as “cry of fear”, “hapless soldier’s sigh” and “harlot’s curse.”
It could be suggested fact Blake!: decision to write in the first person and be so critical of those in power is somewhat daring or even a dangerous thing to do. In contrast, one could suggest Shelley has been clever by separating himself from being a critic of power by suggesting that he has written a story told by a “traveller from an antique land.”
The criticisms of those in power to which I allude above can be seen in London in the following ways: In the opening stanza, Blake refers to the streets and river being “chartered” or owned and yet the faces of the people he meets display “weakness” and “woe.” The wealthy elite own the city, yet all the other people in it are powerless and sad.
The third stanza stands out as being critical of the church and the monarchy. The first two lines could be interpreted as suggesting religious authorities should be standing up for the chimney sweeps, often child labourers with few rights and terrible working conditions. Whilst the third and fourth lines suggest to me that Blake feels many soldiers are being used as pawns by the monarchy to fight unnecessary wars. The soldiers themselves have little say.
Shelley’s criticism of power can also be said to relate to the church and monarchy but he looks less at the impact on people and more on the futility and brevity is absolute power. The poem tells of the crumbling away of a statue erected by Ozymandias and how nothing remains of his works.
The criticism could be said to be a little more subtle in Ozymandias than in London, but to me it stands out in the negative language used to describe the facial expression of the statue. For example, “wrinkled lip” and “sneer of cold command.” Also in the final description of what is left, “decay”, “colossal wreck” and “boundless and bare.”
I would suggest further subtlety from Shelley in his use of the form of a sonnet. Typically, this is a form used for love poetry. Shelley has subverted this to show his dislike for the monarchy and religion – “King of Kings” being an ironic reference to royalty as well as a biblical term used to refer to Jesus.
Whilst Shelley uses the sonnet, Blake has used a four stanza, four line form with alternating rhyme scheme. It could be suggested this form constrains him somewhat, mirroring the constraint placed on the people within his poem by those in power and echoing the “mind-forg’d manacles he refers to.
Overall then, these are two poems with similar subjects and criticisms of society but written from different perspectives and with different styles.
Blake and Shelley lived at roughly the same time and both were radicals and romantics.
Blake was born into a moderately poor family and was only educated until he was ten years old, subsequently being home educated but later attending the Royal Academy. He became a writer, artist and printmaker, was against organised religion but found the bible an immense source of inspiration. He was heavily influenced by the French Revolution but later moderated his views on it when he saw the violence and bloodshed it engendered. In the first verse of the poem, London, he is decrying the fact that people aren’t free, buildings and streets are “chartered” and therefore owned by the rich. Even the Thames, which should flow freely, is chartered. He is struck by the fact that “every” face he meets is marked (or stained) by weakness or sadness – even saying every three times.
In verse two he is appalled by the plight of the chimney sweeps, children as young as five years old who are sent up chimneys to clean them and often got killed. Blake appears to blame the church for not doing more to save them. He also mentions the “hapless soldiers” who were helpless and had to obey orders. The blood running down palace walls I think is a metaphor linked to the French Revolution where the poverty stricken were trying to overthrow royalty. Blake did not agree with royalty.
He then goes on to London at midnight in verse four. In his eyes it was a blighted place with young prostitutes affected by syphilis infecting their children and clients causing blindness and other symptoms being passed on to the innocent wives of their clients. Blake was not a fan of the way marriage worked in his lifetime. He thought of it as a form of slavery although he himself seemed to have a relatively happy marriage.
Shelley was also a radical and romantic, though he was born into a wealthier family. His father was a peer and also an MP. Shelley would have been heir to both these things had he not been disinherited due to his elopement at the age of 19. He had an unconventional love life, losing his first wife possibly to suicide and his two children died in infancy. He travelled Europe extensively. Some of Shelley’s writing was quite radical and influenced Marx and Tolstoy.
Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, is about the pharaoh Ramases II. For some reason, Shelley has given him his Greek name. He is trying to tell us that power doesn’t last, especially when it is despotic. He describes to us what he has been told by the traveler from the ancient land about a very large, ruined statue which is in pieces and covered in sand. It is a statue of Ramases, king of kings, who obviously has a very high opinion of himself as he declared “look on my works ye mighty and despair.” He is described as having a “sneer” and a “frown” so is obviously a very arrogant king but, as Shelley tries to tell us, nothing lasts for ever, life moves on and Ozymandias’ statue is now covered in sand, obliterated. Unfortunately, Shelley was wrong as many of Ramases’ colossal works are still standing today.
Overall, Shelley and Blake have very similar views on power, though they present them in different ways. Blake’s ideas are presented in a woeful way, decrying the way people are downtrodden and kept in poverty by those who chartered everything and Shelley is pleased by how the mighty have fallen. Strangely, neither were famous during their own lifetime, only becoming well known after their deaths.
All poetry is intended to be read aloud and both poems have some very powerful sounds, both in the words used and the consonants in those words.
When examining poems by different poets, the context in which they were written is important. These poems were both written at a time when the country was in turmoil, undergoing many wars. All such wars are costly and those that paid were mainly the poor who were paid a pittance while the rich got richer.
Shelley was one of the privileged, coming from an MP’s family and likely to follow in his father’s footsteps. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he had a bright future, but he was a rebel. He became a staunch atheist and wrote papers, distributing them to all the bishops of the church. He ran away at 16 to get married to his first wife, but a few years later, ran off with Mary Wollstonecraft. Soon after his first wife was found drowned, he married her and she later went on to write Frankenstein.
Shelley was one of the romantics. He was not well-known during his own lifetime (short lived as he died at 29).
In writing Ozymandias, he can be seen to be being critical of those in power, but was clever to distance himself from the criticism by employing the trick of saying, “I met a traveller in an antique land Who said” and thus he goes on to narrate what he was told. Could that person have been the Egyptologist, William Banks from Kingston Lacey?
The poem is written in an old sonnet form with the first octet of eight lines and a sestet for the last six. What he says about power in the first part is to look upon what has been a powerful Egyptian regime, possibly ruling at the time of Moses! Clearly the Pharaoh Ramases II, also known as Ozymandias, had been a very powerful man in his own time and the artist who sculpted the face showed the “sneer of cold command” which, in allowing the erection of the monument, overlooked the fact that maybe a sculptor foresaw that ultimately a desert devours everything, including monuments and particularly arrogant kings and powerful states.
In the sestet, we wonder if Shelley is also being critical of the church as “king of kings” is an expression appearing in the bible, referring to God. Is he saying that the church should look out for and take a more caring attitude to these less powerful people?
William Blake was a well known and respected figure who made money from his published work, including not only poetry but also art. Again, London was written at the time of the French Revolution when a lot of blood flowed – but whose blood, the poor soldier used as mere canon fodder?
This poem is written in a different rhyming style, but is equally powerful when read aloud.
Blake is commenting on the state of the world around him – a state where the huge bulk of property and wealth is vested in a tiny minority (nothing changes!) whilst the workers are languishing in poverty. He paints a picture where even the River Thames and the highways are owned or “chartered.” The people are mere slaves. The poor, tiny children are used as chimney sweeps who sometimes got stuck and would die screaming all because child Labour was cheaper than brushes.
The repetition in stanza 2 reinforces the power exercised over those poor wretches. “Every ban” means every law preventing something through the invisible “mind-forg’d manacles” which chain people like slaves. He has a swipe at the church which looks on at all the squalor and poverty but walks on by, having allowed itself to be blacken’d by the factories. He also takes a swipe at the seeing perhaps the need for a revolution having seen blood run down the palace walls.
The last stanza condemns the state of marriage. The men go off to enjoy the prostitutes but then bring venereal diseases to their wives, causing them either to be barren or to suffer appalling illness or death in the last line “plagues the marriage hearse” – a hearse being a vehicle used at a funeral to carry a coffin rather than at a wedding to carry a bride.