11th Hour Notes: Last Minute Prompts for tomorrow’s Literature Exam (AQA i-GCSE)

This post is intended for my group of year 11s, who are tomorrow sitting the AQA i-GCSE English Literature examination, and need to answer questions on an unseen poem and Sheriff’s play, Journey’s End. If you’re not one of them, but you’re reading: welcome, and I hope this will help you, too!

These notes cannot take the place of the thorough and heartfelt revision which I know you have done – but I hope they will build on it and give you some final thoughts to take with you into the examination.

Share with those for whom you think they may be useful. And, when you’ve read them, remember the much more important things: a good supper and night’s sleep. Both will help you to do better tomorrow.

Apologies for typos: my tiny children are mercilessly attracted to the shiny screen and clicky keyboard…

So, without further ado, here are some notes:

Section a: The Unseen Poem (of doom!)

  • Read the question before you read the poem. Then, read the poem with the question in mind.
  • Highlight words, phrases, and punctuation that you find interesting and that you can relate to the key terms. It does not matter if you don’t understand every image or idea: the trick here is to pick a few that you can say something about.
  • The question often asks you to think about the poet’s thoughts and feeling, and how these are presented to the reader. This means: what is the poet feeling, and how do devices and structure help to emphasise that feeling so that the reader can understand it, and perhaps feel it, too.

Things to comment on:

Linguistic devices: mean the poet’s use of language. Could be some of our old friends alliteration, repetition, triadic structure, similes, metaphors, personification, semantic fields, powerful/emotive language, onomatopoeia… the trick is to look at how that device helps us to feel what the poet is feeling.

Perhaps, the poet is describing their first experience of love, and uses the phrase ‘blood burnt around my heart’. ‘Burnt’ is a powerful verb that suggests heat and flame, so we sense that the poet’s feeling is intense, even painful – which is unexpected, as we don’t associate it with love. In addition, take a look at that alliteration: those ‘b’ sounds mimic a beating heart, but it’s beating fast – and harshly. So, both the alliteration and the emotive language are designed to help us feel the poet’s pain. 

Structural devices: mean the poet’s use of punctuation, sentence lengths, rhyme and stanza size/shape. Again, link these things back to what the poet is thinking or feeling (or whatever the key words happen to be).

Perhaps, the poem about first love has a really tight, closely structured rhyme scheme, with an alternating (ababcdcd) rhyme. You might think, that has nothing to do with the experience of pain that the language and devices are communicating. Think again: perhaps, the poet is so much in pain that he has to bottle everything into that rhyme scheme, or he’ll lose control completely. A lot of his sentences are long, and there’s enjambement (lines running into the next one with no break) about: these contrast the tight rhyming, showing the way that his thoughts and feelings are running away with him.

The examples in these paragraphs are drawn from the poem ‘First Love ‘ – the name of whose poet currently escapes me. John something. Which is bad, because you should refer to writers by surname in essays.

What is key is to make a plan about what you’re going to say and stick to it. Try to comment on a mixture of language and structure features – and then, in your conclusion, take a step back to the bigger picture. What is the poet ultimately trying to get us to understand?

Section b: Journey’s End

Broadly speaking, you may get a character or theme based question.

Character:

You might be given a section of the play with a character in it, or asked about their role in the play as a whole. The key is to move through the play from start to end, picking up key points. Characters will always link to themes (and vice versa). I feel that Mason or Trotter are unlikely to come up, which leaves us with this line-up:

Hibbert:

Introduced as a bit of a weasle and a coward – but the character is a foil to Stanhope, showing us another way that men could cope with the pressures of being in the trenches. His ‘beastly neuralgia’ is never proven or disproven, which makes it hard for us to judge him. Remember that Sheriff himself knew what it was to feel the fear of going into battle and being sent home with war wounds – Hibbert in some ways is a manifestation of this part of Sheriff – especially in his physical confrontation with Stanhope. How are we made to feel about Hibbert? Do we feel he is badly treated by Stanhope, or do we think Stanhope justified in what he does? How do we feel about the fact that he actually does take his part in the final battle (albeit it under duress). Perhaps Sheriff uses this character to make his audience look more kindly on men accussed of ‘cowardice’ (remember that the original audience would have known the war themselves).

Raleigh:

Is defined by his youthful innocence, and offers the audience a way into the story with a ‘clean slate’. He has everything to learn, and so we learn it with him. He is another foil to Stanhope because, when Stanhope joined up, he would have been a lot like Raleigh. So Raleigh enables us to better appreciate what Stanhope has had to do to survive. Even so, Raleigh hero-worships Stanhope, so Sheriff suggests to us that even as a drunkard, Stanhope is to be admired because what  he is doing is serving his country in dire circumstances. Raleigh is also not as class-conscious as the other oficers – he eats with the men, for example- and so offers us another perspective on social hierarchy. Remember to look at his confrontation with Stanhope over the letter and Osborne’s death – and to look at the really poignant imagery we’re left with when the dugout collapses and the candle is extinguished at the end of the play.

Stanhope:

In the style of Shakespearian tragedy, we are introduced to conflicting ideas about Stanhope before he even appears – so he is clearly at the heart of the play in a role that we are meant to question. He is a heroic man doing his duty at the cost of his sanity, or simply as drunk as a fish? Look at his relationship with the others – turbulent with all of them, except ‘Uncle’ Osborne. Look especially at how the stress of command leads him to deal with Hibbert (over the neuralgia) and Raleigh (the letter and Osborne’s death). Sheriff manipulates our response to him throughout the course of the play but leaves us with a really human image of him caring for his dying young friend, and then going out (probably to death) himself.

Osborne:

The father figure of the dug out, and the eldest; he is described as looking as hard as steel, but is gentle-hearted. He shows us another way to cope with the ghastliness of life in the trenches – camaraderie, and reading ‘Alice in Wonderland’. We are certainly meant to like him so that we feel his loss once he is killed in the raid.He is a prop to Stanhope and comfort to Raleigh, but he also shows us how indiscriminate the war is – killing the good with no reason.

The deaths of Raleigh and Osborne show how the war strikes the best of the young and the old, leaving society without father figures or innocence: both are destroyed.

Themes:

Think about:

Trench Life: the food, the lack of correct equipment, Trotter’s circles,  the coping mechanisms of the characters, the kinds of relationships formed (‘Uncle’ Osborne and hero-worshipping Raleigh vs weasly Hibbert, who has to be commanded by force and is desperate to be in with ‘the cool kids’ by trading stories of his success with women), and memories of home. The staging – all ina single place – helps to show the detail and binds usin to the tensioin and boredom.

Social Class: the play focuses on the officers, but there is Mason (comic relief lower-class batman) and mention of the other men (with whom Raleigh eats). Do you think Sheriff is in favour of a rigid class structure, or against it – or simply reflecting what it was like at that time? He was himself an officer. What does the staging – restricted to the officers – help to suggest about his view?

‘The pity of war’: a famous quotation from war poet Wilfred Owen, where he expressed how he wanted his poetry to show the truth about the war, not the patriotic lies. IsSheriff tring to do the same? Think about how he shows us trench life to be boring – but full of tension. Men are killed almost at random – often the best of them. Think about how sound, light and staging are used – especially right at the end  – to make us pity the characters.

General Essay Pointers:

  • Your introduction should be about a sentence, and a reframing of the key words.
  • Aim for 4-6 (or 8, if you’re snappy!) PQA (point-quote-analysis) paragraphs. The weight should be in the analysis – which is where you detail exactly how the linguistic or structural device you’ve identified is being used by the writer to achieve whatever your key words are.
  • Your conclusion – also short – should try to step back a little. What is the writer ultimately trying to tell us about the key words? What us the message to the reader/audience?

Now; breathe deep. You’ve done as much as you can. You are prepared. Eat well, sleep well; tomorrow will see to itself.

Thayer’s 11s: you’ve got this!

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