This is a model response for Edexcel IGCSE Elit paper 1 – the unseen poem. Whilst it is designed for my students in Harrow, the writing is not board specific and I would suggest that all might use it to good effect. I present my thought process in italics and the model writing in plain text.
Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
their heads lower.
Stay, I said to the spider,
embarrassed for me and itself.
Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.
Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.
Stay, I said to my loves.
There are a number of ways I approach unseens. In this case I will be mindful to focus on Language, Structure and Form in my response. I foreground structure and form in the intro to allow an examiner to see this and , hopefully, to be positively disposed to the writing as soon as they begin to read.
Jane Hirshfield’s The Promise is a free verse poem in 6 stanzas. Each stanza seems to have a different focus to the preceding one and all examine the idea of change and disappointment. Being in Free Verse, Hirshfield can place words with a freedom drawn from not needing to follow a set rhyme scheme or rhythmic tread – possibly the best example of this freedom comes in the last line of the poem – the single word ‘always’ which is italicised for effect and which will be discussed later in the essay.
In the first stanza, she is considering ‘cut flowers’. The verb ‘cut’ being important because these are not flowers in nature, but ones which humans have cut – in essence killed – in order to beautify their home. She begs them to ‘stay’ and this is the first of the anaphoric repetition of this imperative which opens each stanza. Here the caesura which follows serves to emphasise not just the command, but also the infinitesimal pause which follows as she waits to see if her order is obeyed. As the flowers die they ‘bow their heads’ almost as a mark of respect for their conqueror, though they are also seen as weakening at the same time.
After the flowers in her vase, she turns her attention to a spider. Free verse allows her to utilise a very short stanza to reflect the speed with which the spider, full of fear, ‘fled’ from her. Although I have not said much here, I have reinforced my awareness of the effect of freeverse, and, more importantly, offered a reason for the shortness of the stanza. It is never enough simply to comment on the existence of an effect – it is assumed that candidates can read!
As she looks at nature and notices the change in seasons she calls on the leaves to stay – as though to prolong the time before winter arrives. In this stanza, the command is followed by a rather abrupt tone as ‘leaf’ is addressed and the line ended with a full stop. It is as though the persona expects to be able to control this single fragile entity. The leaf is personified as blushing both ‘for me and itself’. It is as though the embarrassment is shared – the tree is able to notice the foolishness of the human response to wish to hold back the changing of the seasons. Hirshfield does not quite see this yet.
As the stanzas increase in length, we have a sense of a slower and longer contemplation by the poet. As she looks at her aging body, she likens it to a dog – a faithful friend, but one who is naturally shorter lived than she and which will, therefore begin to lose strength before she would like. This time there is a full stop at the end of the first line of the stanza, suggesting the importance of the idea to her. She will pause and wait to see what happens. Just like the dog in the metaphor, her body is ‘obedient’ to her wishes for a moment until it begins to age as time passes and begins to ‘tremble’ – implying both weakness and possibly fear of the aging process.
The longest stanza of the poem introduces the focus on the most aged and the slowest process being observed: nature and the environment around her. She still begs the natural world to ‘stay’ and in a fluid stanza marked by enjambment in lines 1 and 5 she shows us the nature she wishes to keep – the words are polysyllabic and alliteration is used first of r,v,m to suggest the softness of the valley landscapes, the beauty of which is suggested by the poetic adjective ‘riverine’, before she explores the harsher world of the ‘fossilised escarpments’ in which the harsher c,p,t alliteration reflects the more permanent rocky world described. She concludes with the solidity of the base rock itself -the limestone and sandstone building blocks of all nature. Her plea seems to be somehow to stop the spoiling of the natural environment, though this is not the poem to offer critique of how the human interaction with the natural world may be to blame.
Having shown her impotence to stop the natural world from moving away from the human, she turns the poem to a personal focus on stanza 6 and the central idea of the poem is revealed – she is contrasting nature and love. The first will always leave and makes no pretence otherwise. It is love which makes the false promise. The key may be the plural form ‘loves’. It is because ‘each’ different love can answer ‘always‘ that Hirshfield italicises the word. The italics suggest both a form of speechmarking, and also serves to flag the ironic tone in which the word is being used here. The point is clear – it is human love which fails to keep promises. Nature has no choice but to revolve in its never ending cycle.
It is love which disappoints.