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Unseen Poetry - Unlocking the Mystery

May 5, 2016

Leaving Cert English: Unseen Poetry. Unlocking the Mystery

Get to grips with unseen poetry

Very often the unseen poem seems to be a mystery to students, who dread the thought of trying to analyse a poem and respond to it, when they have only just read it for the first time and they don’t have the comfort of a good set of notes (like ours) or Wi-Fi! Let me reassure you, like every question there are a few little techniques that will make you wonder what you were ever worried about.

Firstly, the purpose of this question is for you to show the examiner that over all the years you have been studying English poetry you have learned the basic skills and poetic techniques a poet uses. You should be able to:


  • Identify these poetic techniques (basically the poet’s style) and give your opinion on them.
  • Identify the theme of the poem  and give your opinion on it
  • Identify the tone of the poem and give your opinion on it
  • Engage with poem, offer a personal response 

As further reassurance, you will be very relieved to hear that the examiners are kind and tend to ask the same type of question every year. Looking back over the questions that have been asked since 2007, they can be divided into the following categories:

  • Comment on how the poet captures his/her emotions in the poem – What poetic techniques/ images/metaphors/similes does the poet use to reveal their emotions?
  • Give your personal response to the poem or a line in the poem/How did the poem impact on you – It is often a good idea to make a quick note of your first impression on reading the poem. For example, what did you think of it, did it remind you of a similar time in your life? What did it make you think of? What is it about the particular line you have chosen that drew you to it? Was it the language/the image/poetic technique/sound?
  • Give your impression of an aspect of the theme of the poem. Consider the poet’s choice of theme and how it is developed throughout the poem. Trace its development and consider where there is further detail or change in the theme. Comment on the effect of this. What did you think of this type of approach by the poet?
  • Comment on an image that appealed to you – Look at the language the poet has used, choose a line that particularly stands out for you- maybe it has striking use of a simile/metaphor/vivid imagery or indeed maybe it really reminds you of something in your life.
  • Comment on the poet’s use of language – Here you need to firstly identify the poetic techniques the poet has used and then offer your opinion on them. You will need to comment on imagery/alliteration/ assonance/drama/irony/metaphor/onomatopoeia/ personification/simile/tone/rhythm etc.
  • Comment on your understanding of the title of the poem – is there an obvious link to the theme? Is it a play on words or is it something completely at odds with the poem when taken at first glance?

Finally remember overall, that this is YOUR opinion. There really is no wrong answer once it has plenty of support and reference to the poem! As always it is important take a look at what the Chief Examiner has to say about the unseen poetry question and the advice he has for students.

  • “Most answers engaged well and used apt illustration effectively. However, specific reference was often absent in less successful responses”. 
  • Successful answers must be specific in their responses. In other words, be clear and specific with your explanations with clear reference or quotation to support your point.
  • Although candidates found it easy to select an interesting line or phrase, some had difficulty in justifying their choice.”

You must always explain, give reasons for your choices.

  • "In responding to poetry questions, students should consider the poet’s style (‘how’ the poem is written) as well as the interpretation of his/her subject matter (‘what’ is being addressed)”
  • "While the majority of answers engaged with the text in a positive way, some merely paraphrased the poem or offered undeveloped responses. “

Show off your knowledge of poetry. Over the last 5 or 6 years you have learned about poetic techniques and style, weave this into your answer - do not simply offer an explanation of the unseen poem! 

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