Here’s a sample essay for Edexcel GCSE English Literature (Paper 2) – demonstrating a comparison between “Cousin Kate” by Christina Rosetti and “Poison Tree” by William Blake. These poems are both from the Edexcel GCSE Conflict anthology.
Have a read through this, and pretend you are marking the exam. What would you change about the essay and why? Have I met all the key marking criteria – and do you know what this is!?
Remember, you’ll have 35 minutes in the real thing – so why not have a go yourself, and write a comparison of another two poems in your anthology? But in the meantime, let’s get some inspiration…
Re-read “Cousin Kate”. Choose one other poem from the Conflict anthology.
Compare how difficult emotions are presented in the two poems.
In your answer, you should consider the:
poets’ use of language, form and structure (AO2)
influence of the contexts in which the poems were written (AO3)
In both Cousin Kate by Christina Rosetti and Poison Tree by William Blake, the poets present the destructive force of negative emotions and injustice in society. Whilst the two poems are contrastingly written from male and female perspectives, they both utilise conventional poetic forms and present narrators striving to regain personal agency and power (with varying degrees of success!).
The regular form and rhyme scheme of both poems (Blake using four quatrains formed of rhyming couplets and Rosetti utilising a traditional ballad form with an ABAB rhyme scheme) provides an outward illusion of regularity and control. Whilst these accessible forms allowed both poets to reach a wider audience with their didactic messages of social reform, they hide the deeply subversive actions of their narrators. Whilst Blake presents the shocking fact that his narrator is “glad” his foe has been poisoned, Rosetti’s narrator is similarly triumphant in her defeat of Cousin Kate; a family member she may have been expected to support in her marriage.
In both poems the volta comes early. In a Poison Tree, this comes after the first two lines when the focus switches from anger between friends to anger between enemies (“I told it not, my wrath did grow”). In Cousin Kate, the volta comes after the second stanza where the narrator’s focus shifts from her own treatment to Cousin Kate who had “grew more fair than I”. After this point, both poems deal with the jealousy and anger experienced by each narrator. Blake was a well known social reformer, and the ambiguous reference to “foe” (the reader never finds out the cause of the disagreement) could perhaps refer to the necessity of open communication to avoid anger and violence within society.
Despite the similarity of both poems depicting the destructive potential of unchecked anger – Rosetti’s narrator arguably has much more to be “angry” about. Rosetti’s own charitable work with “fallen women” at the St Mary Magdalene House of Charity informed her interest in women looked-down upon by Victorian Society. These were often prostitutes and single women with little power and agency in society. Indeed, she only utilises active verbs to describe the male character. The great lord “wore me”, “changed me” (with similes comparing her to inanimate knots and easily disposable gloves) and then “watched” and “lifted” fair Cousin Kate once he tired of the narrator. The narrator (just like Victorian women in a patriarchal society) was powerless to reject his advances which have now made her an “unclean thing” in the eyes of society.
Whilst the nobleman stole the woman’s potential to have remained an innocent “dove” – Blake’s antagonist also attempts to steal from the narrator. Even though he “knew that it was mine”, he tries to steal the “apple bright” from the narrator’s garden. The image of the apple is an allusion to the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – destroying their innocence and bringing sin into the world. Despite these negative religious connotations, it also represents the moment of triumph for the narrator, who had been obsessively growing this trap (and “sunned it with smiles” and “soft deceitful wiles”) to entice his foe. The sibilance of “sunned it with smiles” enhances the threatening tone, leaving the reader in little doubt that the foe “outstretched beneath the tree” has met an untimely end.
Just as Blake’s narrator enjoyed ultimate triumph over their enemy, Rosetti’s narrator also revels a strange “revenge” on Cousin Kate and the Great Lord. With the alliterative phrase “I’ve a gift you have not got, and seem not like to get” she introduces her son (likely begot from the Lord himself). The juxtaposition of “my shame, my pride” reflects the opinions of society more generally (shame at a child born out of wedlock), as well as the woman’s personal love for her child. A legitimate son is what the man deeply desires – and would “give lands” for one to “wear his coronet”. It becomes the only thing the female narrator has the power to keep from him.
In conclusion, both Cousin Kate by Christina Rosetti and Poison Tree by William Blake…
How would you conclude this essay!? Remember to make sure this matches both your introduction and the things you’ve talked about during the essay as a whole. How are they similar, and how are they different? Have a go at writing a few sentences to summarise the key points – and good luck! 😊
Edexcel Mark Scheme: Level 5
N.B. If you struggled with knowing what to mark in the essay – here’s the things Edexcel say you’ll need for top marks:
The writing is informed by perceptive comparisons and contrasts, with a varied and comprehensive range of similarities and/or differences between the poems considered.
There is perceptive grasp of form and structure and their effect.
The response offers a cohesive evaluation of the poets’ language and its effect on the reader.
Relevant subject terminology is integrated and precise.
There is excellent understanding of context, and convincing understanding of the relationship between poems and context is integrated into the response.