Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012

A Message For Leaving Cert Students | Jamie Tuohy

The French called it D Day. The historic afternoon when the Allies pushed the Germans back into the beaches of Normandy. The Irish call it Leaving Cert Results day. No doubt the night before the 1944 invasion, there was meticulous planning and a few restless heads. Similarly, the night before the Leaving Certificate results are released, thousands of students around Ireland will be ferociously planning their immediate futures and instead of whole armies being pushed back, it will be the bed covers of the 55,000 sleepless students that will be shoved, tossed and quite possibly propelled into the air. It’s hard to convince a Leaving Cert student that the exam which is prophesised to be the pinnacle of their secondary school experience isn’t as important as that June 6 invasion which took place some sixty-eight years ago.

When you’re told that the Leaving Cert is the most significant exam you will ever do, that it’s imperative to do well in it and that it will define your future, it’s easy to become wrapped up in the vicious points system and consume yourself with dread and fear. Yes, today, tonight, tomorrow and possibly for the next few weeks, it probably will be the most important thing in your life, as the anxious wait for CAO offers begins, but in truth, it quickly becomes blasted into insignificance. If only I could have told myself this last year – as I spent the eve of results working myself up into frenzied and unnecessary trepidation!

Some genius will get 600+ points and there’ll be a momentary fuss, a congratulatory declaration or two, but once the hysteria dies down, no one will care anymore. This isn’t being blunt, being insensitive or knocking the student who studied for hours on end to get the maximum points possible. It’s just being truthful. When you get 600 or 300, once the Leaving Cert is over and you proceed with your chosen path, be it, employment or further education, there will be very few conversations about how many points you got. Sure, they will determine what course you will get, but once you’re in college, it’s every man for himself. Nobody cares if you got 560 in your Leaving Cert and you find it an unacceptable travesty that the lecturer gave you 40% in your first exam. The Leaving Cert isn’t a true measure of intellect. For the most part, it’s about rote learning, it impinges upon students’ creativity and ignores a number of important factors.

Undoubtedly, there will be familiar scenes tomorrow. Some students will be delighted with their results, confident in the belief that they’ll be offered their first choice on the CAO form. Others will be disappointed, knowing that they haven’t earned enough points. It’s vicious, it’s unfair and it’s demeaning. But it’s life. Success and failure have always co-existed together and even though you do your best, it’s not always that easy to fall into the category of the former. It’s easy for me to type this and tell everyone not to worry. I’m entering my second year at Trinity, doing a course I love, but it’s so true that the Leaving Cert is simply an avenue – nothing more, nothing less. Not one person in college has ever asked me what I got in my Leaving Cert. Nobody has asked me if this course was my first choice. It’s because it doesn’t matter. There are many roads to take and the Leaving Cert certainly isn’t the only vehicle to travel in.

If somebody told me this last year, providing of course, I allowed them to enter my ‘pre-Leaving Cert’ space (yes, I was a freak), I would have probably nodded in agreement, but still only half-heartedly believed them. I was obsessed with getting the results. I even said that if I didn’t get an A1 in English, I would repeat, regardless of how many points I got. Thankfully, I didn’t have to repeat, but the scary thing is that I would have – without a second thought. This is what the Leaving Cert does to students – the stress, pressure and foreboding turns students into illogical beings who speak in nonsensical utterances.

To be honest, I’m more stressed about finding accommodation for second- year than I ever was awaiting my Leaving Cert results, so you can imagine the inane vociferations, but that too will be fine, eventually. You will all have been told to stay calm, cool and collected, so I’m not going to follow suit with patronising statements of the obvious. But believe me, the Leaving Cert results are not something that you should be ‘freaking out over’. In the grand scheme of things, they matter very little. Nobody has ever asked Katie Taylor or Bertie Ahern how they did in the Leaving Cert, although in the case of the latter, it might not have been a bad idea.

Best of Luck everyone!!!

Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Paper 1

Study tips and Paper 1 pointers – Jamie Tuohy

These tips really are last minute – I’ve been working all day so I didn’t get the chance to post them as early as I had hoped. Here are some Paper 1 pointers to get you through tomorrow’s exam.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the infamous Leaving Certificate – the bane of every student’s existence and the culmination of five and sometimes six years of secondary school. Parents will undoubtedly have told you to get a good night’s sleep before each exam, but if we’re being completely honest, this rarely happens. Stress sets in, panic commences and late night study sessions will be more ubiquitous on the night before the Leaving Cert than the endless amount of tireless children who shuffle in sleepy expectation for their toys on Christmas Eve. Personally, my most productive study was done at 1 or 2 in the morning, surrounded by copious amounts of caffeine and innumerable batches of notes. I’ve always been a night owl, so I was able to stay up late and study into the early hours and still have a relatively fresh mind for the exam. Admittedly, I did this for the entire Leaving Certificate, ignoring repeated protestations from my parents to ‘give your brain a rest’. The MOST IMPORTANT thing is to find what works for you. If you know you can handle late nights and still be fresh for exams, then do it – it’s only for two weeks and if you know it will work, then it’s worth it. However, if your concentration levels are going to be thwarted by a lack of sleep, then any late-night cramming session will just be futile when you begin the exam. My method is one which is undoubtedly shared by countless students around the country, but it’s also one which is prophesised to be detrimental by teachers and parents alike. I’m not telling anyone to ignore the advice of your teacher, but if something works for you – then roll with it, but never sacrifice a good night’s rest, if you know what you’re studying will be forgotten in the morning. Here are some general tips and English Paper 1 pointers that will hopefully ease the stress and help to focus that last minute study.

General Exam Advice:


  • From English to chemistry, your highlighter will be your best friend in the exam. It’s a generic tip, but it really does help to direct your attention towards answering the question with more specificity.
  • Ignore everyone! These exams are all about you! They are not about your teacher, your parents, or your friends. Don’t worry about the student who apparently ‘aced that paper’. Forget about friends who have supposedly studied more than you. You are well prepared for the exam and you’re not in competition with anybody.
  • Focus on one exam at a time. The worst thing you can do is to start thinking about the amount of study you have to do for economics, whilst you’re in the middle of studying English. Focus on the subject at hand and deal with the other ones as and when they come.
  • Likewise, once you’ve finished an exam, forget about it and move onto the next one. Don’t waste time thinking about how you could have answered something differently. It’s over and there’s nothing you can do about it. Time to concentrate on maximising your grade in the next exam.
  • Treat it is as just another test. The Leaving Cert dominates Irish academia, inducing fear into its unsuspecting victims. By removing or ignoring its ‘regality’ and treating it as a ‘commoner’, you’ll become more relaxed about the whole process and consequently more confident. You’ll have seen many of the questions before, so think of it as ‘just another class test’.

Paper 1

What Everyone Knows but Often Forget:


  • Read the THEME of the paper.
  • Read all the texts carefully.
  • Look at QUESTION B FIRST and choose the one that best suits you.
  • Answer on ANOTHER text for question A.

English Paper 1 is one of those funny old papers, isn’t it? One day you can get an A1 in it and the next day, due to awkward texts or tricky essay topics, you can come out with a B3? It’s also one of the papers on the Leaving Cert that is infamously ignored and this is one of the main reasons for fluctuating grades. By now, you will have fine-tuned your weak points and hopefully ironed them out, but if you’re still finding tricky areas in Paper 1, I’ve got some pointers to help you before tomorrow’s exam.

The Comprehension: Question A

  • Before you read the text, highlight the questions. Then as you begin to read the text, you’ll read it from the perspective of answering a question and focus on the important parts of the passage.
  • This question is testing your ability to read the text in a comprehensive manner and elucidate on its content.
  • The important thing with this question is to show some evidence of ANALYSIS.
  • Don’t just answer the question by quoting from the passage and leaving it at that – tell the examiner what you think the quote represents, or possibly relate it to personal experience. It’s so important to show the examiner that you possess the ability for CRITICAL THINKING.
  • The questions are usually straight forward, but there is usually one question students seem to struggle with and that is the ‘style’ question.
  • There really is no need to get bogged down in this question, as practically everything from paragraph structure and language techniques to quotes and italics can be used as style exemplars.

Here is an example of how to answer a question on ‘style’, which I’ve answered from 2008’s Paper 1: Question A: Text 1: q2. Doing a question is the best way to demonstrate how broad the ‘style’ category can be!


Comment on THREE features of the style of writing which contribute to making this an interesting and informative text. Refer to the text to support your answer.

This passage is an extremely well written piece which flows very cleverly to make an interesting and informative read. Jon Savage uses various style techniques to enhance not only the quality of the piece, but to make the piece accessible to the reader.

Savage follows a chronological structure throughout the passage. He is arguing that “teenage culture is not a modern phenomenon” and he does this by charting the rise of teenage culture throughout history, from its origins in 19th century America and its appearance in Victorian literature right through to the “Roaring Twenties” and the Second World War. At each juncture, Savage comments on how teenage culture was ever present and ever evolving, stating that the twenties introduced “an international party scene” which comprised of “bright young people” and explains how this then manifested itself in popular culture in 1944’s Seventeen magazine.

Savage doesn’t make his argument; merely based on his own observations. He uses historical references and quotes experts in the field to elucidate and exemplify his argument. He draws on the work of American social psychologist G. Stanley Hall, as he was the person who developed the term “adolescence” and stated that it was the beginning of a new generation, in which teenagers should be treated with “sympathy, appreciation and respect”. This is a clever style technique which grabs the reader’s attention and expounds the author’s argument.

Finally, Savage uses description to great effect in this passage, creating vivid and lively images of teenage culture. When describing the “decade of the Roaring Twenties”, he writes of the female swing fans “with their sporty outfits and dance-ready shoes, screamed en masse for Frank Sinatra and laid the groundwork for gyrating rock’n’rollers, Elvis Presley fans and “Beatlemania”.” The clear description of the hysterical young girls becomes the embodiment of the decade’s carefree nonchalance and is extremely evocative and sensual.

In this passage, Jon Savage’s clever stylistic features illustrate the author’s message and also make the piece interesting and informative to read.

My Top Tips for Question B:


  • Draw on the information provided by the passages of Question A. Borrow style techniques, puns or paragraph structure. By doing this, you’re immediately showing the examiner that you’re a conscientious candidate who has read the paper and has made clever use of what they’ve read. Obviously, don’t do this too heavily – originality is important.
  • Stick to the topic and mode religiously. If you’re writing a diary entry about your fears, then don’t deviate from it. Be conscious of your audience at all times and use the appropriate language.


The Composition:


Worth a whopping 100 marks, the composition is Paper 1’s most important question and if it’s an A1 you’re chasing, doing well in this question is imperative. By now, everyone will have chosen their mode, so there’s no point advising anyone on how to construct each answer, but there are tips which can help maximise your marks in whatever question you’ve decided to answer on:

  • Never hold back! If you’re writing a personal essay, then be as personal as you can be. Genuine, heartfelt honesty, which has been well written, will impress the examiner endlessly. It should be as real as possible, so don’t feel self-conscious when writing or referencing your own personal experiences.
  • Try to include the theme of the paper into the essay. I chose the short story option for my own Leaving Cert and found that employing the theme of the paper in my own story was not only a way to create inspiration for myself, but also a way of showing the examiner that you’re clever enough to incorporate different elements into your story.
  • Pay attention to your grammar and phraseology. This question is all about your craft as a writer, so you want to show the examiner that you’re a capable and intelligent candidate. Your topic or subject doesn’t have to be particularly awe inspiring, but the way in which you present it should grab the reader’s attention. When I was writing, I NEVER had too many characters or elaborate plots. Instead, I focused on language and drew on the character’s emotions, rather than sensationalising their surroundings.
  • This applies to everything from the short story to the debate. If you’re talking about something as boring as ‘canteen food’, it will be your references and appropriate statistics that will impress the examiner. Of course, WHAT you write about is important, but HOW you write about it; is the thing that really impresses the examiner.

Good Luck!

Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

Images of Disease in Hamlet – Jamie Tuohy

Took 20 mins out of exam study to make some quick notes for all you Leaving Certers worried about the tricky question of ‘disease in Hamlet’:
  • There are a considerable number of images of sickness and disease in Hamlet describing the unwholesome condition of Denmark morally.
  • This image of the Danish court dominates the play.
  • Associated with this are images of poison and decay.
  • All these related images form a powerful, imaginative pattern, contributing to the mood and atmosphere of the play and reinforce its central themes.
  • The Ghost’s description of Old Hamlet’s murder is presented in language associated with disease (poison).
  • The murder is not enacted but we are very aware of the distasteful nature of the crime. The poison used by Claudius is a ‘leprous distillment’ which causes disease, and a ‘vile and loathesome crust’ of scabs to cover the body of its victim.
  • The corruption of Denmark and its people is seen as insidious poisoning.
  • Marcellus says “there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”. 
  • Poisoning is not just something described by the Ghost and featured in the imagery – it recurs in the Dumb-Show and is the means by which all the major characters die/
  • The imagery of corruption, sickness and decay, is often a reflection of Hamlet’s darker moods, as for example, in his first soliloquy, with its emphasis on the ‘sullied flesh’ and on the world as an ‘unweeded garden’ infested with all things ‘rank and ‘gross’.
  • He regards his mother’s sin as a ‘blister’ on the ‘fair forehead of an innocent love’. 
  • He sees Claudius as a ‘mildewed ear’ – blasting his ‘wholesome brother’.
  • He tells Gertrude that if she refuses to face up to her guilt, she will be like somebody trying to find a cure for an ulcer and by covering it with useless ointment, while “rank corruption mining all within/infects unseen”.
  • He compares the war between Norway and Poland to a kind of tumour, which grows out of too much wealth and he thinks of his decision to spare the life of a praying Claudius and his mother’s part i it, as the ultimate sources of the poison and rottenness which threaten the well-being of Denmark.
  • On the other hand, Claudius thinks that Hamlet is the source of Denmark’s decay.
  • After the death of Polonius, he compares his lateness in having Hamlet locked up, to “a foul disease”, who permits it to undermine his life. “Diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved or not at all”.
  • He says to Laertes of Hamlet’s return “but to the quick of the ulcer/Hamlet comes back”.
  • As well as emphasising the imaginative effect of imagery of sickness, disease and poisoning, we should include other influences which help to counterbalance the sense of decay and corruption induced by the reflections of Claudius and Hamlet.
  • The atmosphere of the play is not entirely one of gloom an ugliness.
  • Hamlet is a rich and varied play, encompassing many moods and many contrasting strands of imagery.
  • Against the morbid atmosphere evoked by numerous reference to rottenness and corruption, exists the lyrical beauty of Hamlet’s description of the morning dressed in a russet mantle, Marcellus’ splendid lines on Christmas tide, the associations of grandeur and magnificence called up by Hamlet’s ample classical imagery and Gertrude’s delicate and elegiacal account of Ophelia’s death. 


Good Luck,


Guest Leaving Cert Bloggers

How to Achieve Top Marks in the Craft Exam for Leaving Cert Art with Alison Bryan

ImageHey everyone,

This is my first guest blog post (I hope it won’t be the last) on the Leaving Cert. Today’s post is on the CRAFT EXAM for ART and here, Alison Bryan has given her top tips for fulfilling your potential when it comes to this 5 hour exam.

Alison describes herself as “an English student who probably should have listened to everyone else and stuck with art but was too lazy to create a portfolio”. Well, portfolio or no portfolio, these tips are invaluable and are coming from a top former Leaving Cert Art student:

With the ever looming doom of the five hour craft exam it’s always handy to have some tips on how to make those five long hours fly by in the most productive of ways. Although five hours seems like a lot of time, in art exam terms it’s practically nothing. With regard to the craft exam, in particular the calligraphy and graphic questions, there are a number of essential things you can do as prep work which will help you to no end.

  • Make sure to disguise elements of your finished piece on your prep sheet. Although you’re not allowed to have the finished piece or, in many cases, the main factor of your piece on the prep sheet, you should have drawings and research which aid you for when you’re in the exam. If you’re drawing a vase, pick vases with similar aspects to the final one you have chosen to go on your prep sheet. Not only will this be practice for the exam (drawing similar shapes and patterns) but if you get stuck in the exam you can always look back on it.
  • Practice practice practice! You’re probably sick of hearing this by now but you DO need to practice your finished piece at least once full size. It’ll be impossible to make the most of your time in the exam if you have no idea where your image is going in relation to your lettering. Measurements are your best friends here. I found that measuring out every aspect of the piece in relation to the border really helps, especially if you have awkwardly placed lettering. Having a rough idea of the measurements means that if you plan it on your pre-lim as you’ve practiced, it will be so much easier to make sure you have it perfect for your piece.
  • Put some effort into your pre-lim. I know it’s only worth about ten marks, but if you have a solid pre-lim you’ll already have half the work done when it comes to planning where everything goes on your final piece. Don’t spend forever and it’s fine to make adjustments on your final piece, but it’s great to have a proper complete visual aid to make sure you’re on the right track.
  • Don’t panic. If something goes wrong there is a way to fix it. Remember while you’re drawing to step back from time to time to make sure your piece looks the way you want it to. Don’t rush and end up making a mistake which you can’t fix. If you do make an error, take a moment to figure out how to fix the rest of the piece in relation to the error so it still looks good. This is another reason why you should make sure your pre-lim is up to scratch. If there’s a paint spill or spelling mistake the pre-lim will show the examiner that you do know what you’re doing and that whatever went wrong is just due to nerves or a bad day. They want to give you the points you’re working so hard for. So you might as well show them what you got as much as you can.
  • Have the right equipment. There is nothing worse than showing up on the day with cartridge paper instead of watercolour paper. Although you don’t want to spend a lot of money on this and the final result is due to what you’ve created, the examiner does consider all of your prep work which is obvious once they’ve looked at your piece. Spend about half an hour the night before checking you’ve the right pencils, paintbrushes and whatever media you might need. A sharpener and eraser are your best friends right now so you don’t want to be missing them. The aim is to have everything you need at hand when you’re in the exam so you aren’t wasting time, so some extra time ensuring this is not going to go amiss.
  • Draw the night before. You’re going to be sick of it by now but if you take twenty minutes to roughly sketch out your plan for the next day it’s going to be fresh in your head and you’ll be ready in the exam.
  • Don’t listen to the hype. As with the orals and practicals, you’re going to have people complain and assume and worry with this exam. Your worst enemy is looking at their work during the exam, listening to them and taking what they say to heart before and at the break or comparing yourself to them in any way. If you’ve done the work and prep you have no reason to worry or second guess yourself. You don’t want to be thrown off at the halfway mark and be unable to finish the fantastic piece you’ve already spent two and a half hours working on. It may sound clichéd, but trust in what you’re doing.
  • Enjoy it! Unlike other exams you’re not expected to learn off and recite on paper. Here you are permitted to pretty much do what you want. Art is something to be enjoyed so through all the worry and stress, realize that you’ve been given five hours to produce something to be proud of. You’ll do that best if you’re relaxed and enjoying what you’re making.

Remember, art is a subject where you have multiple chances to score well. You don’t want to wreck it with one bad exam, especially when you don’t need to constantly rush. Keep calm and carry on…you’ll have over half the exam done by June!



Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

Comic Moments in “Hamlet” – Jamie Tuohy


Comic Moments in Hamlet

It would be particularly cruel of the Department of Education to set such a difficult question on this year’s exam. However, in saying that, in every great tragedy, resides the potential for comedy. That is to say, that the chaos, destruction and lack of consequences can at times morph into the carnivalesque – resulting in side splitting laughter. OKAY, maybe not side splitting laughter, and when we use the words ‘comedy’ or ‘funny’ to describe this Shakespearean drama, we’re probably using the words in their loosest definition (unless, like me, you’re a proper nerd and do actually find Hamlet hilarious, at times!).

Here are some notes on “Comic Moments in Hamlet“: (It’s essentially a few paragraphs, or the rough outline of an essay, but I’ve put them into bullet points to make it easier to read). While an essay on comedy might now come up, these points can be made in relation to other topics, especially the character of Hamlet.

  • Hamlet is famous for its deft mingling of comedy and tragedy. From the beginning of the play, the festive and carnivalesque have existed in parallel with the tragic perspective on life.
  • Thus, the celebration of Claudius’ and Gertrude’s wedding acknowledges the death that made it possible. As Hamlet acerbically remarks “the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”.
  • If Hamlet appears here, to be an enemy of the carnivalesque, exhibiting a particular distaste for excessive eating and drinking, he also brings the worlds of comedy and tragedy together.
  • Describing himself as a “jig-maker” and playing the role of court jester, or “critic” to the king, he punctures men’s pretensions to greatness, by reducing them to the condition of decaying and vermiculated flesh.
  • Polonius becomes no more than a malodorous corpse, whose “guts” must be “lug[ged]” into the other room.
  • The gravediggers who appear in Act 5, expand on Hamlet’s role.
  • As ordinary, labouring men, digging the earth, they represent an expansion of the narrow, claustrophobic world characterized by the Danish court.
  • Moreover, their COMIC DISRESPECT for death; as they toss skulls out of graves is matched by a similar contempt for the distinctions conveyed by class and wealth – “why, there thou sayest; and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown and hang themselves more than their even Christian…”.
  • It’s this spectacle that gets Hamlet meditating on the skull, and he too finds comedy in that fact that Yorick, the man who was paid to tell jokes at his father’s court, should have been reduced to such a hideous object.
  • Although this scene is often taken as an image of serious contemplation or as a ‘memento mori’, it’s also a comic epiphany of the absurdity of life and death.
  • The entrance of Ophelia’s funeral procession, with all the assembled court, shifts our attention back to the play’s tragic viewpoint.
  • It may be significant, however, that Shakespeare has not given the gravedigger an exit line, allowing him to remain on stage throughout the scene – an amused spectator of these “great ones” and their tribulations.

These are just some points which I hope will help you tackle the topic of “comedy in Hamlet”. They are more conversation starters than definite points about the play’s comedic value, but the duality of Hamlet’s character and his apparent contempt for corruption and hypocrisy, while hiding behind his “antic disposition” is one of the play’s central comedic plots, if not an expression of the Danish prince’s ingenious comic timing.


Polonius is a character who is described as a “meddling old fool” and his stupidity and lack of moral sense are set up as the antithesis to Hamlet’s cunning and moral sensitivity. Along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius is one of the play’s unintentional central funny men. We don’t laugh with Polonius, but rather at him, as his hypocrisy and ignorance provide the basis for some of the play’s most funny and tragically ironic moments.  If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hapless “sponges” who will do anything for the king, then Polonius is a feeder to Claudius’ hedonism, treachery and self indulgence. He is the principal counsellor of the state ofDenmark, yet his meddling ways reduce him to the level of an old busy body, with too much time on his hands. The comedy resides in the fact that Polonius views himself as an essential asset to the state, but Claudius sees him as nothing more than a useful functionary. Polonius dies, essentially doing Claudius’ dirty work (don’t say this in your essay), and even after he has died, his death is ridiculed by Hamlet, who teases Claudius by telling him where he can and cannot find the “rash, intruding fool’s” body, as Hamlet says he has “compounded it with dust whereto tis kin”. Even if his death echoes the faint image of martyrdom and Claudius describes him as a man “faithful and honourable”, we see Polonius as an insincere, cynical and corrupt man, whose fall from grace is one of the play’s funniest plots.

This last point is the key to most of the play’s comic moments – the Danish court is full of hypocrisy and false appearances. The characters themselves are filled with false notions of themselves and it’s hard to work out if they really know who they are. The false image of the Danish court is central to the play’s comedic value, as when characters like Claudius and Polonoius fall from grace, we view it as just and humourous. I wonder what Freud would have said about that?!

Summary of the points of Comedy:

  • Hamlet’s duality.
  • Hamlet’s ridiculing of death.
  • The juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, embodied through the funeral and wedding.
  • The insincerity and grandeur of Polonius. After all, the name of this blog is derived from Gertrude’s wish that Polonius would be more matter of fact with his statements and less convoluted and hyperbolic. 
  • You can also talk about THE CHARACTER OF OSRIC and his acquiescence towards Hamlet.
  • The general hypocrisy and double standards of the court.

And there you go folks! I have to say, that when you tackle the question like this and break it down, it’s not that hard at all. I made these points from memory, so when I started, I was thinking “urgh, this is going to be tough”, but if I can make those points without having studied the play in nearly a year, you guys will be absolutely fine. This is actually a really interesting essay topic and it just goes to show that when you plan your essays, it makes them ten times easier!

Happy studying, and good luck,


Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Poetry

A Personal Response to the Poetry of Adrienne Rich – Jamie Tuohy

A Personal Response to the Poetry of ADRIENNE RICH – Jamie Tuohy


  • I wrote this essay in 30 minutes from memory, so naturally, it’s not going to be as succinct as all your answers will be, but it should give you an idea about structure, and hopefully will be helpful content wise.
  • In college, I’ve become used to writing academic essays, where we are told NEVER to include the first person pronoun as it takes away from the tone of your essay. In LEAVING CERT– ALWAYS USE THE FIRST PERSON PRONOUN. Especially in your PERSONAL RESPONSE.
  • The poetry question is as much about showing the examiner how you interpreted the poem and reacted to it, as it is about displaying your knowledge of the piece itself.
  • Give your opinions – go beyond the normal P.Q.E. – show the examiner that you’re thinking about what you’re writing and they’ll automatically be impressed with your literary consciousness!
  • However, this doesn’t mean you have to be a wordsmith and use lofty and highfaluting words – it is better to say it simply. I cringe when I look back on some of my Leaving Cert essays – they were so unnecessarily wordy. It just adds pomp to your writing – save your language experimentation for the composing question in Paper 1!
  • I say that this is an essay, but due to time constraints (study and all that), I haven’t really had time to make this essay as cohesive and fluid as it should be. As always, you SHOULDN’T  just learn this essay off by heart, but if you are taking some pieces from it, remember the importance of linking sentences from paragraph to paragraph (which is something that could improve this essay).
  • Always write about literature in the present tense.



“These are thing that we have learned to do who live in troubled regions”.

These are words written by Adrienne Rich in “Storm Warnings” which encapsulate the essence of her poetry. Rich’s poetry appeals to me because her poems explore concepts of both power and subjugation. Whether she is detailing the oppression of Aunt Jennifer, the destructive aspect of “Power” or commenting on the relationship between man and woman (“Living in Sin”), her ability to create a simplicity of image ensures her poems are both accessible and memorable. Rich writes from an obvious Feminist perspective, but I, as a male can still appreciate the sentiment of her work. Poems like “The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room” and “From a Survivor” elicit a variety of emotions in me, ranging from anger to hope and this is what lends credibility to her pieces. Her poems are honest, human and real. On one hand, they’re deeply personal, but on the other, they are commentaries and reflections on society and this juxtaposition of the personal and the public is what makes Adrienne Rich such a fantastic and appealing writer.

In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, Rich writes about the oppression felt by a woman constrained by marriage. It is a powerful poem, albeit a bleak view of married life which left me feeling an immense sense of sympathy for Aunt Jennifer. She longs to be like the tigers that “prance across the screen” with “chivalric certainty”, however she can’t and is trapped because she “fears the men beneath the trees”. In my opinion, the tigers represent an aspiration for Aunt Jennifer – these powerful and fearless creatures are the antithesis to Jennifer who is suppressed and obedient. By sewing the shapes of the tigers, she escapes from her trouble, but this escapism is only in her imagination as “the massive weight of uncle’s wedding band sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand”. Jennifer can never be as carefree as the tigers and her wedding band is a poignant reminder of her unhappy marriage which is characterised by a lack of freedom and power.

Rich frequently uses tone to set the backdrop of her poem and I think that is displayed to perfection in “The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room”. Immediately, his tone of condescension is perceptible, as the uncle speaks of the threat a “sullen mob” poses to society. However, his primary concern lies solely with himself as he is only worried about what a rebellion from such people would do to his position. He says “lead in times like these to fear for crystal vase and chandelier”. These are metonyms of the upper-class which is an echelon of society to which the uncle is a part of. The poem made an impact on me because even though Rich is writing from the uncle’s point of view, there is an underlying sardonic tone to everything he says. Rich is ridiculing his pretension and is expressing her concerns for society through the uncle’s selfish snobbery. I get the impression that she is also making a social commentary on the imbalance of power and the injustice in the distinction of classes. The uncle tries to distance himself from the “follies” of a lower class, which highlights his arrogant demeanour.

I feel that “Living in Sin” is relatable to all relationships. It speaks to the idea that men and women fall into roles when they become comfortable with each other. This poem is a departure from the pedantic form of the preceding two poems, as Rich was developing her own style as writer, rather than following the strict form instructed to her by her father. In this poem, the couple Rich write of are not married, but the imbalance of power and inequality between men and women is unquestionably present. “Living in Sin” is closer to conversational speech rhythms and in it; Rich adopts a stream of consciousness. Like much of her poetry, this poem garnered a great deal of sympathy in me for Rich’s female subject, as she is condemned to the relentless rigour of household duty, while her partner “shrugs” and “scratches his beard”. The woman’s partner is apathetic towards her and his laissez-faire and chauvinistic attitude presents the reader with a grim and uninspiring view of domestic life.

When I first read “From a Survivor”, I was shocked at what I initially thought was an apathetic tone from Rich. I felt uncomfortable reading this because it seemed as if Rich was gloating on her husband who she says is “wastefully dead”. However, after a second reading, the sentiment of this poem expresses something quite different. Rather than a bitter message to her dead husband, “From a Survivor” becomes a touching tribute to him, in which she expresses the necessity for positivity in the midst of turmoil. She uses beautiful, painterly language to create vivid images of regret, but also scenes of hope. Rich says “I live not as a leap, but a succession of brief movements, each one making possible the next”. This is a fantastic line and I feel it is the epitome of hope. Rich will continue to live her life as happily as she can, not out of a lack of compassion, but because it’s the only thing she can do to survive.

“Power” is my favourite poem by Adrienne Rich. Once again, she details the necessity for equality between men and women. She uses the famous scientist Marie Curie as her subject. Curie died from the “element she purified” – a tragic example of the destructive aspect of power itself. I think that Curie “denied her wounds” because admitting them was a sign of weakness. I believe Rich is saying that women feel inferior to men and feel like they have something to prove to them. It is particularly poignant in this case because Curie saw suffering as a necessary self-sacrifice for science. It is a curious twist of logic that Curie died from the very thing that brought her fame.

“Storm Warnings” is a chillingly accurate poem that deals with the inevitable passing of time – a theme which is both universal and relatable. It is enriched with appealing lines that also showcase the inevitability of death. She says “time in the hand is not control of time”. I find this line effective because it highlights the fact that we are mastered by nature and regardless of the age we are, we are powerless and essentially controlled by time. There is an undercurrent of fear in Rich’s voice when this line is spoken, as if this realisation only becomes concrete of evident to her when she writes this line. All she can do is “draw the curtains as the sky goes black and set a match to candles sheltered in glass”. The potential threat of the storm is juxtaposed with the frailty of glass. She is hiding from her problems because that is all she can do – the glass will eventually shatter. This is a poem which is full of relevance – ageing, death and fear are things we all have to experience in our lives, whether we like it or not.

Adrienne Rich is one of the most prolific poets in the English language and her mastery of her craft is evident through her poems, which are honest, accurate and at times haunting and chilling. Whether she is commenting on her own inability to control time or even on the imbalance of power in society, her lyrical and imaginative descriptions make her poems enticing, powerful and highly thought provoking. Her ability to allow me to become engrossed by the words in front of me and be transported into the world of the poem, in my opinion makes Adrienne Rich one of the greatest poems in English literature.


Jamie Tuohy.

Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Poetry

Unseen Poetry – Paper 2, 2010 – Seed by Paula Meehan

Unseen Poetry – Seed by Paula Meehan

  • I’ve decided to post about ‘Unseen Poetry’ because it’s one of those areas that can get ignored by students because it’s not something you can study for.
  • However, you can study for it – it’s all about practice and becoming familiar with the type of questions they ask.
  • There are two questions – one is made up of two individual questions which merit 10 marks each and the other is usually a personal response, worth 20 marks.
  • I’m going to deal with Question 1 in this post because the personal response is much less pointed, and if we’re being honest, it’s much easier.
  • However, if you choose to write about your personal response (which I’d recommend if you’re stuck for time), then I’d suggest that you look towards the first two questions to give you an idea about what to talk about.
  • The trick to getting the 20 marks in this question is pretty simple – answer the question and avoid any unnecessary quoting.
  • It’s so tempting to use as many quotes as you can to illustrate your point, but this is much more suited to the prescribed poetry section, rather than this question, which just proves you can read!
  • Underline the key words in the question and focus on them in your answer.

1.   (a)  What in your view is the mood of this poem? Explain briefly how it is conveyed.

Make reference to the text in support of your answer.  (10)

In my opinion, the mood of this poem is one hope and optimism. Despite the initial mood of gloom and sorrow, “Seed” develops into a beautiful poem which speaks to the power of hope and positvity.  In the opening lines, Meehan says “I step out into the garden from the gloom of a house where hope had died and tally the storm damage”. At this juncture, the tone and mood is somewhat dark, as it’s suggested that not everything has survived the storm. However, the discovery of some “forgotten lupins” excites and inspires the poet and her tone changes to a more hopeful and thankful one, thus changing the mood of the poem. She says “I am suddenly grateful and would offer a prayer if I believed in God, but not believing, I bless the power of the seed”. It doesn’t matter that Meehan isn’t religious because she recognises the ‘power of the seed’ and praises its endless abilities. In my mind, a seed conjures up and image of growth and fertility and of new beginnings and hope. Even though the poet doesn’t find solace in religion, she recognises and appreciates the power of nature. The arrival of the seed means that “the winter’s ended” and this is an extremely important message. It not only expresses the wonder of the seed as a means of new beginnings but underscores the hopeful, positive and optimistic mood of the poem.

  • Here you can see that this isn’t an overly complicated answer and in actual fact, I’ve tried to keep the answer as concise as possible. This is a 20 mark question, so you’re not going to be giving it the same amount of time as you’d give other questions, so naturally you’re not expected to go into the same amount of detail.
  • The question deals with the poem’s ‘mood’ which is often communicated through the tone, so your answer should reflect that in some way.
  • I’ve given a short answer that refers to the question throughout and avoided any unnecessary or superfluous words that only add pomp to your answer.
  • I’ve also tried not to over quote – this really isn’t that impressive, given that the poem is in front of you. If you’re over quoting, the examiner immediately recognises it as padding and an avoidance of the question.

(b)  Choose one image from the poem that appealed to you.  Explain your choice.    



“Seed” by Paula Meehan is a beautiful poem that contains a plethora of images which communicate the wonder of the seed. An image that appealed to me is one of the poet discovering a lupin in the aftermath of the storm. Meehan says that the lupins were “holding in their fingers a raindrop each like a peace offering or a promise”. I find this image to be extremely powerful and inspiring. Meehan recognises the damage of the storm as she “emerges from a house where hope had died”, but this discovery somehow reconciles the damage. I think that the poet acknowledges the cathartic qualities of the flower and it’s perceptible that Meehan views it as something which has the ability to withstand the harsh conditions of the storm. The idea that it is a promise is representative of the hope it brings with it. The raindrops have emerged from the storm in splendid glory and I believe that Meehan is communicating an uplifting message which is resoundingly positive. The raindrops are uses as a metaphor for new life and new beginnings. Meehan also personifies the flower, which elevates its importance and allows the reader to relate to it on a human level. The fact that it emerged “holding” the raindrops further exemplifies the immense power of nature. Throughout the poem, we are made aware of the regenerative qualities of the seed and this image highlights its ability to overcome adversity and emerge stronger than ever. Paula Meehan wishes to convey how something as small as a seed can be so powerful and important and her message is touching and uplifting. This image of the resilient lupin is not only one of the poem’s most appealing images, but it elucidates Meehan’s hopeful and upbeat message.

  • Once again, this is a simple answer, but it attends to the question throughout.
  • I’ve chosen my image and explained how it appealed to me.
  • What I’ve also tried to do is relate that image to the rest of the poem.
  • The important thing is to be aware of the question the question throughout and avoid waffling.