Essay-style Questions: Unseen Poetry - a Comparison of Two Poems

1. Both the following poems were written on the occasion of the death of a pet cat.

Death of a Cat was written by Brian Jones in 1966. 

The Ode was written by Thomas Gray in 1747, at the request of a friend.

Compare how the two poets deal with this subject. 

In your answer, you should consider the following aspects:

  • The poets' attitudes to the cats
  • How they describe the cats' deaths
  • Their choice of vocabulary and use of imagery
  • Their use of form and structure
  • Their engagement with their audience

Death of a Cat

Always fastidious, it removed its dying 

From us, and lay down by it in the

As if death were a mouse, and a cat's role 

To deal with it, and not involve the house;

Chose a remote spot that, when I bent to help,

Shocked because it existed -I had thought 

The mind a complete map of home; left dust 

On my fingers when I had settled it

In front of the fire on an old blanket;

Insisted to the last on standing

And walking with frail dignity to its water

In its usual place in the kitchen, disdaining 

The saucer we had thoughtfully set near it.


And death was a wind that tested regularly

The strength the cat had left, and in its

Puffed on its flank and made it totter

Then courteously desisted. Death can

Powerless, with crude tears, we watched the

Totter and reassert itself again and again

Its life the fuel for its will to live

Until the bones appeared, blood dried in

The pelt was ragbag remnants, the eyes gone

And the wind's task was easy and the cat



Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,

Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes

'Twas on a lofty vase's side,

Where China's gayest art had dyed

The azure flower~ that blow;

Demurest of the tabby kind,

The pensive Selima reclined,

Gazed on the lake below.


Her conscious tail her joy declared;

The fair round face, the snowy beard,

The velvet of her paws,

Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,

Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,

She saw; and purred applause.


Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide

Two angel forms were seen to glide,

The genii of the stream:

Their sealy armour's Tyrian hue

Through richest purple to the view

Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw:

A whisker first and then a claw,

With many an ardent wish,

She stretched in vain to reach the prize.

What female heart can gold despise ?

What cat's averse to fish?


Presumptuous maid! with looks intent

Again she stretched, again she bent,

Nor knew the gulf between.

Malignant Fate sat by and smiled

The slippery verge her feet beguiled,

She tumbled headlong in.


Eight times emerging from the flood

She mewed to every watery god,

Some speedy aid to send.

No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;

Nor cruel Tom nor Susan heard.

A favourite has no friend!


From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,

Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,

And be with caution bold.

Not all that tempts your wandering eyes

And heedless hearts is lawful prize.

Nor all that glisters, gold

You are advised to spend 45 minutes writing your answer.

In the examination you will need to use good English and clear presentation in your answer.

All questions should be answered in continuous prose.

Quality of language will be assessed in all questions. 

(30 marks)

(Marks available: 30)


Critical appreciation.

Specific assessment objectives for this question require for you to:

1. Support judgments about the nature and purpose of the unseen text.

2. Recognise and appreciate the significance of the dominant literary

3. Respond to texts of all kinds using an appropriate literary style.

The range of marks used is from 0-30. It may be difficult for you to judge
your own text, however you may be able to get someone else to mark your essay
using the criteria below.


0-4 marks (Grade

Inability to respond to task:

recital of some content (e.g. about cat!.) but very little use made of bullet
points; little or no attempt to compare.

Little familiarity with texts:

basic errors in recounting surface meaning; unaware of significant differences
between the deaths.

Some description of textual content

Ability to produce some writing about either texts or task

Written style flawed by technical errors and syntax which impede the communication
of meaning


5-8 marks (Grade

Limited understanding of texts:

awareness of basic situations in the poem (deaths of cats) but limited use
of few bullet points to show grasp of differences.

Moments of relevance to task:

perhaps some focus on the deaths, but concentration on content rather than
poets' treatment of the subject; more secure on what is shown than on how it
is shown.

Narrative/ descriptive response to text rather than task

A little textual detail:

detail used perhaps in sequential glosses rather than as a support for specific
points made.

Written style flawed by technical errors and syntax which impede the communication
of meaning


9-12 marks (Grade

Basic response to texts' contents:

identification of some material relevant to bullet points; accurate description
of deaths of cats in the two poems; awareness of different attitudes (lament/
empathy, satire); different descriptions (detailed physical, mock-heroic/elevated).

Some focus on response to task:

provision of material on attitudes and descriptions; at least one clear
comparison (serious, comic; involved, distanced); some general comment on vocabulary
and form (stanzas, blank verse, rhyming stanzas).

Evidence of some range of material relevant to task:

some distinctions between the two poems, covering some of the bullet points.

Some presentation of ideas, even if simplified:

has some ideas but unable to sustain or develop or link them

Explicit reference may be uneven.

Written style generally clear, though technical errors and faulty syntax may
not always lead to clear communication of meaning


13-15 marks (Grade

Understanding of text and textual detail

grasp of some differences between poems: some consideration of attitudes
and description; grasp of implications of some details; some awareness of differences
in tone, point of view, vocabulary, perhaps linked to period.

Understanding and relevance to task:

some consideration of all bullet points, even if not integrated into clear
and direct comparisons and contrasts.

More than one area of investigation relevant to task.

Sufficient support to show seriousness of investigation of topic:

textual support and detail to substantiate some points made

Some argument, though may not be consistent or sustained.

Some reference to authorial means and/or purposes: examination of one or
more of the following: different attitudes, different purposes, contrasting
vocabulary and

imagery, uses of form and structure; engagement with audience.

Clear written style in which technical errors do not obscure meaning.


16-19 Marks (Grade

Explanation of point of view of text and task:

some clear points of comparison/ contrast; personal/ public; domestic detail/
mock-heroic paraphernalia, consideration of contrasts in uses of form, vocabulary,
imagery, structure; engagement with audience

Sustained and developed discussion

Some degree of sustained argument, though there may be use of an amply illustrated

consideration of the ways the authors treat their subject, rather than running
glosses on the poems separately; clear comparisons/ contrasts, using the bullet
points to sustain the comparison/ contrasts by reference to a range of particular

Ability to reflect on meanings of parts of the texts

Some sense of the text' s details:

points and inferences and comparisons drawn from particular examples of
vocabulary/ imagery/ form/ structure/ engagement with audiences

Consideration of authorial means/ purposes

Clear written style in which technical errors do not obscure meaning


20-23 marks (Grade

Critical response to text and task, shown by effective writing.

Good textual understanding:

grasp of the inter-relationship between techniques and attitudes; material
deployed to pinpoint, sustain and

develop comparisons between the ways the two poets deal with their subject.

Appropriate use of supporting quotation and/or echoes of the text.

Thorough and thoughtful use of material.

Some evidence of analytical skills about ideas and language.

Ability to create and develop an argument.

Exploration of authorial means/ purposes.

Clear written style with few technical errors.


24-27 marks (Grade

Some evidence of an independent, free approach.

Detailed understanding and selection of textual detail.

Perception in a well-developed argument.

Conceptualised argument.

Personal critical response and voice

Firm evaluation of authorial means/ purposes.

Fluent and mature written style with few technical errors.


28-30 marks (Grade

Excellent work given the timed conditions.

Mature understanding of the complexities of the text.

Penetrating mind and creative argument.

Ample supporting evidence by quotation/ echoes of the text.

Some originality of insight, approach, organisation.

Evaluative overview of text and task.

Full analysis of authorial means/ purposes.

Finds pleasure in reading and gives pleasure by writing.

Fluent and mature written style.