Conflict: An exemplar exam question ('A Poison Tree' / 'Hate')

It is useful to have a clear idea of just what you can expect in the examination and how to structure your response in order to fulfil the demands of the weighted Assessment Objectives.

With this in mind, you will find below a question followed by the marking grid and two exemplar answers. Finally we have provided a podcast in which we explore the question, both answers and what we can learn about tackling the Poetry question.

This question is taken from the 'Conflict' section of OCR's 'Poetry Across Time' anthology but if you are studying a different section, you'll still find some useful hints and guidance here.

First, let's look at the question:

The Question

Read the two poems below and then answer both part (a) and part (b).

You are advised to spend about 45 minutes on part (a) and part (b).

(a)           Compare how these poems present conflict with others, and its result.

You should consider:

·      ideas and attitudes in each poem

·      tone and atmosphere in each poem

·      the effects of the language and structure used. [20]


(b)           Explore in detail how one other poem from your anthology presents damaged lives. [20]


The Poems

Here are the two poems - the first is from the 'Conflict' section of the anthology, while the second is typical of the kind of unseen poem you are likely to be presented in the exam.


A Poison Tree by William Blake

I was angry with my friend; 

I told my wrath, my wrath did end. 

I was angry with my foe: 

I told it not, my wrath did grow. 


And I watered it in fears,                                               5

Night & morning with my tears: 

And I sunned it with smiles, 

And with soft deceitful wiles. 


And it grew both day and night. 

Till it bore an apple bright.                                             10

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine. 


And into my garden stole, 

When the night had veild the pole; 

In the morning glad I see;                                               15

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


Hate by Robert William Service

I had a bitter enemy,
His heart to hate he gave,
And when I died he swore that he
Would dance upon my grave;
That he would leap and laugh because                         5
A livid corpse was I,
And that's the reason why I was
In no great haste to die.

And then - such is the quirk of fate,
One day with joy I read,                                                10     
Despite his vitalizing hate
My enemy was dead.
Maybe the poison in his heart
Had helped to haste his doom:
He was not spared till I depart                                      15
To spit upon my tomb. 

The other day I chanced to go
To where he lies alone.
'Tis easy to forgive a foe
When he is dead and gone. . . .                                      20
Poor devil! Now his day is done,
(Though bright it was and brave,)
Yet I am happy there is none
To dance upon my grave.

The Marking Grid

It is really important that you are clear about how the marks are allocated by the examiner and just what skills must be evidenced to secure the higher bands. With this in mind, here is the marking grid. We will refer to this in the podcast, explaining how the mark scheme would likely be applied to the model answers we have provided.

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 19.47.12.png

For now, we will be looking at question (a) in detail but don't forget about (b) -  you will be expected to write a response to BOTH in the exam!

If you want to just jump straight to the model answers then feel free, but it would be far better if you had a go at this question yourself first. Why not print out the poems and question, highlight the keywords and then make a 5 minute plan before reading on?

You can download a copy of the poems and question here.

You can get your own copy of the marking grid here.

Let's look at the two exemplar responses; read each of them carefully and then see how closely your response matches the ideas expressed below.

Exemplar 1

Both of these poems portray the speakers’ feelings towards their enemies. In ‘A Poison Tree’ the narrator is not satisfied to wait for his enemy to die, but wants to kill him using deceit. However, in ‘Hate’, although he despises his enemy, he is not prepared to kill him. Both of the narrators are pleased that their enemy is dead, “glad I see;/My foe outstretched beneath the tree” and “I am happy there is none/To dance upon my grave”. Both of these seemingly heartfelt statements appear in the final two lines of the respective poems In ‘A Poison Tree’ one of the key ideas is that repressed emotions will intensify and become dangerous to ourselves and others; the narrator in ‘hate’ does not encounter this issue. Both the speaker and his counterpart clearly know that they are enemies. This links to the line “I told my wrath, my wrath did end” in Blake’s poem. Both these poems convey anger (one of The Seven Deadly Sins) and hatred.

‘A Poison Tree’ begins in quite a casual manner and this relatively upbeat opening is accentuated by the sense of nursery rhyme that we get from the rhyming couplets. This completely contrasts with the message of the final stanza where the speaker makes it plain that he is “glad” that his foe is dead. Robert William Service, contrastingly, creates a tense atmosphere right from the start: “I had a bitter enemy”. Service, unlike Blake, does not disguise the hatred and wrongdoing in his poem with metaphorical language and euphemisms. “Hate” is brutal, blunt and “to the point” although both narrators reach the same conclusion, rejoicing in the death of another human being. The speaker in ‘Hate’ is perfectly candid and straightforward with regard to his enemy while the speaker in ‘A Poison Tree’ secretly nurtures his anger; he watered it in fears/…with my tears” and “sunned it with smiles”.

‘Hate’ has a simple structure and a relatively simple message – the speaker is joyful of the fact that he outlived his enemy, recognizing that if circumstances were different his enemy would experience the happiness that he now feels – whereas ‘A Poison Tree’ has a deceptively simple structure which serves to hide the poem’s ambiguity and complexity. Both of these poems are written from a first person perspective from the viewpoint of individuals who have sworn enemies, but the personalities of the two speakers are very distinct. The narrator in ‘Hate’ is passive and patient; however, Blake’s seems to actively “cultivate” his hatred (“water[ing]” and “sunn[ing]” it). The anaphora of the word “And” – which begins the last three stanzas of ‘A Poison Tree’ – gives a sense of the accumulating consequences of the second two lines of the first stanza:

I was angry with my foe: 

I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

(‘A Poison Tree’, ll.3-4)

Both poems use very few recherché words. This use of simple lexis again tends to mask the complex meaning of the Blake poem. In ‘A Poison Tree’ there are many Biblical references: the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden leads directly to the downfall of Man; the  “outstretched” figure reminds the reader of Christ on the cross.

Perhaps the most important link between the two poems is that they are both to be read ironically: we are supposed, as alert readers, to read between the lines. The sense of smug fulfillment given at the end of both poems by both speakers is truly shocking: the fact that they are “happy” (‘Hate’) or “glad” (‘A Poison Tree’) at the demise of their enemies is deeply depressing.  600 words 

You can download a copy of this document here

Exemplar 2

Both of these poems deal with the speaker hating or being hated by another - ‘my foe’ or ‘my enemy’ - and the consequences of not making any attempt to reconcile matters.

Blake’s speaker actively cultivates his anger and rather than speaking about it, as he can to ‘my friend’, he keeps quiet and from his anger grows the ‘tree’ whose fruit (reminiscent of the apple in the Garden of Eden) tempts the ‘foe’ who he is then ‘glad’ to see dead. The tone is sinister in the ‘soft deceitful wiles’ and the deliberate trapping of the enemy by the ‘apple bright’ - although had the enemy not been a thief, he would have escaped his fate, of course.  The speaker feels no apparent remorse: there is no overt moral posed by Blake and the whole thing is unsettling - surely, we ought to be invited to condemn or judge?  

Both poems are written in a deceptively simple rhyming form that feels straight-forward and natural - especially Service’s with its casual contractions: ’that’s’ and ’tis easy’ and colloquial language (‘poor devil’) - as if to pretend that their content is also straightforward and which is why I think we expect Blake’s poem to have a clear moral, as simple nursery rhymes do, and are disturbed when we don’t get it.

Service’s speaker - both poems are written in the first person, to create a sense of intimacy, of getting close to secret thoughts and feelings - is less active and does not (like Blake) reify his feelings towards his ‘enemy’. Rather, his feelings are less obvious - is he amused by the thought of the man who vows to ‘leap and laugh’, as the alliteration suggests, especially when taken together with the lines ‘And that’s the reason why I was/ In no great haste to die’?  I think we are expected to find this humorous, as no-one is only reluctant to die because someone else will be pleased. “Vitalising hate’ which comically juxtaposes the idea of hatred being enlivening, is also linked with its opposite, death, when his enemy dies.  The speaker does nothing to cause this - it is a ‘quirk of fate’ - but reads about it, and experiences ‘joy’, like Blake’s protagonist who is ‘glad’ to see ‘my foe stretched out..’.

However, Service’s speaker is not straightforward in his attitude to his enemy, either.  He speculates (rather waspishly perhaps, or tongue-in-cheek) that ‘the poison in his heart’ killed his foe, but also uses the word ‘doom’ of his death, as if it is a tragedy, saying that he was not ‘spared’ - rather as if he wished his enemy had been.  The last stanza shows that he visits the grave (apparently by chance), calls his enemy ‘poor devil’ and praises his life (‘his day’) as both ‘bright’ and ‘brave’, and thinks how easy it is to ‘forgive a foe’ once he is dead.  He seems to miss that vivid presence in his life and the last two lines read almost as if he is trying to convince himself that he is glad the man is dead. It is as if the ‘vitalising hate’ enlivened his own life as well as his enemy’s.

For both poets, death prevents any further development, any possible reconciliation, and I feel that the readers are invited to consider their own ‘hatreds’ in this unsettling and thought-provoking light.  567 words

You can download a copy of this document here

And finally, here is a podcast with almost 40 minutes of commentary in which we read the questions, poems, discuss the marking grid and then explore why the exemplars are top band responses. we spoil you, we really do...

Punishment & A Poison Tree

In this 45 minute recording we offer an overview of the GCSE exam format for the poetry question in OCR Literature and then focus on two poems in the anthology. The first, 'Punishment' by Seamus Heaney, presents a complex portrait of a narrator struggling to come to terms with his reaction to the Troubles in Northern Ireland as well as the strong feelings provoked by one of the 'bog bodies' discovered in the 1950s in Ireland.

We then go on to compare Heaney's text to the late 18th century poem 'A Poison Tree' by William Blake. In contrast it is a seemingly simple portrayal of wrath and revenge but, in poetry nothing is as simple as it seems...