Unseen Poetry – An Attempt

Okay, so you do the paper where the unseen poetry is and if you go to the AQA web page and download the exam paper that has the two poems about London and Edinburgh at the end, you will see what is needed but you will miss something that is unique to this paper.

Check out the marks for the unseen poems and their respective analysis.

The first is 24 marks, plus 4 for SPAG. That is a LOT of marks, to say the least, so it is a straightforward and simple question to answer.

The next and last question on that exam paper is worth 8 marks!

That, to me, means not a lot of time should be spent on it.

With this in mind, I decided to have a look at one particular year and here are my thoughts on both poems, which are included.


A London Thoroughfare 2 A.M. 

They have watered the street, 
It shines in the glare of lamps, 
Cold, white lamps, 
And lies 
Like a slow-moving river, 
Barred with silver and black. 
Cabs go down it, 
And then another.

Between them I hear the shuffling of feet. 
Tramps doze on the window-ledges, 
Night-walkers pass along the sidewalks. 
The city is squalid and sinister, 
With the silver-barred street in the midst, 
A river leading nowhere. 

Opposite my window, 
The moon cuts, 
Clear and round, 
Through the plum-coloured night. 
She cannot light the city; 
It is too bright. 
It has white lamps, 
And glitters coldly. 

I stand in the window and watch the moon. 
She is thin and lustreless, 
But I love her. 
I know the moon, 
And this is an alien city. 


  1. Analyse the first poem. Look at methods used to create meaning. 
  2. Compare how both poets use similar devices to portray their cities at night. 

In ‘A London Thoroughfare. 2 A.M’ the poet presents the speaker’s feelings about the city at night as being quite negative, even though she loves the street she lives on when it is dark. With one person speaking, these are the thoughts of someone, who is possibly an insomniac, being that it is 2am in the morning when she notices these things, but she begins with a strange word, in “They” because when she uses it, the reader is left wondering who has just “watered the street.” It is an interestingly odd word to use at the beginning and the reader is left thinking whether this is a workman from the council who has done this, or some other person who could do such a thing.

  Her attitude is one of negativity and this is borne out in the words she uses to paint the image in the head of the reader, or audience hearing this poem, when it says, “it shines in the glare of lamps.” The road shines indicates the sheen from the road after it has been made wet by one form or another, but the use of words like “cold” and “white” make the reader shudder at the image before her eyes. They are meant to have that effect on the reader as they contemplate the simile that follows, when she says the road “lies like a slow-moving river.” The image in the mind of the river flowing endlessly onwards to its destination is one thing, but this river, this road, is “barred with silver and black,” which makes the reader think of the lines at the side of the road and the colour of the tarmac itself as the camber of the road drifts down to the side, where there is usually a kerb and some form of white line. 

  She then explains what travels up and down this road at night by telling the audience that “cabs go down it.” In this way, she is using the senses and in particular, the element of sight, but in the mind rather than her actual seeing of the cars that travel this road. So far, the scene is a dark one, representing the darkness of night and the colour of corruption that enters the world when daytime falls and night takes over. She mentions how first it is “one” cab and “then another” and how she can hear “the shuffling of feet” as she gazes down this dark and dismal street. 

  This sense of agony and dismay at the darkness pervades the rest of the poem through to a point where she tips it on its side and then goes at it from another, more favourable angle. She says that “tramps doze on the window-ledges,” which is an interesting, if not provocative word to use in this modern age. Perhaps this is an older poem and not so modern because people tend not to use the word “Tramps” any more. She then follows this up with another insulting term, which is “night-walkers” as they “pass along the sidewalks.” This should tell the reader where this poet is based, by the use of the word, “sidewalks,” as this is typically an American term, whereas in Great Britain, the term would be “pathways” so there is little doubt that culturally, there could be issues with reception and meaning when a British reader picks this up and reads it. 

  She also says that “the city is squalid and sinister,” a marvellous use of alliteration and immediately, it puts the idea into the head of the receiver who is already thinking about tramps and beggars, with a whole concoction of words going around their heads as they read and think an assortment of negative things about this city. The “silver-barred street” is one that is also very “slow-moving” and she describes it as “a river leading nowhere.” This is a road to nowhere, an endless and dark snake-like road that leads to nothing but trouble and yet, she says she loves the sight before her later in the poem. 

  From her window, she can see certain things. She sees the moon, “clear and round,” in the clarity of a full moon and a “plum-coloured night. Unable to see the city, she knows its brightness and she knows it has lots of “white lamps” and that it simply “glitters coldly” in the darkness of the night. She stands in her window watching the moon, which a lot of people do, but describes it as “thin and lustreless,” possibly because it represents her own heart towards life in general; dark and unsympathetic, critical of all things around her, she herself is living in darkness, but she is redeemed by the fact that even though this city, her city, is dark and dismal, “squalid and sinister,” she knows one thing that is true in her life. 

  She says the words, “but I love her.” She sees the black and she loves it. She sees the crime and she still loves the city. It seems then, that there is nothing, not even the melancholy moon, which she knows so well, possibly because she has been up many nights watching the moon until she knows it, to be able to write such a poem as this. 

  This is how she knows the moon and her city as well, because one has become synonymous with the other and this is why she is able to say “this is an alien city,” full of people from all over the world, full of immigrants brought into the United Kingdom to live and to work and to enjoy what life can bring them as they pursue the dream of health, wealth and the pursuit of happiness. This is why this poem is an effective one at showing just how important the place where we live is to our very psyche. 

November Night, Edinburgh 

The night tinkles like ice in glasses. 
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost. 
The brown air fumes at the shop windows, 
Tries the doors, and sidles past. 

I gulp down winter raw. The heady 
Darkness swirls with tenements. 
In a brown fuzz of cotton wool 
Lamps fade up crags, die into pits. 

Frost in my lungs is harsh as leaves 
Scraped up on paths. – I look up, there, 
A high roof sails, at the mast-head 
Fluttering a grey and ragged star. 

The world’s a bear shrugged in his den. 
It’s snug and close in the snoring night. 
And outside like chrysanthemums 
The fog unfolds its bitter 

By comparison, even though the use of metaphor and simile, alliteration and differing stylistic devices are used in November Night, Edinburgh, are similar to that of the Lowell poem, this is more positive, so they are similar in a lot of ways, but only to the extent of sharing something of the grandeur of their differing cities at night time. MacCaig says that “the night tinkles like ice in glasses” and the simile is not lost on the reader as the poet describes two things to paint in the mind of the reader the idea of a glimmering, shimmering city, just like ice cubes once liquor has been poured over them. There is a sensuousness to this description which makes the reader feel the warmth of feeling that the poet has for the city of Edinburgh! 

  He describes leaves that “are glued to the pavement with frost.” It is a particularly strong image that makes the reader think of times like in winter, due to the frost, when dirt and grime of an industrial city gathers and destroys the foliage around it which has fallen and is decaying as we turn from winter into spring. The fact that “the brown air fumes at the shop windows” and then “tries the doors and sidles past” makes the reader all too aware of the industrial grime and the mire of the city in the darkness of winter, but he then says that he gulps “down winter raw” which is a strange mixture of Standard English as well as a Scottish colloquialism, because the Standardised way to say that would be to say “I gulp down the raw[ness of] winter,” like he would gulp down a stiff whiskey to ward off the badness of the weather and the cold it brings. 

  There is a “heady darkness” about the city as he sees it, a brooding danger that seems to always be there, swirling like a tornado among the many “tenements” where he lives, large, tall tower blocks of dingy flats that in Edinburgh in generations not too distant, were known for being dirty, seedy and filled with very poor people. The poet says that there is a “brown fuzz of cotton wool” about the place, a feeling that this is about as good as it is going to get any time soon and how life in that area at that time leads only to one thing; death. 

  Then the reader sees the idea of how there is “frost in [his] lungs” due to the coldness of the environment as well as the harshness of the weather. The two have become synonymous with each other as leaves are “scraped up on paths.” As descriptions go about the city of Edinburgh, this is one that shows how grim life is there at that time. But then, he looks up, seeing “high roof sails” and “at the mast-head” there flutters a “grey and ragged star.” This could represent the idea in the mind of the reader as well as the poet that the only thing to come out of such a place like this would be someone who would be almost piratical in nature as the flag and ragged star come to represent someone trying to climb out of this pit of poverty as they try to get on in this life for their better future. 

  This is then backed up in the final verse, if it can be called that, because this is a graphologically deviant poem, as is the first, but the poet uses a fantastic metaphor in “the world’s a bear shrugged in his den” to paint the image in the mind of the reader or audience of a hibernating bear and to him, that is what this world of ours represents, something that when quiet and peaceful and placid, can move along at a soft and steady pace, but if cornered, or trapped into having to defend itself, it can turn on us in an instant. The poet shows us the image of the bear, “snug and close in the snoring night” as outside, where the cold remains, “the fog unfolds its bitter scent.” This is the epitome of perfection at the end of this poem because it shows the one thing he loves in the guise and shape of a sleeping giant and that, in essence, is beautiful to read and consider in any form of poetry. 

  Both poets love their city. They see the negatives as well as the positives and they use a number of devices each to get that meaning across to the reader. Where they differ, where one uses more personification and devices, due to its length, they differ in how precise such a description of a city at night can be and as a result, both are successful in portraying the city in the blackness of night.