The poetry examinations for GCSE English Literature rely on the student being able to compare poems effectively, but this is a skill that is not always easy to achieve. It can feel very overwhelming, especially to students who are struggling to understand and analyse one poem, let alone two. So where do you begin?
Differences, not just similarities
The first thing to note is that comparison does not just mean things that are the same, it can also refer to differences between texts. I often see students stress that they cannot find any similarities to discuss, but this is not a problem. Differences tend to be more interesting than similarities, and create more insightful analysis points!
The next issue that tends to be encountered when it comes to comparison work is students starting off too small. Comparing the word level features of a text is going to be harder, and will not create really interesting and relevant points about the writer’s meanings. First of all, students need to think about the message and the story that is being told. What themes and ideas are they engaging with? Are there similarities here, or have they focused on different ideas? Do their messages overlap? For example, John Agard’s Half Caste and Benjamin Zephaniah’s No Problem both explore the theme of race and prejudice, although the focus is slightly different, with one addressing the issue of prejudice against mixed race people, and one looking at the stereotypes faced by black people, particularly teenage boys. Although they have different subjects, their messages are primarily the same.
Or for another example, look at “Porphyria’s Lover” and “The Farmer’s Bride”. Both poems explore the idea of men controlling women. However, in “Porphyria’s Lover” this instinct to control is taken to a murderous extreme, as the speaker literally silences Porphyria. In “The Farmer’s Bride”, the speaker’s actions show his own desire to control, but also his confusion at his inability to earn his wife’s love and respect. It ends with the idea of him locking her in a room to prevent her running away; an image that in some ways is equally as disturbing as the murder of Porphyria.
Another area to explore is perspective. Who is telling the story in each poem and how does this affect the message and the meaning? For example, “Poppies” by Jane Weir and “Exposure” by Wilfred Owen both show the trauma inflicted by war, but they use different voices in order to do so. “Exposure” tells the story of those who fight in the War, whereas “Poppies” gives a voice to those who get left behind by war. Thus, although they share a theme, they also tell different stories.
Developing from the next point, context is also key when it comes to comparing two poems. The period in which the poem is written, as well as the experiences of the poet, is going to have an impact on the story that is told. For example, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” was inspired by a story he read in the newspaper, and he had no firsthand experience of war at all. His poem, whilst powerful, is built upon a skewed version of events, which makes the soldiers sound like noble heroes, rather than just the victims of a serious communication blunder. In contrast, a poem such as “Exposure” recalls the experiences of Owen, and presents a far more graphic representation of the reality of war.
Once you have got some of the bigger ideas pinned down, you can then look at elements such as form and structure. Do the poems use set forms, for example a sonnet or a ballad? Do both poems rhyme, or does one use free verse? It will be highly unlikely you will be given two poems that use exactly the same form, so look at the different effects that are created by both. Another area that can create useful comparison is to look at features such as enjambment (no punctuation at the end of the line of poetry) or caesura (a break in the middle of the line of poetry). Does the enjambment help to create a sense of fluidity, as the speaker recalls memories, or does it help to build up pace and action?
Language devices are a smaller feature, and it can help to look at whole-text features such as form and structure first, before going into word level analysis. For example, compare the type of imagery that is used in the poems. Does one use more metaphors and similes than the other? Does one use monosyllabic words? Look for patterns in the imagery and see how these are different/similar. How do these link to the themes of the two poems and the stories that they are trying to tell?
Comparison is a challenging skill to master, but it does get easier with practice. As you work through your anthology poems, keep thinking about which poems naturally go well together. Remember this does not mean they are completely similar. In fact, it may be that they approach similar themes or events but from a completely different perspective. Group poems together in your notes, and keep the comparison element at the front of your mind from the beginning of your poetry studies.
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