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Comparing Two or More Poems for a Literature Essay

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

This article will help you structure your poetry essay and effectively provide evidence for your thesis.

This article will help you structure your poetry essay and effectively provide evidence for your thesis.

How to Compare and Contrast Poems in Your Essay

In this article, you will learn:

  • how to compare and contrast two or more poems
  • the best way to construct an essay
  • how to create a thesis statement
  • the importance of your first paragraph

There is also a section on useful connective words—words that help you connect the poems in effective ways—so that your essay gains top marks in an exam or for homework or class.

Sometimes you'll need to look at two, three or even four poems, but don't worry, the process is the same. You're searching for things that are similar and things that are different and blending the two together so that everyone can understand what you're getting at.

You'll need to make sure you use the right terms in your essay, and you'll also have to put some of your own thinking in there too.

The trick is to use words from the questions asked and combine these with opinion, evidence and reasoned argument. This is the way to gain top marks and do yourself (and the poems) justice.

How to Prepare Your Poetry Essay: First Steps

Make absolutely sure you read the question through and through before attempting a start. It's amazing how many students year after year lose out simply because they've failed to answer what is asked of them in the question.

Pay attention to the keywords at all times.

For example, what are the keywords in these authentic sample questions?

  1. With particular reference to feelings compare the following two poems. How do the poets differ in their approach to relationships?
  2. Compare four poems, two of which are from your anthology and two from the list to explore the meaning of war as portrayed by each poet.
  3. Compare the ways two poets present attitudes towards culture.
  4. Explore attitudes to conflict in the poem 'Futility' by Wilfred Owen with one other of your choice.

Reading the Poems for Your Essay

So, having made sure what the question wants from you, the first thing you have to do when comparing poems is to read each poem through carefully in order to understand the general meaning of what the poet is trying to say.

  • Write down any first impressions and any obvious similarities and differences.
  • You may want to annotate each poem—making notes at the side of the poem, underlining lines or words that you feel make an effect. Compile notes for each poem ready for later use.

Once you have read and annotated each poem, the next step is to think about an introduction for your essay.

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How to Write an Introduction for a Poetry Essay

  • Start using comparative words as soon as you can. Make it clear that this is what you'll be doing from the outset.
  • Give a brief explanation of each poem, with title and poet, and link them to the keywords of the question.
  • If you have four poems to compare, it's better to focus on A and B and give brief ideas about C and D.

For example:

"In this essay, I shall compare Wilfred Owen's 'Futility', a short poem of two stanzas written during the First World War, with that of 'Louse Hunting' by Isaac Rosenberg. This second choice, in contrast, is a longer poem, again with two stanzas, but is in free verse, unlike Owen's which has hints of rhyme and half rhyme. Both men were killed in action during the war and their poems give differing accounts of the horror and reality of war, the major theme. The third poem, 'How to Kill' by Keith Douglas, provides a dream-like perspective on the process of killing. This poem offers a powerful, alternative voice, whereas the final poem, 'Grass' by Carl Sandburg, gives an unusual overview of the victims of war."

Make sure you illustrate a clear understanding of the ideas in the poem backed up with text, original ideas and opinion.

Make sure you illustrate a clear understanding of the ideas in the poem backed up with text, original ideas and opinion.

Key Components of Your Poetry Essay

  1. Clear writing
  2. Grammatically correct writing
  3. Use of comparative words such as . . . this demonstrates, in contrast to, as opposed to . . . (see table list below for connecting words) linked to the question keywords
  4. Comparisons using S.M.I.L.E. or F.I.E.L.D. (see immediately below)
  5. An understanding of the ideas in the poem backed up with text, original ideas and opinion
  6. Quotes from the poem—these should be embedded smoothly into your essay, but don't use too many
  7. A final read-through (make corrections where appropriate)

Two Useful Mnemonics for a Poetry Essay: S.M.I.L.E. and F.I.E.L.D.

A mnemonic is a familiar group of letters to help you memorise something through association with those letters. For example, to help you compare the poems and to write the essay, these two acronyms may come in handy:

  • SMILE: Structure, Meaning, Imagery, Language, Effect
  • FIELD: Form, Imagery, Effect, Language, Device

Note: Here, structure=form and device=poetic device, such as alliteration, metaphor, enjambment and so on.


further to this idea

which is the result of

and finally

the fact is

for this reason

in contrast

in point of fact

bearing this in mind

as opposed to

from a neutral standpoint

this illustrates

the key difference being

it could be argued

this demonstrates

because of

in the same way

this is clearly


the former implies

which highlights


related to this is

it suggests


Sample Structures for Poetry Essays

Your essay should be written clearly, with no grammatical errors. Integrate your comments throughout each paragraph, don't write about poem A then poem B.

Make sure you leave time to have a final read through when you've finished.

Example #1

  • Start with: Introduction
  • Move onto: Paragraphs 1, 2 and 3
  • Finish with: Conclusion

If you have 4 poems to compare, you could use the classic A+B / C+D approach, comparing poems:

  • A and B in paragraph 1
  • C and D in paragraph 2
  • before combining all in your final paragraph and conclusion

Example #2

  • Start with: Introduction
  • Move onto: Paragraphs 1, 2, 3 and 4
  • Finish with: Conclusion

With four poems, paragraphs 1 and 2 can compare poems A+B, paragraph 3 compares A+B+C and paragraph 4 compares A+B+C+D.

Your conclusion is a summing up of the poems, your ideas on what works and does not, the key similarities and differences and your grasp of the concepts behind the meanings.

How to Compose a Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is a short, yet concise paragraph that sets out an argument, analysis or idea and sums up what your essay will be concentrating on.

  • Don't forget the thesis statement can be revised at the end of your essay to reflect what's in the essay.
  • The statement should appear at the end of the first large paragraph ideally.
  • It should have a strong 'base' from which to launch to your essay.

So you may choose analysis, explanation or argument for the statement—how will you approach the poems and what do you want to say in your essay?

For example, let's say you have to compare and contrast two poems that express the idea of time passing too quickly for us as humans and that we'd better do something about it before it's too late.

The poems are Robert Herrick's 'To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time' and A.E. Housman's 'Loveliest of trees, the cherry now'.

A potential thesis statement might look something like this:

"An analysis of the two poems reveals that both urge the individual to not waste time, one emphasising the sexual drive in humans, the other the aesthetic."

The essay should then go on to give details of the analysis with particular reference to poetic devices used, mode of expression and the success or not of the poems as a whole.

First world war troops in the trenches.

First world war troops in the trenches.

Sample Poetry Comparison Essay Paragraphs

Let's say you have four poems to compare and contrast. From previous, they're all about war. So we have:

A: Wilfred Owen's 'Futility'

B: Isaac Rosenberg's 'Louse Hunting'

C: Keith Douglas's 'How to Kill'

D: Carl Sandburg's 'Grass'

Paragraph #1

Your first paragraph should:

  • offer a direct response to the question
  • give both broad and detailed comparisons of poems A & B
  • have quotes from each poem embedded in the right places to back up statements and analysis

It might look something like this:

"'Move him into the sun -' the first line of 'Futility', a 14-line poem of two equal stanzas (a kind of split sonnet) seems to be that of a voice addressing another man or group of men. There is a quiet seriousness about the opening lines, reflecting the care that must be taken with the soldier's body. Mention of the sun puts us firmly in daylight but hints at something greater—life itself. Conversely, Rosenberg's poem has an arbitrary number of lines±25 (reflecting his young age?)—and the opening line 'Nudes - stark and glistening' could hardly be more of a contrast, tending to shock with its abruptness. You could say 'Futility' has an inward, philosophical approach to this individual's death, whereas 'Louse Hunting' has drama, humour and metaphor to bring an ordinary event on to the awful stage of war."

Paragraph #2

The second paragraph should offer insights into poems C and D. Again, you are looking to connect the question with your comparisons before moving on to more detailed comments about the poetry.

Remember to place quotes in appropriate places and use clear straightforward language at all times. If you want, you could briefly mention poems A and B in this paragraph if you think it will add to your overall analysis.

Here's an example of what it could look like:

"Keith Douglas's poem of four six-line stanzas, 'How to Kill', looks somewhat formal beside Carl Sandburg's free verse announcement of a poem, 'Grass'. Both are written in first person and concentrate on the idea of war deaths. The former has an interesting half rhyme scheme of abccba, which suggests a situation that doesn't quite suit the voice of the poem. A tiny change of vowel means the rhyme is skewed. For example, ball-kill, man-Open, long-sang all appear in the first stanza. Perhaps the poem indicates confusion, something not quite right. There is an unreal, magical feel about the first three stanzas summed up in the line This sorcery/I do.

'Grass' on the other hand couldn't be more direct, even brutal, and yet also has surreal tones. For example, note the two opening lines:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work -

This is the actual grass speaking. I am the grass; I cover all implies that once the masses of bodies are buried, nature takes over, the dead are forgotten, becoming nothing more than 'work' for the grass."

Paragraph #3

In this final paragraph, you need to focus on similarities and differences between all four poems, concentrating on poems A and B but not forgetting C and D. Integrate your comments with a quote or two if needed, and write about how the poems make you feel.

At this stage, it's important to highlight what you think the poet is trying to get at and give examples to back your ideas up.

"All four poems, though different in structure, present powerful voices concerning the realities of war. Owen's poem has perhaps the ideal form—a broken sonnet—which suggests broken love and a schizoid approach to the victim. The words he uses in the first stanza, gently, whispering, kind, reflect the care taken when moving the body; the second implies the uselessness of it all—the fatuous sunbeams have toiled for nothing. Sandburg deals with nature too but in a most pragmatic way, using short punchy lines to ask questions and declare that the grass is here to work. He uses repetition to reinforce this idea, but there are no rhymes, no obvious alliteration and no rhythm as such. It all seems very hurried."

How to Write an Essay Conclusion

The conclusion should contain:

  • a summary of your thoughts on each poem
  • the important links between each poem
  • what works and doesn't work
  • what effect the poems have had on you
  • your original ideas about the poems


© 2012 Andrew Spacey

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