Comparing Two or More Poems for a Literature Essay

Updated on March 12, 2020
chef-de-jour profile image

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

Comparing and contrasting two poems.
Comparing and contrasting two poems. | Source

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 2 poems. How do the poets differ in their approach to relationships?

2. Compare 4 poems, 2 of which are from your anthology and 2 from the list to explore the meaning of war as portrayed by each poet.

3. Compare the ways 2 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.

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 4 poems to compare better to focus on A&B and give brief ideas about C&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.

Key Components Of Your Poetry Essay

1. Clear writing.

2. Grammatically correct writing.

3. Use of comparative words such as ...this demonstrates, in contrast 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

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 may come in handy:

S - structure M - meaning I - imagery L - language E - effect

F - form.... I - imagery.... E - effect..... L - language..... D - device

where structure=form and device=poetic device such as alliteration,metaphor,enjambment and so on.

Poetry Essay Structure 1

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.

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 then
  • C and D in paragraph 2
  • before combining all in your final paragraph and conclusion.

Top Tip For The Best Comparison Of Poems

For top grades use quotes from the poems and embed them into your essay. Don't use too many. You want to put them in the right place, make sure they're relevant and help enhance your point of view.

Poetry Essay Structure 2

Start with : Introduction

Move onto : Paragraphs 1,2, 3 and 4

Finish with : Conclusion

Again with 4 poems paragraphs 1 and 2 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.

Thesis Statement for A Poetry Essay

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 Herrick's To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time and Housman's Lovliest of Trees, the Cherry Now.

Thesis Statement - 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 poem as a whole.

First world war troops in the trenches.
First world war troops in the trenches. | Source

Example Poetry Comparison Essay Paragraph 1

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.

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.

'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.

Example Poetry Comparison Essay Paragraph 2

The second paragraph should offer insights into poems C & 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 & B in this paragraph if you think it will add to your overall analysis.

Keith Douglas's poem of four 6 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.

Top Tip For The Best Essay

If you can show in your essay that you understand the poems by giving a unique personal opinion you will gain extra marks. For example you may want to say why a particular poem appeals to you, how it works - or not. Examiners will give extra marks if you're able to outline concepts and their impact on you as a reader.

Example Poetry Comparison Essay Paragraph 3

In this final paragraph you need to focus on similarities and differences between all four poems, concentrating on poems A & B but not forgetting C & 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 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.

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.

Useful words as connectives, transitions and links

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

More Useful Advice Here

© 2012 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment
  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Glad you could visit this poetry article. Appreciated.

  • Cynthia Mulema profile image

    Cynthia Mulema 

    2 years ago

    Very informative hub. Thanks

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Grateful thanks for the visit and comment.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Chef-de-jour, It's most helpful to find such sensibly clear explanations about what can be the daunting task of attempting to explicate and interpret another's poetic endeavors.

    In particular, your chart of connectives, links, and transitions is nicely done. The same holds true of your walking readers through all the paragraphs from introduction to conclusion.

    Also, I particularly like your reminder of putting the personal into encounters with poetry, which always is the expression of something personally believed, felt, heard, read or witnessed. So it really is important to express what the impact is during one's own times and on one's own person.

    Respectfully, and with many thanks and all the votes, Derdriu

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    You are very welcome - this hub is primarily for students- but should enable anyone who loves poetry to delve a little bit deeper.

  • jhamann profile image

    Jamie Lee Hamann 

    7 years ago from Reno NV

    This is very informative, thank you. Jamie


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