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How to write the perfect comparative essay on poetry

Students writing essays in classroom

When it comes to poetry analysis, Phil Beadle knows what examiners want to see – and he’s here to make sure you can help every student can deliver it

Phil Beadle
by Phil Beadle
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Persuasive writing – Advice for KS3 and KS4 English students

Writing a comparative essay about two poems, seen or unseen, is what students will eventually be assessed on when they come to sit the poetry analysis part of their GCSE Literature in essay.

It makes sense, therefore, to get some early practice in and see what the assessment criteria will be asking for in preparation for the day the stakes are high. And the first door we must knock on is the one housing the crone of context.

What the GCSE mark schemes will eventually ask for is a well constructed, conceptual response replete with oodles of subject terminology and a fairly deep mention of context.

It asks students to do this, however, in very little time; and ignores the fact that contextual analysis in poetry – aside from the obvious modern/ancient dichotomy – is a rich brew that requires, firstly, a lot of contextual knowledge.

It also ignores the fact that the biographical takes you away from the textual, and that since the value in poetry analysis is the study of how words and form align to construct beauty or its antithesis, mention of context inevitably takes you into the realms of history – and this is a whole other subject.

Resources: ‘My Last Duchess’, by Robert Browning ‘Remains’, by Simon Armitage

Context – theme

So, my recommendation to students when constructing the first paragraph of an essay comparing two poems is, if appropriate, to make glancing reference to the titles – but only so far as they link to comparison of theme. The contextual is in the thematic.

On comparing theme, they should make explicit reference to the word ‘subtextual’ to flag to the examiner that this is an answer rich in apposite use of subject terminology quite early on. For example:

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