how to compare poems

How to compare poems – 5 steps

Previously, I wrote a post on how to analyse any unseen poem, which a lot of you found useful. One of you asked if I could also write a guide on how to compare poems, so that’s what this post is for. 

What’s the deal with comparative analysis – and why does it always seem so much harder…? 

Between an unseen single-poem analysis task and a prepared comparative poetry analysis task, which one would you prefer?

Both can be tricky to master, but neither is unmanageable – we just need to find the right strategy. 

Personally, I think the reason that comparative tasks seem more challenging is largely psychological. It’s not so much that the act of comparing texts itself is hard as it is that we get easily flustered when asked to multitask – especially in a high-stress situation like an exam.

Obviously, if these are set texts that you can prepare for, that should relieve a lot of the stress which would otherwise come with tackling an unseen comparative task (with the right sort of guidance, granted). 

So, what’s my point here?

I’m trying to say if you find comparative tasks intimidating, don’t – because

a) there’s a systematic way to go about doing it well, and

b) I’m going to show you just how to do it in this post, complete with steps and examples. 

5 steps to comparing any poems: a guide

Step 1: Summarise the main idea of each poem in 1-2 sentences 

Step 2: Find similarities – thematic, stylistic, structural and formal

Step 3: Find differences from similarities 

Step 4: Identify 3 key ideas for comparison

Step 5: Summarise your main argument in a comparative statement

Or watch my video below, in which I go through the 5 steps to comparing poems (but stick around this blog post for a demonstration of how to do it in the next section, where I compare Carol Rumens and Seamus Heaney’s poems):


Step 1: Summarise the main idea of each poem in 1-2 sentences 

What’s the first thing we do when encountering any poem? We read it, of course. But what do you do after you first read the poem? We’re likely to re-read it – either because we don’t really ‘get it’ the first time round, or because we need to start sourcing clues for our analysis. 

Re-reading is all good and well (not to mention necessary), but the problem with it is there’s potentially no end to how many times we could re-read a poem, and so the more we re-read, the more we’re likely to be led into a labyrinthe of questions, which causes more confusion. In normal, non-exam circumstances, that’s perfectly fine, but if you’re racing against time, then a better tactic is to read once, then summarise your first impressions; read twice, and summarise the main idea of the poem. 

But, what if I really don’t get it? Obviously, there’s room to take ‘once’ or ‘twice’ liberally, so no issues if you have to re-read a couple of times before you can summarise anything. My point, however, is not to get sucked into an endless process of reading and re-reading, because before long you’ll have whittled all your time away – only to have nothing to show for it at the end. 

To prevent this, start actively engaging with the poem by asking yourself these questions immediately after reading it: 

What is the main gist of the poem’s content?

How do I feel after reading this poem? 

What are some themes or ideas that jump out at me? 

Is there anything special or weird about this poem? 

Etcetera. 

Then, scribble them down on your planning sheet (you should always plan before you write!), so at least you’re visualizing your response to the poem, which gives you a much better place to start than simply keeping everything in an abstract, befuddled jumble in your head. These notes don’t have to be long – just 1-2 sentences or even bullet points will suffice. 

how to compare poems summarise the main idea of each poem in one to two sentences

Step 2: Find similarities – thematic, stylistic, structural and formal

Once we’ve settled on a main understanding of the poems, it’s time to switch our thinking to a ‘lateral’ mode. By ‘lateral’, I mean to think across both poems in terms of different aspects of analysis (i.e. theme, style, structure, form), instead of focusing on only one poem at a time. 

Let’s start by looking at the similarities in theme, style, structure and form between the poems. If you’ve read my post on ‘how to tackle any unseen poetry’ (which you should!), you’ll know I love me some tables, rows and columns, so here’s a sample table for us to systematise our observations:

Similarities between Poem A and Poem B

Aspects of analysisPoem APoem B
Theme(s)Both poems are about love
Examples from each poem[Insert quotations about love from Poem A][Insert quotations about love from Poem B]
Stylistic featuresBoth poems feature comparative devices like metaphor and simile 
Examples from each poem[Insert quotations that contain comparative devices from Poem A][Insert quotations that contain comparative devices from Poem B]
Structural featuresBoth poems are comprised of cinquains (5-line stanzas)Both poems adopt a specific rhyme scheme 
Examples from each poem[State the number of cinquains and the type of rhyme scheme in Poem A – note that the rhyme schemes of A and B don’t necessarily have to be the same] [State the number of cinquains and the type of rhyme scheme in Poem B]
Formal featuresBoth poems are odes / lyric poems 
Examples from each poem[State how Poem A embodies the traits of an ode, e.g. how the poem moves across the three parts of strophe, antistrophe, and epode][State how Poem B embodies the traits of an ode] 

Again, as I’ve mentioned in the unseen post, the ability to spot these similarities (and differences, as we’ll cover in the next step) is predicated on us being familiar with the technical basics. I.e., we can’t spot a metaphor if we don’t know what metaphor means, so make sure that you sort out the fundamentals first – a wobbly foundation is no place to start any poetry analysis task, comparative, unseen, or otherwise.

how to compare poems find similarities between the poems thematic stylistic structural and formal

Step 3: Find differences from similarities 

Differences across poems can appear on multiple levels. There can be complete differences (e.g. Poem A is a sonnet whereas Poem B is a ballad), but more often, we’re looking for ‘differences within similarities’. This is why a good place to start identifying differences is, perhaps a bit ironically, in our similarities table. 

The guiding questions to ask, then, would include the following:

How do the poems present the same theme in different ways? 

How do the poets use the same stylistic, structural or formal techniques to present different aspects of the theme? 

For instance, while both poems may be about love, A could be about unrequited love and B about mutual love, so there’s a thematic difference for you. Alternatively, both poems may feature comparative devices, but while metaphors are used to compare love with dandelions in Poem A, similes could be used to compare love with an onion in Poem B.

Likewise, both poems may be odes, but perhaps A is a Pindaric ode, while B is a Horatian ode (for a more detailed explanation of the ode, read this post). So on so forth. You’ll notice that the ‘differences’, then, could simply be your analysis of the different quotations you’ve sourced for each poem’s ‘similarities’. 

So instead of creating a new table, we can add one extra line underneath each aspect of analysis to address how each ‘similarity’ differs across the poems, like this: 

Aspects of analysisPoem APoem B
Theme(s)Both poems are about love
Examples from each poem[Insert quotations about love from Poem A][Insert quotations about love from Poem B]
How do they differ?Poem A is about unrequited love and the futility of pining after the wrong person; Poem B is about mutual love and the joys of reciprocal affection. 
Stylistic featuresBoth poems feature comparative devices like metaphor and simile 
Examples from each poem[Insert quotations that contain comparative devices from Poem A][Insert quotations that contain comparative devices from Poem B]
How do they differ?Poem A uses similes to convey…,  whereas B features metaphor to express the idea that… 
Structural featuresBoth poems are comprised of quatrains (four-line stanzas)Both poems adopt a specific rhyme scheme 
Examples from each poem[State the number of quatrains and the type of rhyme scheme in Poem A – note that the rhyme schemes of A and B don’t necessarily have to be the same] [State the number of quatrains and the type of rhyme scheme in Poem B]
How do they differ?Poem A comprises 3 quatrains and follows an alternate rhyme scheme, while Poem B comprises 8 quatrains and features a series of chain rhyme which carries over the rhyme in line 3 of each stanza over to the next stanza. 
Formal featuresBoth poems are odes / lyric poems 
Examples from each poem[State how Poem A embodies the traits of an ode, e.g. how the poem moves across the three parts of strophe, antistrophe, and epode][State how Poem B embodies the traits of an ode] 
How do they differ?Poem A is shaped like a pillar (i.e. is an example of concrete poetry); Poem B is more visually aligned and consistent.

Once we’ve reviewed all the ‘differences-in-similarities’, we can then zoom out and see if there are other fundamental points of divergence between the poems, i.e. is there something in Poem A that’s totally absent from Poem B, and vice versa? If it serves your argument to also bring these points in, then feel free to add them in. 

how to compare poems find differences from the similarities you have identified

Step 4: Identify 3 key ideas for comparison

Now that we’ve mapped out all the thematic, stylistic, structural and formal similarities and differences, it’s time to zoom in on how the theme is presented from various angles through the use of style, structure and form.

This means going back to the quotations we’ve sourced for the stylistic, structural and formal categories in each table, and looking at how these quotations present the theme in different ways through the poet’s use of techniques.

The purpose of this is to identify 3 main points of discussion for our main body section, which could look something like this:

Main body 1: How the poems present the nature of love (unrequited vs mutual)

  • Techniques used for this: Poem A (metaphor); Poem B (rhyme) 

Main body 2: How the poems present the fickleness of love, regardless of unrequited or mutual affections 

  • Techniques used for this: Poem A (organic imagery); Poem B (irony) 

Main body 3: How the poems reach their respective revelation about the role of love in our lives

  • Techniques used for this: Poem A (indentation / formal variation); Poem B (rhyming couplet at the end)

Together, your 3 main body points should cover the entirety of both texts, and not be limited to just one section of each poem. As for the ‘techniques used’, these should come in organically as part of your analysis, as you explain how the poet(s) convey these ideas through the use of metaphor, rhyme, organic imagery, irony etc. 

One more point to note is this: even within a comparative framework, there’s likely to be an arc of transformation in the way a theme is portrayed in each poem.

So, if Poem A is about unrequited love, does it begin in a despairing tone, but ends on a more stoic note? And if Poem B is about mutual love, is the idea presented in a purely joyful light throughout the poem, or does an element of doubt seep in halfway?

It’s important that we pay attention to these changes within each poem even while comparing across poems. 

how to compare poems identify 3 key ideas for comparison

Step 5: Summarise your main argument in a comparative statement

Finally, let’s summarise the poems’ similarities and differences in a comparative statement.

This should be the guiding thesis for your essay, which also doubles as your main line of argument and cascades into points of analysis for the main body section.

Perhaps it seems a bit odd to ‘work backwards’ by coming up with the introductory thesis at the end of our planning process, but it works, because when you think about it, your argument should be a distillation of your main points, which are the specifics in each main body paragraph. 

To formulate the thesis, use comparative sentence structures like the following:

While both Poem A and Poem B are about…, Poem A portrays… as…, whereas Poem B casts… as… 

Poem A and Poem B are concerned with…, but Poem A presents… in a … light, while Poem B paints… as…

In Poem A, … is depicted as… However, this same subject matter is dealt with differently in Poem B, where the poet portrays… as… 

Your comparative thesis should be thematic in nature (i.e. it spells out how a theme is portrayed across both poems); any shared or different techniques could either be left to the main body analysis, or – if it helps clarify your focus as you go on to write the rest of your essay – you could add one follow-up sentence after the comparative thesis to summarise the technical overlaps and divergences between the poems.

For example, “Poem A relies mainly on comparative devices and imagery, while Poem B features personification and rhyme to convey the nuances of…” etc etc. But this is largely optional. 

how to compare poems summarise your main argument in a comparative statement

Quick demonstration: Carol Rumens’ ‘The Emigree’ vs Seamus Heaney’s ‘Storm on an Island’ | AQA GCSE English Literature Power and Conflict Poetry

Below, I’ll demonstrate how we can apply these steps to a comparison between two GCSE Power and Conflict poems – Carol Rumens’ ‘The Emigree’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Storm on an Island’. 

You can refer to the texts here (The Emigree) and here (Storm on an Island).


Step 1: Summarise the main idea of each poem in 1-2 sentences 

In ‘Emigree’, the persona is a political exile (hence the title) who has left her home country to escape political persecution. In the poem, she reminisces about her native city with nostalgic fondness, while conveying her awareness of the tyrannical threat that lurks in the shadows of her past. In a nutshell, she misses home but knows that she will probably never be able to return. 

The main idea of ‘Storm in an Island’ is that we’re often afraid of things that aren’t out to get us. We prepare for potential dangers, and yet are unaware that we can’t always prepare for them, or that they usually turn out to not be dangerous at all. In this poem, the persona initially sees nature as a force of threat, but ultimately understands that while nature is forceful, it doesn’t have to be threatening. 

Step 2: Find similarities – thematic, stylistic, structural and formal

Aspects of analysisPoem APoem B
Theme(s)Being outside one’s comfort zone
Facing potential danger
Examples from each poemThe persona is an emigree in a foreign country, as she recalls “There once was a country… I left it as a child” (1)The persona is bracing for a potentially devastating storm (“We are prepared: we build our houses squat”) (1) 
Stylistic featuresWar imageryNatural imageryAlliteration
Examples from each poemWar imagery
It may be at war, it may be sick with tyrants, (7)
The white streets of that city, the graceful slopesglow even clearer as time rolls its tanksand the frontiers rise between us, close like waves. (9-11)
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,We are bombarded with the empty air. (17-18)
Natural imagery
“Sunlight-clear” (2)“Sunlight” (8, 16, 25)  (“It tastes of sunlight” is also synaesthesia) “Close like waves” (11)“Nor are there treesWhich might prove company when it blows fullBlast: you know what I mean – leaves and branchesCan raise a tragic chorus in a gale” (5-8) 
References to “the sea… exploding comfortably down on the cliffs”, “the flung spray hits/The very windows” (12-15) 
“We just sit tight while wind dives/And strafes invisibly” (16-17) 
Feature 3Alliteration
Examples from each poem“The worst news I receive of it cannot break
My original view, the bright, filled paperweight.” (5-6)
The white streets of that city, the graceful slopesglow even clearer as time rolls its tanksand the frontiers rise between us, close like waves. (9-11)
I have no passport, there’s no way back at allbut my city comes to me in its own white plane.It lies down in front of me, docile as paper;I comb its hair and love its shining eyes.
Starts with plosives Includes sibilants in moments of recollected tranquility 
We are prepared: we build our houses squat,Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate. (1-2) 
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.You might think that the sea is company,Exploding comfortably down on the cliffsBut no: when it begins, the flung spray hitsThe very windows, spits like a tame catTurned savage. We just sit tight while wind divesAnd strafes invisibly. (11-17) 

Also starts with plosivesIncludes sibilants to convey surrounding tranquility 
Structural featuresPresence of enjambment / run-on lines 
Examples from each poemLines 1-4 Lines 9-11Lines 7-10
Formal featuresVaried lineation at points, not visually aligned
Examples from each poemWavy curve of the stanzas (especially stanza 2) Waviness of the stanzaic shape becomes more consistent after line 7 (the protruding line) 

Step 3: Find differences from similarities 

Aspects of analysisPoem APoem B
Theme(s)Being outside one’s comfort zoneFacing potential danger
Examples from each poemThe persona is an emigree in a foreign country, as she recalls “There once was a country… I left it as a child” (1)The persona is bracing for a potentially devastating storm (“We are prepared: we build our houses squat”) (1) 
How do they differ?The persona is an emigree in political exile – she is geographically displaced from but emotionally attached to her home.The persona is at home (geographically stable), but his anxiety about the storm leaves him psychologically unmoored. 
Stylistic featuresWar imageryNatural imageryAlliteration 
Feature 1 War imagery
Examples from each poemIt may be at war, it may be sick with tyrants, (7)
The white streets of that city, the graceful slopesglow even clearer as time rolls its tanksand the frontiers rise between us, close like waves. (9-11)
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,We are bombarded with the empty air. (17-18)
How do they differ?War is a real occurrence in the persona’s home country, and is implied to be the reason for her exile. Not only are the “tyrants” a source of terror and threat for her, even “time”, which “rolls its tanks”, erects a barrier between her and “her city”, separating them in a brutal way. The war references in this poem are figurative, but also paradoxical. “Strafes” means ‘to attack repeatedly with bombs’, so “strafes invisibly” is technically impossible because bombing is audio-visually prominent. The word “salvo” means “a simultaneous discharge of artillery or other guns in a battle”, which makes the statement “space is a salvo” paradoxical because space has no substance or force. Likewise the reference to “We are bombarded with the empty air”. The idea here is that the persona is imagining (or anticipating) terror and attack where there is none. 
Feature 2Natural imagery
Examples from each poem“Sunlight-clear” (2)“Sunlight” (8, 16, 25)  (“It tastes of sunlight” is also synaesthesia) “Close like waves” (11)“Nor are there treesWhich might prove company when it blows fullBlast: you know what I mean – leaves and branchesCan raise a tragic chorus in a gale” (5-8) 
References to “the sea… exploding comfortably down on the cliffs”, “the flung spray hits/The very windows” (12-15) 
“We just sit tight while wind dives/And strafes invisibly” (16-17) 
How do they differ?There are lots of references to “sunlight” in this poem (which are juxtaposed against references to darkness towards the end). As a disinfectant and a symbol of hope, ‘sunlight’ represents for the persona the power that her fond memories of home hold above all else – and the warmth they bring her despite the cold, terrorising reminder of tyrants and exile. The references to nature – “trees”, “leaves and branches”, “the sea”, “the cliffs”, “wind” – create the impression of a rugged, vast landscape that’s removed from civilisation (hence the title – ‘storm on an island’). There’s the sense the persona is engulfed by these natural structures and elements, which are imbued with agency and power. 
Feature 3Alliteration
Examples from each poem“The worst news I receive of it cannot break
My original view, the bright, filled paperweight.” (5-6)
The white streets of that city, the graceful slopesglow even clearer as time rolls its tanksand the frontiers rise between us, close like waves. (9-11)
I have no passport, there’s no way back at allbut my city comes to me in its own white plane.It lies down in front of me, docile as paper;I comb its hair and love its shining eyes.
Starts with plosives Includes sibilants in moments of recollected tranquility 
We are prepared: we build our houses squat,Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate. (1-2) 
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.You might think that the sea is company,Exploding comfortably down on the cliffsBut no: when it begins, the flung spray hitsThe very windows, spits like a tame catTurned savage. We just sit tight while wind divesAnd strafes invisibly. (11-17) 

Also starts with plosivesIncludes sibilants to convey surrounding tranquility 
How do they differ?In ‘Emigree’, plosives are featured to express the persona’s emotional burden upon recalling “the worst news” she received about her exile (“it cannot break… the bright, filled paperweight”) While sibilants come in later to outline the persona’s fond memory of “my city” (“white streets of that city, the graceful slopes”), there remains a sense of heaviness towards the end, when she imagines that “it [my city] lies down in front of me, docile as paper”. The plosives “down”, “docile” and “paper” are abrupt, forceful sounds, which jars slightly with the denotation of submission, softness and fragility  in “docile” and “paper”. ‘Storm’ opens with harsh sounds (“prepared”, “build”, “rock”, “roof”) to convey friction and conflict, which extend through the cacophony of words such as “company”, “comfortably” and “cliffs”. But it concludes with a series of sibilants (“spits”, “savage”, “sit”, “strafes invisibly”) to portray a quieter, less hostile soundscape. 
Structural featuresPresence of enjambment / run-on lines 
Examples from each poemLines 1-4 Lines 9-11Lines 7-10
How do they differ?‘Emigree’ opens with a rush of enjambed lines, as if the persona is both eager and hurried in her speech. In the second stanza, enjambment shows up again to reflect the ‘sloping’, ‘rolling’ and ‘rising’ actions alluded to from lines 9-11, overlaying syntactic movement and kinaesthetic references. The only section that contains substantial run-on lines in ‘Storm’ (l.7-10) relays the persona’s imagined fear of natural forces. This contrasts against the choppier phrases and lines in the rest of the poem, which describe the reality of nature (more indifferent than threatening). 
Formal featuresVaried lineation at points, not visually aligned
Examples from each poemWavy curve of the stanzas (especially stanza 2) Waviness of the stanzaic shape becomes more consistent after line 7 (the protruding line) 
How do they differ?There are 3 stanzas, with the first two being octaves and the final one containing an extra line. Lineation is visually varied, as the line lengths modulate to present a wavy shape throughout the stanzas (especially apparent in the first two stanzas). The entire poem is one chunky stanza, with line 7 jutting out (only visually though, metrically it contains 10 syllables like the rest of the poem). Perhaps the protrusion here visually mirrors the ‘excess’ of our overthinking minds, especially as it pertains to the persona’s unfounded anxiety about nature’s threat. 

Step 4: Identify 3 key ideas for comparison

Main idea 1: Preserving the home against external dangers  

  • In ‘The Emigree’, the persona fights back against her political persecutors by preserving a pure memory of her home city
  • In ‘Storm’, the persona braces himself for a potentially devastating storm by fortifying the structures of his home
  • Techniques used: war and natural imagery

Main idea 2: Reality vs expectation / ideal

  • In ‘The Emigree’, the persona would ideally like to return to her city, but it is implied that those in power back home do not welcome her presence.
  • In ‘Storm’, the persona anticipates a threatening storm, but ultimately realises that it’s much less destructive than he had expected it to be.
  • Techniques used: alliteration (plosives vs sibilants) 

Main idea 3: The turbulent nature of life 

  • In ‘The Emigree’, the persona is unmoored from her roots, and as an exile, she constantly struggles with conflicted emotions about wanting to return and yet knowing that she probably can never do so.
  • In ‘Storm’, nature is seen to be a turbulent force that changes in ways humans can’t quite anticipate.
  • Techniques used: enjambment and varied lineation 

Step 5: Summarise your main argument in a comparative statement

Both ‘The Emigree’ and ‘Storm on an Island’ present the individual in the face of external dangers, whether real or imagined. However, while Rumens’ persona faces the threat of political persecution, and chooses to counter it by preserving a purer memory of her home, Heaney’s persona over-calculates the dangers of the storm, and eventually discovers that his fear of nature is largely unjustified. 


Bit of a mammoth post, I know, but I hope this helps break down the poetry comparison process into digestible chunks! If you have any questions, reach out to me here.

To read other study guides, check out my posts below: 

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