Comparing Poems #1

SeparationIn a prelude to this post, we mused on the nature of comparing things, places, people and literary texts. Here, we take the first step into H2 Paper 1 Section A, in hope of demystifying the reading, analysis and essay planning process based on a 2016 A-level question.

Before plunging right in, let’s deal with typical anxieties you legitimately might have…

Anxiety Response
Understanding one poem is difficult enough. How am I going to understand the ideas in two poems? What if I go off-topic?
The question in H2 Section A provides more guidance to the reader than in the H1 single-poem equivalent. You will find the central theme (e.g. separation, exile) spelt out clearly in “each poet’s portrayal of…”, so you generally shouldn’t go “off”.
What if I understand only one poem and not the other? Can I still attempt the question, especially when I completely don’t get the other option?
We obviously want to have a full grasp of both poems. If you don’t, you can still make meaning of the two poems by relying on an “anchor text”*. Write about the poem you understand first, and compare the one you don’t quite understand in terms of the first (e.g. Poem B suggests that separation is a more painful experience than Poem A).
 Am I expected to compare the two poems by ideas or by methods? Both! You can “organise” your essay by broad method (e.g. language, style, form) or broad ideas (e.g. memory, suffering). For both approaches, I generally recommend students compare similar methods** (e.g. corporeal imagery vs natural imagery) for similarities and differences in effects and purposes / ideas.


Additional Notes

*There is no hard rule that 50% of your essay must be on Poem A and the other 50% on Poem B. The quality of your comparison, which itself mandates some balance between poems, matters more. If forced to give a number, we’d advise that the “weaker poems” should cover at least “35%” of your essay.

*Section A is foremost a technical exercise, where you closely analyse poems for their methods and effects so that you can respond to their ideas. So even if you “don’t understand” a poem’s ideas, you must be able to pick apart its literary features. The ideas or purpose of your “weaker poem” can be based on what you say about the first poem. If Poem A for instance suggests that separation is always painful, Poem B might portray separation as an experience that is not always painful and can be moderated if one tries.

**The question text for H2 and H1 Section A decidedly includes “considering in detail ways in which language, style and form...” It is fair to say that you are required to cover these broad methods to some degree and that you can organise your essay accordingly to ensure coverage of each area. 

**If you feel that you have a limited range of ideas, exploring the full range of methods in terms of 1-2 ideas should help you write enough. Remember that poems are short texts and are unlikely to have the same breadth of ideas as a plot-based 300-page novel or action-packed 90-page play will. Expounding on how various methods create shades of meaning (e.g. the rhythm evoking greater dejection than the wintry images) is more than good enough!


2016 A-Level P1 Question 1a

Click image to enlarge. 


Our Approach to Both Poems

  • Quickly read both questions and all four poems. Decide on which question you want to attempt based on your preliminary understanding of its ideas and methods.
  • Read the question, paying attention to the concern-trigger or prompt provided (‘separation’).
  • Re-read Poems A and B in the light of this concern. Ask yourself questions surrounding the theme of separation to generate ‘ideas’:
    – How might we link the titles of the two poems to ‘separation’?
    – What kind of separation are the two poems about? Romantic? Familial? Platonic?
    – Which stage of separation do the two poems represent? (Past) Reminiscing? (Present) The heartbreak of the moment? (Future) The fear of separation?
    – What do the two poems depict about the experience of separation?
    – How do the personae feel about their experience of separation? In what ways are they similar or different?
    – Why are the two poems set a particular location of a ‘familiar square’ in A and ‘Waterloo Bridge’? What do the two poems say about the memory of separation?
    – What do the two personae ultimately reflect about their feelings of separation? Are they in denial? Are they still coping or struggling? Have they reached acceptance or some form of resolution? (We informally map out our thoughts on this reading process in the section below)
  • Annotate Poem A for language, style and form, considering in detail:
    Perspective: first-person, retrospective point of view.
    Tone and diction (patterns of verbs, adverbs, adjectives): mostly wistful, regretful, somewhat self-chiding at one point.
    Imagery and figurative language: images of (i) seasons; (ii) the wounded/wounding body.
    Structure: three stanzas of six lines (sestets), moving from past to present to past.
    Progression: from confusion in Sz 1 to turmoil in Sz 2, to reflecting on his own foolishness and recognising his own sorrow in Sz 3.
    Rhythm: heavy use of enjambment within Sz 1 and Sz 2, while Sz 3 has more end-stopped lines to evoke certainty / self-recognition.
    Rhyme and sound: not much going on here… we’ll see what happens in Poem B.
  • Annotate Poem B for language, style and form, anchoring your analysis of B on your previous annotation of Poem A:
    – Perspective: (i) similar to A, using a first-person retrospective; (ii) italicised text presents the persona’s internal monologue / stream-of-consciousness
    Tone and diction: (i) greater use of active voice (‘I wipe…’) and less use of passive voice; (ii) less dejected than Poem A, even if B acknowledges an inner conflict.
    Imagery and figurative language: (i) similar focus on the place of separation; (ii) similar body conceit, focusing on the head vs the heart.
    Structure: three quatrains, each starting on the same point – Waterloo Bridge in the present, looking back at the past.
    Progression: the persona’s attempts at denial / controlling her feelings waver from line 7 (‘But…’) onwards, culminating in an ‘admission’ in the closing lines similar to that in Poem A.
    – Rhythm: generally shorter lines accompanied by pauses and end stops that show attempts at assertiveness, self-assurance.
    Rhyme: rhyming couplets (aabb) inject a playful / comic undertone to the otherwise serious contemplation of loss in Poem A; the use of casual diction like ‘boss’ paired with ‘across’, or the curious contrast between ‘think’ and ‘drink’ might suggest that the poem is chaffing / teasing its lovelorn persona for her ‘heart over head’ conundrum.


Thinking Aloud about Both Poems

  • linear reading of Poem A in the light of ‘separation’:
    – The title of Poem A immediately brings to mind the idea of separating from a loved one, and hints that the poem itself looks back on this ‘First Parting’.
    – Beginning on ‘I’, it becomes obvious that Sz 1 precisely recalls that moment of parting, with the persona left unaware; he is abandoned by his lover, one imagines.
    – Sympathy pours down in this suitably sad scene of ‘winter trees’ on the persona, who is  ‘left’ ‘wandering alone’ and longing for the ‘gay and confident’ past of him and his lover ‘together’.
    – The opening words of Sz 2, ‘But then’, signal a shift from past to present, sweetness to suffering. No longer can the persona just reminisce about ‘love’s informal care’ in the past. Instead, the pain of separation engulfs the persona (‘each’, ‘fill’), and we are given a series of corporeal images – the heart hits out at the body, the feet strike out at the leaves.
    – The autumn environment implies that almost a year (ok, ok, three quarters of a year) has passed; the images of Sz 2 are more intense, pathetic fallacy being used to highlight the leaves as ‘sodden’, the wind as ‘sad’, and the autumn as ‘lonely’ as the persona reliving his ‘broken loves’. Awww.
    -The self-inflicted ‘violence’ or turmoil i z 2 is countered by a moment of lucidity in Sz 3, in the form of the persona chiding himself for his ‘foolish sickness’ when the parting was but ‘brief’ in full exclamation(!).
    – The lines that follow acknowledge, or show the persona acknowledging, that his emotional ‘wounds re-open on the grieving past’ rather easily. Sz 3 presents knowledge (‘And though I knew’) where Sz 1 started with ignorance. Yet, the persona reflects upon his own emotions as something he cannot control or heal (like a mortal wound). Separation, for him, cuts deep each and every time. Oh well!
    – These closing lines also take us back to the title, which we now know contains the message: that ‘first parting’ has left an emotional mark on the persona, and even ordinary goodbyes, like the ‘first parting’, are greeted with ‘hurt’ as if the separation is for good.
  • A non-linear comparative reading of Poem B to Poem A
    – Ah, a shorter poem. Short poems are good. Long poems are good too but not as good as short poems. You get what I mean. Poem B also has three stanzas… so maybe we might see two shifts in ideas or tone as we did in Poem A?
    – The title of B on first glance isn’t as evocative as the title of A. ‘After the Lunch’ seems like a vague reference to the specific moment of farewell (hence the lunch) or the time the persona is thinking about her loved one – ‘eat lunch, go for walk, cry a bit’ is a fair routine, I guess. Note that I’m already thinking about Poem B in the light of my understanding of Poem A (separation is relived, the memory of which brings pain).
    – The three stanzas all start with ‘Waterloo Bridge’, and there is a reference to the ‘weather conditions’ bringing tears in Sz 1 and the ‘wind in my hair’ in Sz 3. So we have also a setting in the present that brings back similarly sad memories for the persona in B. There is slightly ‘less’ setting in B though, and more emphasis is given to the ‘I’ in the poem.
    – Like in A, a first-person retrospective point of view is used. After describing the ‘tears’ in her eyes, the persona dwells upon her own internal struggle. What is slightly different is the sense of internal dialogue, where the persona is ‘trying to think’ and ‘try(ing) not to notice’ the love she has, and the love she has… lost? On the whole, the persona in B seems to take on a more active role in the turmoil.
    – There’s also a bit of self-questioning (‘when was it wrong?’) that goes together with the allusions to a ‘juke-box inside me’ (music, yes, but probably sentimental like the heart), the heart as the ‘boss’ and the head being ruled by the song/heart. Within the more lighthearted imagery, we get less ‘self-hurting’ as we saw in A and more of emotion being an uncontrollable force — much like ‘the wind’.
    – Like in A, Poem B ends on a ‘confession’ of sorts — that the heart wins, and it is hard to suppress the sense of loss / regret that comes with separation. It is a more jovial admission than in A though that could even be self-parodying / self-mocking.
    – My initial sense is that Poem B presents a ‘later’, possibly more mature stage of reflection upon separation, where the denial or control over her emotional ‘wounds’ (if you have to deem them such) simply gives way on a singular instance. Poem A on the other hand is sunk deep into his own grief to the point of dejection, melodramatically equating the ‘first parting’ with the ‘last’ for every foreseeable moment.
    – A comparative personal response shouldn’t be too hard to write, since we are given two different “intensities” of separation, and two personae who respond in similar yet different ways. If really stuck, I could probably lean more towards one of the ‘attitudes’ towards separation here. Ideally, I’d synthesise both attitudes to say something about how we all deal with separation, or what separation does to us.


In the next post, we will look at how to plan and organise an essay on this question, while also examining in detail two body paragraphs!

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