Analysing unseen poetry is a vital skill for GCSE English Literature – no matter which exam board you’re studying with. Edexcel, WJEC, AQA and OCR all include an unseen poetry comparison, so it’s worthwhile getting used to this!

Here’s a sample essay comparing two poems (In Flanders Fields by John McCrae and Flag by John Agard). Have a read through, thinking about the use of terminology and paragraph structure – and how you would improve this essay.

Flag actually features in the OCR Conflict Anthology, so this is bonus revision if you’re studying for this…

Remember: for the highest marks, you should be talking about both poems (and their overall message) in every paragraph, rather than just one after the other. It’s all about comparison over all!

To familiarise yourself with the poems, here’s a link to Flag and In Flanders Fields, as well as a fantastic video from John Agard discussing the poem. Read the poems first, make your own notes on language and structure, then come back to the essay below…

Ready? Let’s begin…

Read In Flanders Fields by John McCrae and Flag by John Agard. Compare how the poems present ideas about what people fight and die for.

For your introduction, always focus on what’s similar about the poems, as well as what’s different – be as specific as possible! Here’s an example of the same/different/same structure…

In both Flanders Fields by John McCrae and Flag by John Agard, the poets present the reasons why people go to war and give up their lives. Whereas John Agard criticises the power of flags and the nationalism they represent, McCrae presents a more positive picture of the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought in the First World War. Both poets utilise a symbol to represent what people fight and die for; for Agard this is “the flag” whilst for McCrae – the poppy and the torch symbolise remembrance and respect for the dead.

In the first stanza, McCrae utilises emotive language and personification – describing the “larks, still bravely singing”. This could represent the bravery and sacrifice of the men who fought and died for a cause they believed in. This contrasts with Agard’s poem, which questions the pointlessness of dying for “just” a flag. The alliteration of “blood you bleed” highlights that nationalism encourages people to give up their lives – and will ultimately “outlive” their sacrifice.

In a similar way, the repetition of “In Flanders Fields” from John McCrae also highlights the sacrifice which took place in this specific location – but argues that others should continue to take their “torch” (here representing hope and goodness of those that died) and continue to “hold it high”. It is a both a tribute to the men, but also like Agard, a warning against war itself.

In Flanders Fields, McCrae describes the poppies “between crosses row on row”. The repetition and assonance gives the poem a repetitive, slow and melancholy pace. This is further repeated with assonant phrases such as “loved and were loved”. Many of these phrases add to a semantic field of religion throughout Flanders Fields, with words such as “crosses”, “hope” and “faith” which suggest that the people who are dying do so because they believe it is morally right. Agard also uses a semantic field throughout Flag, but this is of medieval battle. Words such as “pole”, “tent”, “field” highlight that men have been fighting over flags and nationalism for a very long time. Whereas McCrae, although acknowledging the sorrow of death, praises the individuals who gave their lives, Agard criticises the system which led to such bloodshed in the first place.

Have a go writing your own final paragraph!

How would you use the structure of each poem to add to this essay?

Think about John Agard’s use of the question/answer dialogue format (what are the differences between the person asking and asking the questions?), does the rhyme scheme change – and what could this suggest?

This could be contrasted with McCrae’s rhyme scheme and the different lengths of his stanzas (5 lines, 4 lines, 6 lines). Why might this be – how could it link to the overall message of lives being cut short, and encouraging remembrance?

You could also look out for any caesura, enjambment, voltas (shift in tone/focus), imperatives, declarative statements etc. Always thinking about how this adds to the overall meaning of the poem. If you’re unsure on any of this terminology, here’s a helpful guide.

Remember, you’ll also need to summarise your arguments in a short conclusion.

It’s all about practice for unseen poetry comparison, so the more you can read, and the more you practice spotting language and structure techniques – the easier this will become. I promise. Good luck, and happy analysing!

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