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AQA Power and Conflict Poetry – What You Need to Know

Many of our students are studying the Power and Conflict collection in the AQA Poetry Anthology. There are some challenging, but really interesting poems in this selection. To help you we’ve added our notes and analysis of the poems in this guide.  Keep reading to find everything you need to know about the AQA Power and Conflict Poetry for GCSE English. There is quite a lot of excellent information in this guide, so we’ve added links to each of the poems in the introduction below. You can use these to jump to your favourite poems!

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Ozymandias (Percy Shelley)- AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context

Percy Shelley (1792-1822) is one of the most famous poets of all time. He was part of an influential group of poets known as The Romantics. Shelley had a pretty wild early life. He came from a very wealthy family and was in line to inherit a fortune. However, Oxford University expelled him for writing about atheism and, as a result, his father later disinherited him. At around the same time he married and eloped to the Lake District. A few years later he set off around Europe with a different woman, Mary Shelley (who would go on to write Frankenstein). Percy Shelley later drowned while on a sailing trip to Italy. 

Shelley had quite radical views. One interpretation of Ozymandias is that the poem criticises people or organisations that become too big and powerful and think they can’t be challenged. 

Content

 The speaker tells us that they met a traveller from an ancient land and that they told him the story contained in the poem. The traveller had come across the remains of a big statue in the desert.  This statue was shattered and partly covered by the sand. On the foot of the statue were the words: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!” – showing the huge pride and arrogance of Ozymandias. The words and the arrogance of the king seem meaningless now – to the speaker and the reader – as the statue is a ruin and nothing of Ozymandias’ power remains. 

Form

Ozymandias is a sonnet, but it is slightly unusual as it doesn’t have the same rhyme scheme or punctuation that most sonnets use. In Ozymandias there is often an irregular rhyme and punctuation splits some of the lines. The poem is written in iambic pentameter. 

Structure

You only hear the speaker’s own words for the first line and a half up to the colon. After that the words are those of the traveller. The poem is one 14-line stanza, split up with plenty of punctuation. 

Rhyme

Although the rhyme scheme isn’t completely regular it is quite powerful in places. For example the final words of line one and three (land / sand) rhyme and so do the first and last words of line three (stand /sand). This use of rhyme adds emphasis and creates a powerful image of the shattered statue.  Similarly the rhyme in lines 12 and 14 (decay / away) end the poem with a sense of emptiness and destruction. 

Imagery

The core image in this poem is that of the huge statue which now lies in ruins. Shelley creates a really effective image for the reader, with the remains surrounded by desert. This emphasises the fact that the once great power of Ozymadias has completely gone. 

Themes

Shelley is most likely using the image and example of Ozymadias and his statue to give a general interpretation of political power and public opinion. The key ideas here are that: 

  • even those who seem to be the most powerful will eventually fall; 
  • time eventually overcomes even the most powerful; and
  • art and literature are where the true, lasting power lies – the statue itself and the words inscribed on it have long outlasted Ozymandias. 
Ozymandias - AQA power and conflict poetry

London (William Blake) – AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context

London was published in 1794. Blake was appalled by the terrible conditions and poverty he saw in London. The French Revolution is important context for this poem. In 1789 the French people overthrew their monarchy and aristocracy. Many people in England saw the French Revolution as a good example to follow, a way for ordinary people to take power and make society more equal. In this poem Blake implies that the awful conditions for ordinary people in London could trigger a revolution.  Blake also didn’t like established religion in Europe because it failed to help poor people, especially children who had to work in bad conditions. Blake refers to this directly in London, every black’ning church appals”

Content 

Blake describes a journey through London and describes the awful living conditions that the speaker sees across the city. At the start, the poem criticises the laws around ownership referring to the “charter’d Thames’ and the ‘charter’d street”. Here Blake refers to how the rich and powerful own everything in London. Blake goes on to criticise the church for not doing enough to help the poor. The final stanza discusses the horrors of prostitution and sexually transmitted disease. 

Form and Structure

London is written in a very regular way and resembles a song. Each of the four stanzas offers a snapshot of an aspect of life in the city. 

Rhyme

There is a strict, regular rhyme scheme – ABAB in each of the four stanzas. 

Language

Blake uses repetition to emphasise important points. “Charter’d” is repeated in the first stanza to show how everything in the city is owned by the rich and powerful. The repetition of “Marks” in stanza two shows the physical marks and scars on people due to their living conditions. It also has a double meaning as it could suggest the speaker recording (or ‘marking’) what he saw on the journey through London.  

The tone of the poem is sombre and in some ways almost biblical (reflecting Blake’s interest in religion and how annoyed he is that the church isn’t addressing the conditions). 

Blake uses lots of negative language throughout the poem. See if you can pick out some examples. 

Imagery

There is some powerful imagery in this poem. In stanza two Blake introduces the idea of “mind-forg’d manacles” (or handcuffs). With this Blake suggests that the structure of the society imprisons ordinary people’s minds. They can’t think freely and escape the terrible poverty they’re in. 

The poem ends with the strong image of a ‘marriage hearse’. This is an oxymoron as marriage is a celebration of love and new life, where as a hearse is associated with funerals. Blake shows how the poverty, prostitution and STDs he has described will bring nothing but death and decay. 

Themes

Blake wrote London as a pessimistic poem reflecting his horror at the living conditions of ordinary people in the capital. He reflects on how the powerful institutions – the monarchy, aristocracy and church – have done nothing to alleviate the poverty and poor conditions. 

Extract from The Prelude (William Wordsworth)

Context

This is an extract from a long, autobiographical poem in 14 sections. Wordsworth worked on this poem throughout his life and his wife published it shortly after his death. Wordsworth was born in the Lake District and the geography of the area played a big role in his writing. These influences appear in the vivid images of this poem. As a young adult Wordsworth travelled around Europe at the time of the French Revolution, again this major event informed his writing. Wordsworth was on the “Romantic” poets. 

Content

The poem covers some big themes about “man, nature and society”. Wordsworth is exploring his own spiritual growth as he comes to terms with who he is and what his place is in the world, particularly in relation to the natural world and its power.  At face value the poem describes how Wordsworth went out in a boat on a lake, late at night, alone, and how the awesome sights of natural power (e.g. the mountain peak) affected him. The experience then troubles him and causes him to reflect over the coming days. 

Form and Structure

The Prelude is an epic poem in terms of its length. Epic poems are very long and usually cover heroic events like war, great explorations or slaying mythical beasts. Most of the events in the prelude don’t fall into this category. They are quite ordinary, but they become ‘epic’ because of the effects they have on the speaker’s life and how he views the world. 

The writing is continuous, with no stanzas. Wordsworth uses lots of punctuation to help the reader ‘break up the poem’. Although only an extract from the main poem, this section is a full story in itself. 

The poem is written in blank verse (non-rhyming lines, usually in iambic pentameter).  

Language

The poem uses conversational language and tone – you can imagine Wordsworth actually saying this to you. Look at how Wordswroth repeatedly uses the word “and” to suggest that this story is spoken directly to the reader. 

Imagery

Wordsworth uses impressive imagery to describe the night. The gentle light of the moon and stars turns to darkness as the narrator becomes more troubled, “there hung a darkness, call it solitude”. The imagery becomes increasingly dark and disturbing. This is like a gothic tale or even a horror story in places. 

Wordsworth also personifies the boat he is in (calling it “her”) and the mountain peak, which comes to life and chases him across the lake. 

Themes

Nature – the power of nature is important. Wordsworth shows how humans can feel insignificant in comparison. 

Loneliness – Wordsworth is alone. He meets and gains knowledge from nature (the mountain, the lake and the night), but not any other characters.

My Last Duchess (Robert Browning)

Context 

Robert Browning was a Victorian writer who is famous for dramatic monologues in his poetry. He was very interested in European history and culture, which were the basis of much of his writing. My Last Duchess is based on a sixteenth century Italian Duke – Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara and his wife, the Duchess Lucrezia de Medici (who died at the age of 17). 

Content

The poem is set a few years after the death of the Duchess. We only hear the words of the Duke, but it is clear that this is one side of a conversation. In fact this conversation was with an emissary from the Count of Tyrol, who was the father of the Duke’s next wife. In the poem the Duke suggests the Duchess had been unfaithful to him and he implies that he had her killed as a result. The Duke looks arrogant, insensitive and selfish. Through the comments he makes about his late wife the reader actually learns more about the nasty character of the Duke. 

Form and Structure

My Last Duchess is in the form of a dramatic monologue (the extended speech of an individual character). Although a dramatic monologue, it is clear that this is one side of a conversation with an emissary from the family of the Duke’s next wife. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, with rhyming couplets. Rhyming couplets would usually make the lines seem memorable, but the use of punctuation throughout the poem breaks this up and shows us that this is unrehearsed speech. Browning also uses plenty of enjambment (where lines run on), which adds to the use of punctuation in emphasising the narrator’s arrogance. 

Language and imagery

The poem is littered with personal pronouns, which we would expect in this sort of speech. However, they are important because they help to highlight the Duke’s arrogance and selfishness. They also often relate to his love of possessions, including how he treated his late wife (who he saw as a possession).  

The poem lacks any really impressive, or poetic imagery. The Duke himself admits he does not have the “skill in speech”. This helps to show how the Duke only thinks of himself. 

Themes

Power – This poem is all about power. The Duke is powerful in society and has a big ego because of that. Browning implies that he demonstrated his own personal power and control in his family life by killing his wife. 

Pride and arrogance – these are shown to be bad and dangerous qualities in someone with power. 

Jealousy and madness – the Duke was clearly jealous of his wife simply smiling at other people. This, combined with his exaggerated sense of power meant he felt he could kill the Duchess. 

The Charge of the Light Brigade (Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Context

Tennyson wrote The Charge of the Light Brigade after one of the most famous battles of the Crimean War (1853-56). The Crimean War was fought between Russia on one side and an alliance including Britain and France on the other. The battle was the Battle of Balaclava. During the fighting some one made a mistake, possibly from a misheard order. This mistake led to six hundred British cavalry of the Light Brigade charging into a valley surrounded by Russian cannons. It was essentially a suicide charge! Many of the Light Brigade died or received bad injuries in the battle. 

News of the catastrophe quickly made it back to Britain. It was one of the first times that the public had heard about a military blunder in detail. The Crimean war was the first war where journalists were reporting back from near the front line. The news led to the first serious questioning of decisions made by commanders and the consequences for soldiers. There was anger towards the commanders, contrasting with an appreciation of the bravery and sacrifice of the ordinary soldiers.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Content 

Tennyson captured this mood in his poem. He praises the soldiers, while showing his anger towards the commanders whose blunders led to their deaths. The Charge of the Light Brigade tells the story of the battle from the “blunder’d” order which started the charge, through their engagement with the Russian soldiers and guns, to their retreat back from the “mouth of hell”. 

Tennyson ends with a stanza praising the undying glory and honour of the six hundred soldiers of the Light Brigade. 

Form and Structure

The poem has 6 stanzas – one for each hundred soldiers of the Light Brigade. The form, rhythm and structure of the poem reflect the charge of the horses, and the vicious fighting. The first stanza is 8 lines long, followed by two 9 line stanzas mirroring the increasing pace of the charge. The fourth and fifth stanzas are particularly long (12 and 11 lines respectively) as Tennyson depicts the frenzied slog of the hand-to-hand fighting and dangerous retreat. The final short stanza reflects the loss of life. It leaves the reader pondering the message of the poem – “honour the charge they made”. 

The initial rhythm makes it hard to read the poem without sounding like you’re riding on a charging horse. As with the stanza length, this then breaks down in stanzas 4 and 5 as the fighting dominates the action. 

Language

Tennyson uses some interesting language and techniques to reflect the story of the charge and the honour of the soldiers. Notably the first three stanzas contain examples of repetition “half a league, half a league, half a league onward”; “Rode the six hundred”; and “cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them”. This combines with the rhythm to enhance the feeling of galloping horses. The direct speech of “Forward the Light Brigade! Charge the guns… Forward the Light Brigade!” emphasises their bravery and places the reader in amongst the charging soldiers. 

The famous lines: “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” highlight the bravery of the soldiers. It contrast with the confusion of their commander’s orders. 

As the hand-to-hand fighting commences in stanza 4, Tennyson emphasises the glimmering and slashing “sabres”. He repeats the verb “flash’d” and includes sibilance to highlight the brutal fighting – “Reel’d from the sabre-stroke shatter’d and sunder’d”. Then, in stanza 5, there is even more repetition – “cannon to the left of them… cannon to the right of them” as the remaining soldiers begin their retreat. 

Finally, in stanza 6 Tennyson ends with a rhetorical question “When can their glory fade?” and repetition of the word “honour” to hammer home his praise of the soldiers’ bravery. 

Imagery

There is some strong biblical imagery throughout this poem. This imagery highlights the deadly nature of the charge and the bravery of the soldiers. “Into the valley of Death” comes directly from a biblical psalm. The image extends with “into the jaws of Death and into the mouth of Hell”. Tennyson essentially says the soldiers rode to hell and back as they “came thro’ the jaws of Death back from the mouth of Hell”. 

Themes

Tennyson’s main message is to praise the courage of the the men of the Light Brigade. He shows his anger at the poor leadership – “some had blunder’d”. He still, however, suggests it is honourable to die for your country, “theirs was not to reason why, theirs was but to do and die”. The command at the end of the poem for the reader to “honour the charge they made” leaves us in little doubt what Tennyson wants us to take away from the poem. 

Exposure  (Wilfred Owen) – AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context

Wilfred Owen is one of the most famous war poets. He fought in the First World War and his poems reflect his experiences of war and the reality of conflict. During the war people back in Britain did not get the sort of information we get today about war. There was heavy censorship from the government and obviously no TV to show the reality of the front line. As a result many soldiers felt people back home did not understand how horrific war was. For poets like Owen their writing was a way of conveying the reality and expressing their horror at modern warfare. 

During the First World War (1914-1918) a network of trenches were dug by both sides across France and Belgium. Both armies were locked in a stalemate along these lines for much of the war.   There were huge battles with massive losses of life, but in-between the battles soldiers had to wait in their trenches exposed to the elements. The winter of 1917 was particularly cold and caused many soldiers to suffer from hypothermia and frostbite. It is in this context that Owen wrote Exposure. 

Owen himself joined the army in 1915. He suffered severe ‘shell shock’ in 1917 and went to a military hospital. While in hospital Owen met the already famous war poet Siegfried Sassoon who recognised and encouraged Owen’s talent. Owen then returned to the front line and died just a few days before the end of the war. He was just 26 years old. 

Content

Exposure focuses on the long, dull, grim days in-between battles. Here the weather and modern weaponry took its toll on soldiers physically and psychologically. There is no glory or honour for soldiers here. Only boredom, illness, fear, injury and death. 

Form and Structure

The poem has 8 stanzas, each with 5 lines. The final line of each stanza is very short to add emphasis to its message. The final lines are either the repeated phrase, “But nothing happens”, or a rhetorical question. Both show the despair of the soldiers and the pointlessness of their situation. The rhythm adds to this message. It breaks down at various points, particularly in the final short lines of each stanza. 

The first four lines of each stanza have a regular ‘abba’ rhyme to convey the consistency of the soldiers’ experience. The difficulties they are facing go on and on without change. However, some of the rhymes are  half-rhymes, “knive us/ nervous”, “wire/ war” and “brambles/ rumbles”. This adds to the sense of unease. The men fear the effects of the weather and the constant threat of death. 

Language

Exposure contains lots of emotive language, a tortured tone and clever techniques. These draw the reader in and make us feel the horror and desperation of Owen and his comrades. It all starts with the title, “Exposure”. Att face value this is referring to the soldiers’ exposure to the elements and weather. However, it also refers to the soldiers’ exposure to the horrors of war. The word “exposure” also emphasises how the public in Britain are “exposed” to the realities of war. 

Owen uses inclusive pronouns throughout the poem, “our”, “us”, “we”. This shows the collective experience of all soldiers in the First World War. It also invites us to imagine that we are part of this group of soldiers, creating a sense of solidarity. 

Owen includes alliteration and assonance to great effect in the poem. For example the repeated ’s’ sound in, “Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence”, reflects the sound of bullets whizzing past the soldiers. Assonance appears in the third stanza with the repeated ‘o’ sound, “soak… know… grow”. The length of the ‘o’ sounds could be interpreted to emphasise the monotonous nature of life in the trenches. 

The repetition of “But nothing happens” is very important. Owen uses this to show the boring monotony of life in the trenches. Full battles were relatively rare. Soldiers often faced long periods of time sat in their trench exposed to horrible conditions. This was not the glorified version of battle that many people back home imagined. Owen is emphasising the reality of war again. 

Owen uses lists of emotive words to describe the soldiers’ feelings and fears: “worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous”. This exposes the reader to the reality of war even further. Owen further compliments this with the use of rhetorical questions: “what are we doing here?” and “is it that we are dying?” to show the futility of war and the certainty of death felt by soldiers. For them life and death are inextricably linked. It’s difficult for them to tell if they are alive or dead. 

Imagery

Owen creates a number of important images for the reader, showing us in vivid detail the horrific nature of his experience. In the second stanza Owen describes the “mad gusts tugging on the wire, like twitching agonies of men among the brambles”. Here he personifies the gusts of wind. He uses a simile to liken the sound of the wind on barbed wire to soldiers in agony. This is very emotive and even upsetting for the reader, transporting us onto the front line. 

Later, natural elements are again personified to show how the elements are as deadly as the German soldiers, “Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army attacks once more in shivering ranks of grey”. Here the dawn is directly portrayed as an army – emphasising the idea that exposure to nature as the real enemy. 

This idea develops further in stanza 4 as the weather seems as more deadly than enemy bullets, “sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence“. Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow”. 

Then, by the final stanza, death and the weather come together, “The burying party, picks and shovels in the shaking grasp, pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice”. By this point the soldiers are completely accustomed to death and even see their own death as inevitable. 

Themes

Owen’s main theme is about the reality of warfare in the First World War. He describes the crippling monotony of life in the trenches and the debilitating effects of the weather on the soldiers. The weather is the real enemy to Owen and his comrades, not necessarily the Germans. Owen wants to get this message across to people back home in Britain. 

Despair and the loss of faith are also considered. The soldiers despair, as they essentially give up on life due to the conditions they endure. They have even lost any of the faith they had in God, “For love of God seems dying”.

Storm on the Island (Seamus Heaney) – AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context

Seamus Heaney is from a rural part of County Derry in Northern Ireland. He grew up on his family’s farm, which influenced a lot of his poetry to focus on the countryside and nature. He also grew up witnessing much of the disruption and violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Heaney is one of the most famous Irish poets of the twentieth century and has taught literature at Oxford and Harvard Universities. 

Content

Storm on the Island is about exactly that. Heaney describes being in an isolated cottage on the cliffs of an island off the coast of Ireland while a terrible storm rages around him. Heaney describes the power of the weather and nature. He suggests that the people on the island can do nothing in the face of this natural power. The poem also has a metaphorical meaning. The storm and the disruption caused to the island could reflect the very human atrocities of the conflict in Ireland in the Twentieth Century.

Storm on the Island - AQA Power and Conflict poetry GCSE

Form and Structure

The poem has one 19 line stanza all in blank verse (lines that do not rhyme and have 5 beats per line). Blank verse makes poetry follow the style of natural spoken English, so it is as if the poet is talking directly to us. 

Language

The first part of the poem describes how the islanders have prepared for the storm. The tone is relatively confident, “We are prepared: we build our houses squat, sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate”. The verbs “build”, “sink” and “roof” show the actions the islanders have taken to prepare to face the power of nature. Heaney then adds to the feel of a story teller with the line “you know what I mean”, as if he is talking directly to us. 

Then the storm hits and Heaney uses some really powerful language to show the strength of its force, “pummels”, “exploding”, “flung”, “savage” and “bombarded”. The tone has changed to one of fear and respect for the awesome power of nature. The focus on the lack of defence and help provided by the natural features on the island also helps to emphasise the isolation, “But there are no trees, no natural shelter… But no”. Here the repetition of “but” and “no” show the lack of any natural barriers to the power of the storm. Nothing can stop it.  

Enjambment (where lines run on from one to the next) appears quite regularly to show the sudden changes in the weather and the impact on the island, “when it blows full / Blast” and “tame cat / Turned savage”.  Both of these examples add emphasis to the words “blast” and “savage”, showing the power of the storm. The violent language appearing here could also reflect the impact of the political divisions in Northern Ireland.

The final line is really important, “Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear”. Heaney finishes with the paradox that the storm is an adversary they cannot see, but with a huge power they fear. This unknown element of the storm makes it all the more scary.  

Imagery

The most powerful imagery created by Heaney is the storm as military weaponry attacking the island. “wind dives and strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo. We are bombarded by the empty air”. The use of military words like “strafes”, “salvo” and “bombarded” creates the image of an organised warfare from the storm. This could reflect the idea of the storm as an extended metaphor for the conflict in Ireland.

Themes

For the AQA GCSE course in particular, the most important theme of Storm on the Island is the power of nature. In the face of this power the humans on the island are fearful and there is nothing they can do other than to prepare and hope to wait out the storm. The military language used by Heaney shows that this power of nature can be violent and unforgiving. 

Bayonet Charge (Ted Hughes)

Context

Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire in 1930 and lived until 1998. His upbringing in the countryside influenced a lot of his writing. Hughes is famous for his children’s books as well as his poetry. As a young man, Ted Hughes served in the RAF for two years before going to University.  

Content

Bayonet Charge is about a soldier charging enemy trenches in the First World War (1914-18). This is an unusual topic for a Ted Hughes poem. A bayonet is a long knife that soldiers attach to the end of their rifles and a ‘bayonet charge’ was a common tactic in the First World War for taking over enemy trenches. During the poem the soldier describes his transformation from someone who is thinking  actively about what is going on around him, and someone who believed in “king, honour and human dignity”, into someone desperate just to survive and get out of the “blue crackling air” of the battlefield. 

Form and Structure

The poem has three stanzas with a very varied line lengths. The changes in line lengths mirror the changing speed of the soldier as he progresses across the battlefield and occasionally slows due to enemy fire, or ducks into cover. The first stanza in particular includes a lot of dashes, which break up the rhythm and suggest that the soldier’s flow of thought breaks up as he realises the nature of the chaos of battle around him. 

Hughes also uses a lot of enjambment (where lines run on with no full-stop), even between stanzas. This reflects the speed of the attack and the increasingly frantic thoughts of the soldier himself. 

Language

In the first two lines Hughes repeats the word “raw”, “running-raw in raw-seamed hot khaki”.  This immediately gives the reader a sense of the uncomfortable, harsh nature of the charge for the soldier, before we even begin to start thinking about the bullets and bombs coming from the enemy. 

Words associated with movement also appear regularly in the first stanza, “running” and “stumbling”, to show how the soldier is constantly charging over the course of the poem. We see how difficult his progress is because of the “raw-seamed hot khaki” (Khaki was a type of clothing worn by soldiers) and the “field of clods”. The soldier’s effort and increasing terror is further shown by the use of words like “suddenly”, “running”, “sweat heavy”, “lugged” and “sweating”. 

The language of stanza two shifts the focus of the poem to “bewilderment” at the situation the soldier has found himself in. He also questions how this has happened and why he is continuing to run despite his fear and uncertainty. The rhetorical question, “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations was he the hand pointing that second?”, evokes the idea of fate and questions whether he is destined to survive. The use of the word “cold” shows how uncaring this fate is. The questioning and uncertainty of the soldier develops with the simile, “he was running like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs listening between the footfalls for the reason of his still running”. Basically, the soldier can’t understand how he is still managing to run towards the enemy trenches. 

In the final stanza Hughes lists the things that have become “luxuries” to the soldier, “king, honour, human dignity, etcetera”.  All of these things were important to him before the battle, but during the battle are overtaken by his instinct to survive.

Imagery

There is a lot of imagery throughout the poem to emphasise the ideas discussed above. In the first stanza Hughes personifies the air with the metaphor, “bullets smacking the belly out of the air”. This gives the reader an idea of the sounds of battle, while also suggesting bullets hit many of this soldier’s comrades. 

Hughes also creates a powerful image with the simile describing the soldier’s rifle, “he lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm”. Not only does this show how heavy and cumbersome the rifle is, which slows the soldier’s progress, but it also again creates an image of the injury and death going on around the soldier without directly describing it – “smashed arm”. The soldier is trying not to focus on the horrors around him, but can’t ignore the terrible injuries. 

In the final stanza we see another image created of the “yellow hare”. As with the earlier descriptions of the “hedge” and the “field of clods”, Hughes is describing the nature around the soldier and contrasting this with the violence of battle. The hare becomes an image of death at the end of the poem as it “rolled like a flame and crawled in a threshing circle”. Again, Hughes uses an image of death rather than directly describing the deaths around the soldier. This shows how the soldier is trying to block out the horror of battle around him. 

Themes

Bayonet Charge puts the reader in the mind of a soldier as he charges across no man’s land towards enemy trenches. There is a vivd description of the soldier’s changing thoughts and we see how by the end his only focus is on surviving as his instincts take over. He’s no longer a real person, he just wants to get out of the field. In this way the main theme of the poem is the human response to conflict. 

Remains (Simon Armitage)- AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context

Simon Armitage is a famous modern poet from Yorkshire. His poetry tends to be approachable and colloquial in style. Armitage’s poetry often focuses on relationships, or personal feelings. 

In 2007 Armitage made a programme for Channel 4 called ‘The Not Dead’. He also wrote a collection of poems (including Remains) under the same title. In preparation Armitage interviewed a number of soldiers who had fought in wars, including the Gulf War. Remains seems to relate to the Gulf War as he mentions ‘desert sand’. 

Content

Given Armitage’s colloquial style, the poem is fairly easy for us to follow. The speaker is a soldier who, while out on patrol with some other soldiers, came across a looter and shot him. Although the body gets taken away quickly, the bloodstains on the ground remain. They haunt the soldier as he patrols again in the same area. We then hear how the speaker is affected when he returns home. He can’t stop thinking about the man he killed. The event torments him.

Form and Structure

There are eight stanzas. All but the last of the stanzas are fairly regular quatrains (a stanza of four lines) with no real rhyme. The final stanza is only two lines. This abrupt end stands out and emphasises how the soldier cannot stop thinking about killing the man. It also links to the ‘drink and drugs’ in suggesting that the speaker is losing control and is mentally unwell. The poem is split roughly in half. The first four stanzas cover the event, while the last four stanzas describe the effects on the speaker. 

Remains is a monologue (a speech by one person speaking alone) and the language suggests the soldier is speaking directly to the reader, retelling his story. This sense of ordinary speech is enhanced by the lack of any regular rhythm and the use of enjambment (where a sentence or clause continues over a line break). 

Language

The title, ‘Remains’, has a double meaning for the speaker. It literally refers to the physical remains of the man who was shot, while also relating to the memory of the shooting that remains forever in the speaker’s mind. 

Throughout the poem Armitage uses colloquial language to make it seem as though the speaker is directly telling us his story. Phrases like, ‘On another occasion’, ‘legs it up the road’ and ‘end of story’ suggest the poem is in spoken English. ‘On another occasion’ also suggests the speaker has been through many similarly bad experiences. The phrase ‘probably armed, possibly not’ repeats to show how this guilt haunts him. 

It is also interesting that despite the detailed description of the shooting, we do not know the names or any real details about the speaker and his two comrades. The use of: ‘somebody else and somebody else’ and ‘three of a kind’ shows us how this could be any soldier. They would all have had very similar, horrifying experiences. 

At a few points the language Armitage chooses also alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this poem the speaker talks of his disturbed sleep, which links to Macbeth’s line that ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’ after he has murdered the King. Furthermore, the poem finishes with the description of his ‘bloody hands’, which links the reader to Lady Macbeth’s madness following the murder. Lady Macbeth’s guilt drives her mad to the extent that she cannot wash the imaginary bloodstains from her hands. 

Imagery

The image created of the shooting is violent and graphic. We hear how: 

  • each bullet ‘ripped through his life’; 
  • the body was ‘sort of inside out’; and
  • the speaker’s mate ‘tosses his guts back into his body.’

The gory descriptions highlight the trauma of the event and how intensely it has affected the soldier. 

Armitage creates a couple of vivid images to highlight the violence and gore of the soldiers experience and the extent to which he is haunted by the memory. The speaker talks of a ‘blood-shadow’ left on the ground where the dead man fell. At face value this simply describes the bloodstain left on the ground, but think beyond this and the ‘shadow’ becomes a metaphor for the memory of the looter and the shooting, which the speaker cannot shake off. 

Similarly, the military image of the dead man ‘dug in behind enemy lines’ in the speaker’s head emphasises how the horrible experience – and guilt that the speaker feels – has become a constant mental trauma for him. 

Finally the landscape is described further with the use of sibilance (the repetition of soft consonants – in this case an ‘s’). ‘Sun-stunned, sand-smothered land’ emphasises the alien environment for the soldier and the distance from which the event still haunts him. 

Themes

Remains has some important themes running through it: 

  • Conflict – the speaker is a soldier fighting a war in a distant land. He follows orders with his comrades, but the consequences of violence and death play out in the poem. 
  • Guilt – guilt haunts the soldier. When he returns home he cannot do anything without remembering the killing. The speaker feels particularly guilty because he doesn’t know if the looter had a weapon. He doesn’t know if the shooting was necessary. 

Poppies (Jane Weir) – AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context

This poem was written when British soldiers were fighting and dying in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time the Poet Laureate (Carol Ann Duffy) asked a number of writers to write poems to try and reflect the pain caused by deaths in the conflicts. Jane Weir was one of those asked. She wrote this poem, which is set in the present but also reflects on the end of the First World War in 1918 and the beginning of the poppy tradition of remembrance. 

Armistice Sunday began in Britain after the end of the First World War as a way of remembering all those who had died in the war. It has since grown into a national act of remembrance for all those who have fought and died in wars. 

Content

The speaker in this poem is a mother who has lost her son in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. The poem is her expression of the thoughts and feelings of grief that have overtaken her. She simultaneously talks about the present, her son’s childhood and hints at his death in a far off conflict. 

Form and Structure

At first glance the poem is in four fairly regular stanzas, with short 6 line opening and closing stanzas and longer 11 and 12 line middle stanzas. There are, however, a lot of caesuras  (pauses in the middle of lines marked by punctuation) and enjambment (where lines run on) creating an uneven rhythm. It’s clear that Weir has done this to reflect the grief of the speaker and the irregular nature of her memories as she tries to remain calm, while dealing with the raw emotion of loss. 

The narrative structure (order of how the story is told) is also constantly in flux. The sequencing of the speaker’s memories is not in order and changes several times in the poem. We begin with “three days before” then the speaker remembers “before you left” and “when you were little”.  Finally we hear that “’this is where it has led me” – returning us to the present with the speaker. Again this helps to reflect the nature of grief and how the speaker is trying to deal with her emotions. 

Language and Imagery

Weir uses vivid descriptions of the son as a man and as a child to emphasise the mourning of the speaker. ‘Smoothed down your upturned collar’, ‘run my fingers through the gelled blackthorns of your hair’ and ‘play at being Eskimos like we did when you were little’, all provide personal detail to the narrative and show the reader a sense of the speaker’s pain. 

There are numerous uses of violent, military language and references to injury throughout the poem. ‘Blockade’, ‘reinforcements’, and ‘bandaged’ are examples of how Weir creates military images while referring to everyday things. It is clear that the son was wounded and killed in war.  

Enjambment occurs between lines and stanzas to create a sense that the speaker is talking directly to us and to highlight the emotional state she is in, remembering and mourning her son. 

Towards the end of the poem Weir introduces images of the songbird and the dove. The speaker ‘released a song bird from its cage’ as a metaphor for sending her son off to join the army and fight. Later – when the focus has shifted to the mother’s visit to the war memorial – ‘the dove pulled freely against the sky, an ornamental stitch’. This is open to interpretation and you should have a think about what your take on it is. The dove symbolises peace. Weir may be using the dove as a metaphor for the death of the son and the final peace he has found in death.  

Themes

  • Conflict – Much of the language used is related to the military and to conflict. The implication is that the son was badly injured before he died in a distant conflict. 
  • Loss (physical and emotional) – the speaker is in mourning and deeply affected by the loss of her son in war. 
  • Remembrance/ grieving process – poppies symbolise remembrance and the dove symbolises peace. The reader gets a clear sense of the mother’s pain and loss. 

War Photographer (Carol Ann Duffy) – AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context 

Duffy wrote this poem to reflect on her thoughts and feelings about a friend of hers who was a war photographer. The photographer traveled to some of the worst conflict zones in the world and recorded the horror in photographs, which would appear in newspapers and news bulletins back at home. 

Content

The poem addresses some of the tensions and challenges that Duffy sees her friend having to face. Most of all Duffy shows the struggle for any war photographer. He witnesses (and records) some of the worst aspects of conflict and is unable to do anything directly stop it. It is so difficult for the photographer to switch between the normal world at home and the horrific conflicts he documents. 

Duffy contrasts the chaos of the war zones with the order the photographer tries to bring into the simple things in his own life, such as lining up his photographs ‘in ordered rows’. 

Form and structure

The poem consists of four regular six-line stanzas. This order mirrors the photographer’s meticulous approach to developing his pictures and juxtaposes the chaos of the war zones. 

Language and imagery

Duffy chooses language that vividly creates a number of different settings and images for the reader. In the first stanza words like ‘finally alone’, ‘ordered’ and ‘softly’ create a sense of calm and order in the photographer’s dark room (where he is developing his photographs). This is immediately contrasted with the violence and chaos appearing in the ‘spools of suffering’ in the photographs. In this first stanza the photographer is also likened to a priest ‘preparing to intone a Mass’. This simile emphasises the tranquility of the photographer’s dark room. The final line of the first stanza lists three conflict zones where the photographer has been, ‘Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh’ and then finishes with an interesting metaphor, ‘All flesh is grass’. This metaphor dehumanises the violence. It suggests that the photographer has been desensitised to the horrible violence he documents.

The second stanza highlights the contrasts between the two worlds the war photographer moves between. This disturbs the photographer more than war itself as his hand ‘did not tremble then though seems to now’. ‘Rural England’ with its ‘ordinary pain’ and ‘fields which don’t explode beneath the feet of running children’ now seem unusual.

A memory then flicks through the photographer’s mind and shows how haunted he is by what he has witnessed. ‘A stranger’s features faintly start to twist before his eyes, a half-formed ghost’‘A half-formed ghost’ is a metaphor for the memory, but also literally refers to the victim in a foreign war.

Finally the poem explores the futility of the photographer’s efforts to genuinely help in the conflict areas he photographs. From ‘a hundred agonies’ in photographs, only a few will be published and make the ‘reader’s eyeballs prick with tears’.  Duffy suggests that readers feel sadness for the people photographed, but then quickly revert to their ‘bath and pre-lunch beers’; emphasising the real priorities of people in the developed world, which ensure nothing will change and conflict will continue. This idea culminates in the final two lines. As the photographer flies off, ‘he stares impassively at where he earns his living and they do not care’. The adverb ‘impassively’ emphasises that the photographer has given up on any real change to resolve the conflicts he sees. The final phrase – ‘they do not care’ – sums this up. 

Themes

There are two big themes in this poem:

  1. the horrific nature of war; and
  2. people’s indifference to war and suffering in distant countries. 

Tissue (Imtiaz Dharker) – AQA Power and Conflict Poetry

Context

Imtiaz Dharker is a modern poet and film/ documentary director. She was born in Pakistan and grew up in Scotland. Her poems usually consider ideas about identity; the role of women in society; and finding meaning in life. She often considers multiculturalism in her work. 

Content

Dharker uses tissue paper as an extended metaphor for life. She examines how paper can be shaped and used to change things. There is also a reference to the thin, light paper used in religious books (particularly the Koran in this poem). Dharker also looks at our different uses for paper (receipts, money, maps and religious texts) and how these are closely linked to important things in life. 

The final paper-based metaphor is to link an idea of a building made from paper to human skin. This is a difficult idea to explain fully in an exam and it is open to your interpretation, so have a think about what your own take is on this idea. Dharker might be suggesting that life and the things we think are important are actually very fragile and won’t last forever. She could also be suggesting that our actions in life are more important – and outlast – the things we build or record on paper; or that the memories and changes we record on paper are very powerful. 

Structure

This poem consists almost entirely of irregular quatrains (stanzazs with four lines), which only have very limited rhyme. You can think of your own interpretation of this irregular structure, but Dharker may be reflecting the changing nature of life and the fragility of paper. The rhyme and rhythm of the poem are also irregular and very changeable. Tissue contains a lot of enjambment (lines running on in and between stanzas). This creates a sense of the delicacy and flowing movement of tissue paper and human life.  

This form holds for nine out of ten stanzas. The final stanza changes quite abruptly though to one line in length. This really emphasises the final line, ‘turned into your skin’, showing the connection between paper and skin (and therefore life). 

Language and imagery

Throughout the poem the adjectives used work with the structure to emphasise the delicacy of paper – ‘fine’, ‘thin’ and ‘transparent’. Alongside this, Dharker often refers to light and to its effects on the delicate paper. Repeated ideas like: ‘lets the light shine through’, ‘sun shines through’, ‘luminous’ and ‘daylight’ show how light illuminates the paper and how our uses for paper are dependent on light. 

There are few individual language techniques in this poem (other than a few similes/ metaphors), but there is an extended metaphor linking paper to skin and to life. Dharker consistently refers to the important uses we have for paper, ‘the Koran’, ‘maps’ and ‘slips from grocery shops’ and then introduces the idea of architects building with paper. She ends by suggesting the structures built of paper are actually us – ‘thinned to be transparent, turned into our skin’. 

Themes

There are three main themes to Tissue:

  • Power – the power of paper in our lives to record events, ideas and memories. The poem even suggests paper has the power to change the course of our lives. 
  • Delicacy/ instability  – paper is thinned and damaged by use, buildings are damaged by the elements, and human life is fragile. 
  • Humanity – Dharker compares the delicacy of paper to buildings and structures that can easily be destroyed. The poem ends by drawing human life into this comparison, suggesting that human life is fragile like paper, but that the essence of humanity has the power to outlast structures and ideas. 

The Emigree (Carol Rumens)

Context

Carole Rumens was born and raised in London. She has written many poems since the 1970s and has translated a number of other poems from Russian. People analysing her work have suggested that she has a ‘fascination with elsewhere’ – an idea that crops up in much of her writing. This is shown in The Emigree because the speaker longs to be ‘elsewhere’.  

Content

The Emigree is written from the perspective of a displaced person who describes and longs for home. Rumens does not give any names to the speaker of to the places described. This suggests that the poem is about the experiences of many people rather than about a specific person/ place. The speaker has been forced to flee because their homeland is torn apart by war and a tyrannical dictator. Despite the clear presence of conflict in the speaker’s homeland they still remember the perfect place where they grew up. 

Through this poem Rumens is showing the reader the power that places can have over people and how we can feel forever associated with a place. 

Form and Structure

The Emigree takes the form of a first person account, from a general perspective (there are no names given as discussed earlier). The poem is structured in three stanzas. The first two are eight lines in length and the final stanza is nine lines long. Why Rumens has added a line to the final stanza is open to interpretation, but it may be emphasising the lasting impression that this place has had on the speaker’s life. 

The Emigree does not use any rhyme. There is some rhythm to the lines, but this is a little changeable and isn’t fully established. This could be mirroring the speaker’s mind-set as they have a mix of emotions – positivity for their new home and the freedoms they enjoy, but also a longing to return to their homeland. 

Language and Imagery

At first glance the language used in this poem looks fairly natural. It’s the sort of language that is used in everyday speech, so it seems as though the speaker is talking to us. Alongside this natural language, however, Rumens uses lots of metaphors and similes to emphasise her message. Metaphors like: ‘the bright, filled paperweight’, ‘branded by an impression of sunlight’ and ‘time rolls its tanks’ create contrasting images of the positive memories of the speaker versus the conflict that has now engulfed the homeland. The city itself could also be considered an extended metaphor for a lost childhood that everyone can relate to. 

Alongside the metaphors, Rumens make use of a number of similes: ‘frontiers rise… like waves’, ‘docile as paper’ and ‘like a hollow doll’. Finally the city itself is personified as a visitor who comes to the speaker, ‘it lies down in front of me… I comb its hair and love its shining eyes.’ There may also be a double meaning in the final stanza when the ‘city comes to me on its own white plane’. As the city is personified, this refers to an aeroplane flying in to visit the speaker; but beneath that the ‘white plane’ could also refer to a sheet of paper, suggesting that the city now only exists in the words of the speaker. It could be an imaginary place or just somewhere that the speaker knows they will never see again. 

Throughout the poem the overall tone is one of fondness for the lost city, but there is also a recurring threatening tone as we hear about the conflict overtaking the speaker’s lost city, ‘it may by now be a lie, banned by the state’ and ‘it may be sick with tyrants’. 

Themes

  • Exile – the speaker is an exile from their homeland. The lost home could also represent a lost past, or childhood. 
  • Conflict – there is a conflict raging in the speaker’s home city, from which she has fled. There is another conflict within the speaker between their current life of freedom and a longing for their childhood home. 
  • The power of places – the poem emphasises the power that places can have over us. This has a literal meaning as well as a metaphorical meaning of something lost. 
  • Light vs dark – there are numerous images of light breaking through darkness. These support the idea of conflict. 

Checking Out Me History (John Agard)

Context

John Agard was born in the Caribbean in 1949 and moved to the UK in the late 1970s. Agard often uses non-standard phonetic spelling (where a word is written as it sounds) to mirror his Caribbean accent. His writing covers issues around being black and challenging racist attitudes. Agard is particularly interested in highlighting unconscious racist attitudes (that people don’t even realise exist). 

Content

The poem focuses on exploring how history is taught in school and throughout life. Agard shows how a biased teaching of history can impact on how people think about their own identity. Agard repeatedly stresses how he was taught a version of history that was biased towards white people and their achievements. He gives numerous examples of important white people from his history lessons (who he struggles to identify with); and contrasts these with some key black figures from history with whom he can identify, but needed to research for himself. Finding out about these historical figures is helping him to discover his own identity. The poem challenges the reader to think more closely about our heritage and identity. 

Form and Structure

Checking Out Me History alternates between two different structures, which are visible through the change in font. The two structures have the following features: 

  1. The first structure repeats ‘dem tell me’ and covers the white version of history taught when he was a child. This structure has lots of rhyme – with rhyming couplets, triplets and quatrains throughout. The tone in this structure is angry and rebellious. 
  2. The second structure, denoted by an italic font, tells of major black historical figures like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Mary Seacole. This structure has very short lines, uses abbreviations and misses out words. There is some rhyme, but this is very irregular. These features may reflect how the historical figures were removed from history lessons. The tone in this structure is celebratory. 

Language and Imagery

The key language feature is the non-standard phonetic spelling Agard uses to provide the sound of his Caribbean accent. This language runs throughout the poem, ‘dem tell me dem tell me wha dem want to tell me’. The repetition of ‘dem tell me’ emphasises how he has been repeatedly told about the history of white people. It contrasts with ‘dem never tell me about’ followed by the black historical figures he cites.  

When Agard talks about the white dominated history he learned at school, he tells us about some characters from legends and fairytales. He heard about ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘de cow who jump over de moon’, but he did not hear about important black historical figures. This highlights the biased/ inaccurate nature of the history lessons from his childhood. 

Agard uses lots of natural language and imagery, particularly when describing the black historical figures he is discovering. ‘Thorn’, ‘stream’, ‘river’, ‘mountain’ and ‘fire’ are all used to connect these characters with his natural heritage and identity. This is added to by other images of light, which illuminate his identity: ‘beacon’, ‘fire’, ‘healing star’ and ‘yellow sunrise’. 

The poem contains lots of end rhyme (strong rhyme in the last word or syllable of lines or stanzas). This emphasises the key points and the switch between the two structures.

Themes

  • Meaning of history – Agard challenges us to think carefully about our history. We should research for ourselves and find out about the history most relevant to us. 
  •  Power of identity – the speaker never identified with the biased version of history he was taught. Only when he examines the past for himself does he start to understand his own identity. He feels stronger for it. 

Kamikaze (Beatriz Garland)

Context 

Beatrice Garland has not directly experienced any of the things she talks about in this poem. She has, however, said: “I spend a lot of the day listening to other people’s worlds”. In Kamikaze Garland reflects on one of these worlds. Kamikaze pilots flew suicide missions for the Japanese Empire at the end of the Second World War. Their missions were to crash into allied ships. There was a strong social pressure on the pilots and their families to carry out these Kamikaze missions. The poem explores these pressures. This is also relevant in the modern world as terrorists use suicide missions in modern conflicts. 

Content

Kamikaze is mainly told from the perspective of the daughter of a kamikaze pilot. The pilot turned back from his suicide mission and returned home. This is a narrative poem (telling a story). Garland begins by exploring the moments in which the pilot decides to turn back. She goes on to show the reader the consequences in the rest of his life. His neighbours and family look down on him and shun him. Even his wife and children reject him and refuse to speak to him.  

Form and Structure

This is a narrative poem (telling a story). It begins by reporting on events as if someone else had told them. Then, in sections in italics, Garland switches to a first person narrative (where the speaker tells a story directly). This allows the reader to better understand the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. 

Kamikaze has a fairly simple structure. There are seven stanzas, each with six lines. There is no rhyme and only a very basic rhythm. This simplicity means the reader focuses on the story itself and the tragedy of the events. The poem has only three sentences to give it the feeling of a story told orally. As we move between the sentences the speaker and time setting change as well. You need to think about what your interpretation is of why Garland has made these changes. 

Language and Imagery

Garland uses relatively natural language that we might use every day. There are still some important literary techniques to highlight the pilot’s experiences and the thoughts of his daughter. 

In the first half of the poem Garland uses impressive metaphors to show us what is influencing the pilot’s thoughts. ‘A tuna, the dark prince’ and ‘the loose silver of whitebait’, suggest the power and value of the sea. The life it holds has forced the pilot to think again about completing his mission. Garland also provides vivid details of the pilot’s experience by describing how his senses react to the setting. ‘Green-blue translucent sea’ and ‘dark shoals’ show what he saw and the ‘salt-sodden’ boat involves touch and taste. 

A developed simile, ‘arcing in swathes like a huge flag waved first one way then the other… the dark shoals of fishes’, compares the ideas created by man to the natural world and what really matters in life. The patriotic (flag waving) Japanese military had persuaded the pilots and their families to believe that kamikaze missions were honourable. The fish, however, show the power of nature and that life is more important.  

Themes

  • Social pressure – the pilot is first pressured into the mission and is then disowned by his family for returning. The social pressure created by propaganda has enabled this. 
  • The power of nature (in particular the sea) – it was the natural sights which persuaded the pilot to turn back. The natural power of life was more potent than the power of the military and social pressure. 

So there you have it – a complete guide to the poems in the AQA Power and Conflict poetry collection. It’s quite a long guide because there is a lot to learn, so well done for reading through everything. Now you just need to learn it all and memorise some key quotations from each of the poems. You should also have a go at plenty of practice exam questions. Check out the AQA website for their past and specimen exam papers.

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