Wilfred Owen – writing effective analytical paragraphs

Wilfred Owen

When preparing for the HSC Trials and Exams, consider crafting two analytical paragraphs per poem. On the day of each exam, read the question and develop a thesis to clearly express your understanding of both the question and your knowledge of Owen and his poetry. This strategy will allow you to draft and edit strong paragraphs where each sentence attracts marks, rather than memorise a complete extended response that is highly unlikely to answer the question. Remember, HSC markers are very good at identifying a prepared response.

During student seminars for HSC English, I discuss the ‘HSC numbers game’ and how to achieve by thinking of the whole process in small, attainable goals.

HSC numbers gameCrafted paragraphs become the building blocks for your response – and the more blocks you have, the better choices you can make in selecting textual evidence to support your thesis.

Students may become dismayed at the idea of including five techniques (or language features) per paragraph. And yes, it also means you need to include examples or evidence, as well as explain the effect or meaning of each technique. Here are two sample paragraphs that analyse Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth – these ‘building blocks’ still need topic and linking sentences.

Owen’s use of assonance in the title Anthem for Doomed Youth draws out the final vowel sounds and encourages the reader to contemplate the fate of young soldiers. Written as a sonnet, the octet catalogues the aural imagery of war, whilst the sestet reveals the response of those at home. Owen successfully subverts the conventional loving subject of a sonnet by demonstrating his distaste for wasteful slaughter. The opening rhetorical question creates discomfort by comparing young soldiers to beasts in the simile “as cattle”. By personifying guns with “monstrous anger” and using alliteration in “rifles’ rapid rattle”, Owen brings the battlefield to life for those with no first hand experience. Compounding this horror, the repetition of “no” and “nor” reminds us that these soldiers were unceremoniously left where they fell, with only the “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” of personified artillery.

The sestet also opens with a rhetorical question that is aimed at the bereaved families and extends the comparison between funerals services for soldiers and non-combatants. There is no sense of comfort in this shift in tone, only continuing sorrow. Owen substitutes altar boys holding candles for the “holy glimmers” of exploding bombs in the sky reflected in the dead soldier’s eyes. The sombre ceremonial imagery is reinforced through the calm respect and acceptance of loss suggested in the word choice of “pallor” and “tenderness”. The use of alliteration in the final line “dusk a drawing-down of blinds” adds a sense of finality to the life of the soldiers and their loved ones.

As practice, identify and count the different language features in each paragraph.

It makes logical sense to begin with the title and poetic structure, and limit quotations to a few words to avoid inaccuracies. Notice that I haven’t included some obvious techniques, such as rhyme. You should choose the most important language features for your perspective and thesis.

Build a word bank that will allow you to use a wide vocabulary in your discussion, and avoid repeating the same key words in each paragraph. In the samples above, how many times did I use the word horror?

A common mistake made by students is to use the actual words from their quote in an attempt to explain the effect eg. “In Anthem for Doomed Youth we learn that the young soldiers are doomed.” Simply use a thesaurus to find another word for ‘doomed’ – I found these options in a few moments: cursed, damned, condemned.


4 responses to “Wilfred Owen – writing effective analytical paragraphs

    • Thanks Caitlin. It is more important to remember key quotes, language features and concepts than trying to memorise a full essay. It is often useful to try and write single paragraphs in a response (for practice), rather than always trying to write full essay. This way, you can build on your knowledge and develop a sense of achievement. Try to be positive about what you can do, rather than stating what you can’t do. Best wishes.

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