Comparing and Contrasting
Frequently, you will find that an assignment asks you to ‘compare and contrast’ poems. There’s a very good reason for this, for, often, it is only by considering different treatments of similar subjects that we become aware of a range of possibilities, and begin to understand why particular choices have been made. You may have noticed that, in the previous discussions, I’ve used a similar strategy. When I showed, for example, how we can describe the rhyme scheme of ‘Love From the North’ as simple, once we have looked at the more intricate patterning of Keats’s, ‘The Eve of St Agnes,’ or Tennyson’s, ‘Mariana.’ Anne Brontë’s, ‘Home,’ and Grace Nichols’s, ‘Wherever I Hang,’ treat the subject of exile in quite different ways—and looking at one, can sharpen our understanding of what the other does.
Consider examples in everyday life, whether it's sports, music, etc. If you take, for example, football or basketball (or almost any sport, really), an offensive-minded team and a defensive-minded team will, despite playing the same sport under the same rules and principles, have completely different philosophical approaches. These different approaches are made even clearer when we compare and contrast them from each other, allowing us to learn more about both types of teams and the sport as a whole. Looking at music, it's the same thing. Think about the similarities and differences—and how these similarities and differences highlight respective traits—between jazz and rock, metal and classical, hip hop and punk.
1) Read the opening lines from these two poems given below about death. How might you explain why they sound so very different?
Lycidas by John Milton (1637)
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year. [ 5 ]
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Felix Randal by Gerard Manley Hopkins (written between 1876-1889)
Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?
If I had to identify one thing, I would say that the first begins more elaborately and with a more formal tone than the second. ‘Felix Randal’ tends to use language in an unusual way, but you would probably agree that the first sentence is quite straightforward and sounds colloquial (or informal), as if the speaker has just overheard someone talking about Randal’s death and wants to confirm his impression. ‘Lycidas’ opens quite differently. It is not immediately apparent what evergreens have to do with anything (in fact, they work to establish an appropriately melancholy atmosphere or tone), and it isn’t until line 8 that we learn of a death. The word ‘dead’ is repeated, and the following line tells us that Lycidas was a young man. While ‘Felix Randal’ has an immediacy, the speaker of ‘Lycidas’ seems to find it hard to get going.
Both poems are elegies—poems written to commemorate/mourn a death—and both poets are aware of writing within this convention, although they treat it differently.
2) What do the titles of the poems tell us about each poem, and how might they help us understand the different uses of the elegiac convention?
name, but unless you know something about the classical pastoral tradition, it might mean very little to you. The young man whose death Milton was commemorating was actually called Edward King. However, at the time he was writing, elegies were formal, public, and impersonal poems, rather than private expressions of grief. ‘Lycidas’ commemorates a member of a prominent family rather than a close friend of the poet’s. Over two hundred years later, Hopkins, while working loosely within the same elegiac convention, adapts it. Felix Randal is an ordinary working man, not a public figure. In the seventeenth century, it would have been unlikely that he would have been considered worthy of a poem like this.
If you were making a special study of elegies, there would be a great deal more to say. That’s not the idea here, though. By comparing and contrasting the tone of the opening lines and titles, and considering when the poems were written, we have come up with several significant differences. These differences help offer insight into each poem.