Approaching poetry
Approaching poetry

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Approaching poetry

10 Comparing and contrasting

Often 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 will have realised that often in the previous discussions I've used a similar strategy, showing, 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.

Activity 13

Click ‘View document’ below and read the opening lines from two poems commemorating deaths. What can you identify to explain why they sound so very different?

View document [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Discussion

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 death – and both poets are aware of writing within this convention, although they treat it differently.

Activity 14

What do the titles of the poems used in Activity 13 tell us about each poem, and how might they help us understand the different uses of the elegiac convention?

Discussion

I think it would be apparent to most readers that ‘Felix Randall’ is simply a man's name, while ‘Lycidas’ is more mysterious. In fact Lycidas is a traditional pastoral 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, but, 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. The point is that by comparing and contrasting the tone of the opening lines and the titles, and considering when the poems were written, we have come up with a number of significant differences.

Activity 15

Read the attached poem by Robert Browning (1812–1889; click ‘View document’ to open) carefully. Who is speaking, and who is being addressed?

View document

Discussion

From the evidence of the poem we know that the speaker once walked across a moor, found an eagle's feather, and has a high regard for the poet Shelley (1792–1822). The person being addressed is not named, but we discover that he (or she) once met Shelley, and this alone confers status by association. The word ‘you’ (‘your’ in one instance) is repeated in 6 out of the first 8 lines. ‘You’ becomes a rhyme word at the end of the second line, so when we reach the word ‘new’ in line four – one of the two lines in the first stanzas that doesn't contain ‘you’ – the echo supplies the deficiency. ‘You’ clearly represents an important focus in the first half of the poem, but who exactly is ‘you’ ?

Thinking about this apparently straightforward question of who is being addressed takes us into an important area of critical debate: for each one of us who has just read the poem has, in one sense, become a person who not only knows who Shelley is (which may not necessarily be the case) but lived when he did, met him, listened to him, and indeed exchanged at least a couple of words with him. Each of us reads the poem as an individual, but the poem itself constructs a reader who is not identical to any of us. We are so used to adopting ‘reading’ roles dictated by texts like this that often we don't even notice the way in which the text has manipulated us.

Activity 16

Now read the Robert Browning poem again, this time asking yourself if the speaking voice changes in the last two stanzas, and if the person who is being addressed remains the same.

Discussion

If the first half of the poem is characterised by the repetition of ‘you’ and the sense of an audience that pronoun creates, then the second half seems quite different in content and tone. The speaker is trying to find a parallel in his experience to make sense of and explain his feeling of awe; the change of tone is subtle. Whereas someone is undoubtedly being addressed directly in the first stanza, in the third and fourth, readers overhear – as if the speaker is talking to himself.

At first the connection between the man who met Shelley and the memory of finding an eagle's feather may not be obvious, but there is a point of comparison. As stanza 2 explains, part of the speaker's sense of wonder stems from the fact that time did not stand still: ‘you were living before that, / And also you are living after’. The moor in stanza 3, like the listener, is anonymous – it has ‘a name of its own … no doubt’ – but where it is or what it is called is unimportant: only one ‘hand's-breadth’ is memorable, the spot that ‘shines alone’ where the feather was found. The poem is about moments that stand out in our memories while the ordinary daily stuff of life fades. It also acknowledges that we don't all value the same things.

Activity 17

Take another look at the poem. How would you describe its form?

Discussion

The structure of the poem is perfectly balanced: of the four quatrains, two deal with each memory, so, although the nature of each seems quite different, implicitly the form invites us to compare them. Think about the way in which Browning introduces the eagle feather. How does he convince us that this is a rare find?

To begin with, the third and fourth stanzas make up one complete sentence, with a colon at the end of the third announcing the fourth; this helps to achieve a sense of building up to something important. Then we move from the visual image of a large space of moor to the very circumscribed place where the feather is found, but the reason why this ‘hand's-breadth’ shines out is delayed for the next two lines ‘For there I picked up on the heather’ – yes? what? – ‘And there I put inside my breast’ – well? – ‘A moulted feather’, ah (and notice the internal rhyme there of ‘feather’ with ‘heather’ which draws attention to and emphasises the harmony of the moment), and then the word ‘feather’ is repeated and expanded: ‘an eagle-feather’ Clearly the feather of no other bird would do, for ultimately the comparison is of eagle to the poet; Browning knows Shelley through his poetry as he knows the eagle through its feather, and that feather presents a striking visual image.

There is an immediacy about the conversational opening of the poem which, I have suggested, deliberately moves into a more contemplative tone, possibly in the second stanza (think about it), but certainly by the third. We have considered some of the poetic techniques that Browning employs to convince us of the rarity of his find in the third and fourth stanzas. You might like to think more analytically about the word sounds, not just the rhyme but, for example, the repeated ‘ae’ sound in ‘breadth’ ‘heather’ ‘breast’ and ‘feather’. What, however, do you make of the tone of the last line? Try saying the last lines of each stanza out loud. Whether you can identify the metre with technical language or not is beside the point. The important thing is that ‘Well, I forget the rest’ sounds deliberately lame. After the intensity of two extraordinary memories, everything else pales into insignificance and, to reiterate this, the rhythm tails off. While the tone throughout is informal, the last remark is deliberately casual.

In order to come to an understanding of the poem, and to see how the sense of a reader in the text is constructed, we have discussed Browning's use of repetition, rhyme, rhythm, structure, and visual imagery. Our analysis has not by any means exhausted the poem's potential, but, as it is only through practice that we become confident readers of poetry, this is the moment to turn to something very different and see whether similar questions apply. ‘Poem’, by the American Frank O‘Hara (1926–1966), was written in 1962, more than a hundred years after ‘Memorabilia’.

Activity 18

Read the attached ‘Poem’, by Frank O'Hara two or three times (click ‘View document’ to open), first to get a sense of what it's about, then as you re-read ask yourself if it has anything at all in common with ‘Memorabilia’.

‘View document

Discussion

Your first thought may well have been that there are no similarities between the poems, and certainly in the long run there are probably more differences. Nevertheless, ‘Poem’ is also about hero worship of a kind – of a film star rather than a poet this time – and it too has a conversational tone as well as at least one reader in the poem, the ‘you’ who says it is hailing, the ‘you’ that the speaker is in ‘such a hurry/to meet’, and Lana Turner herself, to whom the last line is, comically, addressed.

One of the ways in which Browning achieved a sense of a speaking voice was in the repetition of ‘and’, stringing clauses of his sentences together so that they resemble spoken rather than written language. O‘Hara also uses ‘and’ (seven times) as well as ‘so’ and ‘but’, which function in a similar way, joining ideas and clauses. We can't, however, talk of sentences in the same way here for, with the exception of two exclamation marks, there is no punctuation at all and, unlike Browning, O‘Hara has not used capital letters to begin his lines. There is no rhyme either and, since we don't use rhyme schemes when we speak to each other in daily life, this too helps to create an informal tone. How is it that O‘Hara has confidently conferred the title ‘Poem’ on his work, then? What techniques has he used to ensure that we recognise that language is being used in a special way, or is this simply prose in disguise?

First, visually the words make a neat block of text on the page that we would not expect to find were we reading prose. In the absence of rhymes to govern line endings, though, are beginnings and endings of lines quite arbitrary? (If you have time, write out the poem as if it were prose, cover up the original, and then try to turn it back into verse as you did earlier with ‘Mona Lisa’. The same exercise would not work with ‘Memorabilia’, because the rhyme scheme there dictates the pattern.

How, then, is ‘Poem’ structured? Thinking about repetition helps, for once you notice repetition you begin to discern pattern. The arresting opening line, ‘Lana Turner has collapsed’, is repeated two-thirds of the way through, and the second time the upper case lettering of a news vendor's board is reproduced for our special attention, recreating the moment when the speaker sees it. The first part of the poem deals with ‘now’. There is a lot of weather, and I can't help feeling that had O‘Hara used the word ‘sleet’, there would have been no poem, for the deliberate patterning of

‘raining/snowing/hailing/hailing/snowing/raining’

in lines 3–7 is one of its great pleasures. Notice too the alliteration – ‘hailing’, ‘hit’, ‘head’ and ‘hard’ – recreating the effects of hail, especially as ‘hard’, coming at the beginning of a line, gets extra emphasis. Alliteration, like rhyme, is a special kind of patterning. The inventive image of the traffic ‘acting exactly like the sky’ – busy, unpleasant, coming from all directions – adds to the sense of movement, when suddenly in the midst of all the confusion the headline arrests the speaker's progress, and the poem. The last six lines are reflective, implicitly comparing ‘there’ with ‘here’ – there's no rain or snow in California, and the repeated sentence construction at the start of those two lines plays its part in slowing down the verse movement. The pun on meanings of ‘collapsed’ provides the comic ending to the poem.

The kind of analysis we‘ve been doing helps us to see how poems work. In each case, the apparently informal tone has been carefully achieved; in spite of the casual effect, each is highly organised. We have also begun to notice the way in which readers are constructed by the text, and this will always be important, whether we are reading poetry or prose.

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