Compare and Contrast


Here are some tips for doing a compare and contrast on two poems. The examples are Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” and John Masefield’s “Cargoes”. Your aim is to identify and analyse the similarities between the poems and, more importantly, the differences.

The following is just a list of some of the points you could make: it’s not exhaustive, by any means.

Both poems share a general theme, which is the nautical; they’re both about ships and the sea. Hardy’s concerns a specific ship, the Titanic, and a specific event – its sinking; whereas Masefield’s is generalised and mentions a variety of vessels – quinqueremes, galleons and coasters. “Convergence” is specific in terms of time, as well; “Cargoes” covers a longer period and makes no reference to any identifiable ship or event.

At the heart of the contrast is the difference between the moral and intellectual visions of the poets. Hardy’s poem is impelled by a powerful sense of fatalism regarding human endeavour, as symbolised in the image of the Titanic. The ship, as he describes it, is a product of “vanity” and the “Pride of Life”. The poem pitches us into big questions about our place in an apparently indifferent or even hostile universe where the “Immanent Will” controls everything. “Cargoes”, on the other hand, celebrates human endeavour, particularly in terms of travel, trade and empire, each stanza representing a different era of history and a different empire, the first being the Roman period about 2,000 years ago, the second the period leading up to the Elizabethan age and the expansion of the Spanish empire, and the third contemporary Britain and its empire.

Both poems talk about wealth: in “Convergence”, the images of “the opulent”, the mirrors and gems represent both the wealth of some of the passengers but also the “human vanity” that produces the Titanic. In “Cargoes” we are presented with lists of marvellous goods – ivory, apes and peacock, topazes, gold moidores, and so on. There’s no apparent moral judgement here. When it comes to the final stanza the nature of those goods has changed – it seems for the worse, because “Tyne coal” and “pig-lead” are not as Romantic as sandalwood and cedarwood, etc, but they are essential for the modern world and have a different kind of value – a more democratic one. The industrial productivity of Britain in this case is seen as a positive, unlike in “Convergence” where it’s presented as “vaingloriousness” and doomed to destruction, destined to be crawled over by “sea-worms” and gazed at by “moon-eyed fishes”.

The difference in meaning is further enhanced by the use of metre and rhyme. In the “Convergence of the Twain”, for instance, the three-line stanzas are like waves, each coming one after another with a relentlessness emphasised by its single rhyme. The rhythm of “Cargoes” is rather jaunty and jolly, a bit like a sea shanty. Hardy’s “Convergence” has no such musicality.

As for diction (language), Hardy, characteristically, employs an idiosyncratic vocabulary: “stilly”, for instance, which is an unusual use of the adverbial form of “still”, one which demands a slow deliberate speaking of the word; “salamandrine”, referring to the salamander in its mythic form as a creature that can survive fire; “thrid” for “threaded”, and so on. Masefield’s language is completely devoid of such eccentricities or formalities, the majority of lines being simple lists; he doesn’t talk about abstract ideas or personify them via capital letters – “The Pride of Life”, the “Shape of Ice”, etc, as Hardy does. You could also note that there is no main verb in “Cargoes”; every stanza, following the same pattern, starts with a present participle, “Rowing”, “Dipping”, “Butting”, thus pitching the reader straight into the action but not really inviting any intellectual engagement. Hardy, on the other hand, generally uses straightforward past and present participles in his sentences – “crawls”, “sparkles”, “grew”.

So those are just a few points of comparison between the poems. There are many more.

When you are undertaking the exercise remember to illustrate your points with quotes from the texts.

Other things to bear in mind:

* Construct your answer according to the usual template, ie introduction, development and conclusion.

* If there is a common theme in the poems, identify it and work out if the poets are treating it in similar or radically different ways. If it’s the latter then it will be easier to compare the poems. If there is no connection between themes, look for some other aspect as a starting point, eg are the poems serious, humorous, difficult to understand, written in plain or complicated language? Do they talk about everyday matters or deal with historical things?

State the similarity/dissimilarity in your introduction as the major thesis.

* If you are restricted by time or word count then select what you consider the most relevant points to make and concentrate on talking about them.

* Finally, remember that in an exercise like this, what counts is being able to identify relevant points and illustrate them with quotes.