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How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay in Poetry: the Guide to Successful Writing

Compare and contrast essays are the mainstay of any poetry course. One of the best ways to better understand the characteristics of individual poems, poets and schools of poetic writing is to compare them to each other and find out what they have in common and what sets each of them apart from others. When you analyze something in isolation, your options are limited. When you get to compare it to other things belonging to the same category, everything from stylistic devices to underlying symbolism becomes much more obvious – which is exactly the reason why professors are so fond of giving their students this sort of assignments.

All in all, if you want to get good grades in your poetry course, you will have to learn how to write compare and contrast essays at some point. You can do so by practicing a lot in your free time (and it is probably the best way to acquire solid skills). Not everyone, however, has the kind of time necessary to learn this way. If you cannot afford to spend day in and day out writing essays, this guide will serve as a good enough alternative – follow it step by step, and compare & contrast essays will not present much difficulty in future.

How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay in Poetry: Coming up with a Topic

Just like with most other writing assignments, the success of your compare and contrast essay in poetry very much depends on what topic you choose. Of course, with enough skill it is possible to write about almost any subject, but some things are better suited to be the subject of comparative analysis than others.

1. Make Sure the Subjects of Comparison Are Similar Enough

If you want your analysis to be meaningful, you have to make sure the items you compare are similar enough or at least belong to the same general category of things. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it does not make much sense to look for differences in things that do not have anything in common in the first place. This is why it is a good strategy to first look for similarities and only then focus on the differences. For example:

  • Compare two poems by the same author – analyze the indications that they were written by the same person and the differences in style that may result from being written in different periods;
  • Compare poems by different authors from the same poetic school – analyze how they follow the principles of their schools using their own techniques and methods;
  • Compare poems of the same general type. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Beowulf are all epic poems and share typical features of this type of poetry. However, they are written in different historical periods by representatives of vastly different cultures – how is it reflected in them?
  • Compare poems by different authors writing about the same thing. The greater the difference between the writers, the more interesting your analysis will be.

2. Study the Guidelines

Although usually students get to choose the subjects of their compare and contrast essays on their own, normally you cannot just choose anything you want to write about. Before you start choosing the topic, read the guidelines carefully and make sure you understand everything: what you can select from, which topics are to be avoided and so on. If you have any doubts, clarify them with your professor.

3. Consider the Word Count

With the right approach, comparative literary analysis is a task you can continue indefinitely, finding new and new grounds for comparison. From historical background to the use of stylistic devices, from word choice to the specifics of formatting – you can analyze anything at great length. However, an essay is a relatively short assignment, which means that you should choose a narrower application of your efforts and stick to it. Consider the word limit of your essay and guesstimate how you can delineate the topic in a way that will allow you to both write a text of sufficient length and pay enough attention to each criterion of comparison.

4. Get Your Topic Approved by Your Professor

It does not matter how well you believe you understand the topic – do not commit to anything until your professors approves it. He/she knows more about this subject than you do and is likely to see potential pitfalls where you do not expect them to be.
Here are a few examples of topics you can end up with:

  • Poetry by Edgar Allan Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Similarities, Differences, Influences;
  • The Mahabharata and the Odyssey: Two Epics as Defined by Their Cultural Backgrounds;
  • The Theme of Heroism in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • The Use of Alliteration in Sonnet 5 by William Shakespeare and The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe;
  • American and British Poetic Schools of the 19th Century: Similarities and Differences.

How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay in Poetry: Before the Writing

1. Do Background Research

Before you start planning and writing your essay, you have to be sure you understand what you are dealing with. Of course, theoretically you can write the entire analysis on your own and avoid using the research by other authors altogether. However, in poetry studies you are expected to know the background of what you research, and it includes analytical works by the writers who came before you. Knowing the existing body of research on your subject is helpful in two basic ways. Firstly, you can borrow and use the ideas you find there (after properly citing them, of course). Secondly, you know if somebody already made the allegations you are going to make so that you can avoid being accused of plagiarism.
The easiest way to look for information is to use online academic databases and search engines (Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic are the most common multidisciplinary ones. There are plenty of resources on poetry as well).

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?

2. Make a List of Similarities and Differences

The first thing to do when comparing two poems is to prepare a list of all the obvious and subtle similarities they have. The combination thereof may even play a pivotal role in your analysis – for example, your comparison may be built around the fact that the two poems in question do not have anything in common at the first glance, but if you study them more attentively you can discover multiple underlying similarities.
Some things to pay attention at this stage are:

  • Themes;
  • Tone;
  • Mood;
  • Stylistic devices;
  • Imagery;
  • Word choice;
  • General style;
  • Formatting.

Use a Venn diagram if it is easier for you to process visual information.

3. Write a Thesis Statement

A compare and contrast essay is not just a list of similarities and differences between the two pieces of poetry. Your comparative analysis should pursue a goal or to come to a conclusion – and it is expressed in a thesis statement. A thesis statement is the core idea of your essay in a condensed form – ideally, in a single mid-length sentence (up to 30-35 words).
It should have the following features:

  • It should be the outline of what you are going to discuss throughout your essay;
  • It should be written in declarative form. This is what makes it different from the topic or research question – you make a specific statement rather than delineate your area of research;
  • It should express an opinion or argument that is based on evidence but can be disagreed with. I.e., do not state the obvious, like “Both Shakespeare and Petrarch wrote about love in their sonnets”. Of course they did, everybody knows it and nobody would disagree with it. It makes much more sense to say “Despite covering similar topics, sonnets by Shakespeare and Petrarch have significant structural and thematic differences”;
  • It should be balanced and pay equal attention to both compared works.

How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay in Poetry: Writing Process

1. Analyze the Literary Devices

The analysis of literary devices is bread and butter of anybody trying to draw parallels and contrasts between poetic works. They are important in prose as well, but poetry is just as much about form as it is about content, which makes structural analysis all the more important. Even if two poems have little in common with each other, you can look for similarities in the types of literary devices they use and the ways they are applied.

2. Organize Your Comparison

When you compare two poetic works, you should give both of them relatively equal amount of attention (unless you deliberately use one of them as a context or a backdrop for the analysis of the other one). Inexperienced authors understand this as a requirement to jump back and forth between the two texts every couple of sentences, often turning their essays into confusing, incomprehensible mess as a result.
An alternative is to follow a pre-determined structure:
One Poem at a Time
Give full analysis of one poem, then move on to the next. Thus, you will be able to concentrate on one thing at a time and study it in detail without getting distracted. However, it is easy to forgo comparison entirely and turn your essay into two independent analyses of two poems. Therefore, make sure you keep both of them in mind at all times and use structures like ‘Unlike A, B is…’, ‘Although A relies on assonance as much as B, it puts much greater emphasis on…’.
One Element at a Time
Switch between poems every paragraph. For example, the first paragraph discusses stylistic devices in poem A, the second paragraph covers them in poem B, the third paragraph speaks about the mood in poem A and so on. The advantage of this approach is that it is easy to structure for you and to follow for the reader.

3. Provide enough Evidence

Until you prove something, it remains your conjecture. When analyzing poetry, you should at least provide quotes from the poems and critical works by other writers. Other types of evidence (references to authors’ biographies, historical backgrounds, letters, etc.) can be used if necessary. Use at least one piece of evidence per paragraph.

How to Write a Compare & Contrast Essay in Poetry: After You Finish Writing

1. Check if Your Essay Still Fits the Topic

It is not uncommon to steer away from your original topic in the process of writing an essay. E.g., you may start with a normal comparison but drift towards the analysis almost completely dedicated to one of the poems you compare. If you found yourself guilty of it, make the necessary corrections before proceeding to the next stage.

2. Use a Spellchecker

Do not trust Microsoft Word spellchecker – it only notices the most basic of mistakes. Use other, more specialized tools instead. However, trust them just a little bit more, because they are still very limited and cannot replace a real proofreader.

3. Use a Dictionary

Poetry (especially works by earlier authors) often uses uncommon words and expressions. When you analyze a work, you should make sure you understand what it speaks about. If you have a slightest doubt about the meaning of any word, look it up in a dictionary, especially if you use it in your own argument.

4. Check Your Essay for Larger Problems

Before you move on to proofreading, check if everything is all right with logic, style, focus, organization and the general flow of your essay. Read the text aloud, slowly and paying attention to every sentence. Give it to somebody else to read and ask if you managed to drive your point home effectively.

5. Check Spelling, Grammar and Sentence Structure

Read your essay several times over, with each pass paying attention to a single type of mistakes. This will prevent you from scattering your attention.

6. Recheck Your Essay for Consistency

Reread it once again, paying attention to the content and meaning. When making corrections on the level of individual words and sentences, it is possible to introduce changes that disrupt the general flow of text.

Of course, writing an in-depth comparative analysis of two or more poetic works is a difficult, complicated and sophisticated task. However, with a detailed plan in front of you, you do not need much in terms of experience to successfully deal with it.