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The Raven and Mending Wall

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Edgar Allen Poe. Robert Frost. These are two of the most widely acclaimed poets in American literature. Indeed, these two writers have made relevant contributions to poetry in America in spite of the differences in their themes and poetics – a fact apparent in the comparison of their works, such as Poe’s “The Raven” and Frost’s “Mending Wall”.

Narratives

 “The Raven” is one of Poe’s most famous poems which tells of a man mourning the death of his wife, Lenore – seemingly a recurring theme in Poe’s works. As he tries to forget about her loss, drowning his sorrows in books, a raven appears perched above the door. At first, the man thinks it is a visitor then believes it is the ghost of Lenore, but as he realizes it is just a bird, he becomes disappointed. Eventually, he becomes annoyed as the bird appears to mock him, answering ‘Nevermore’ to all his questions, that being the only word it knows. Towards the end, he asks the raven to leave but the raven remains, making him sink deeper into his grief.

“Mending Wall” on the other hand is about two neighbors who constantly try to rebuild a wall between them even if they have opposing views – the speaker is not really sure why they need to put up a wall while the neighbor is dedicated to the task, firmly believing in the saying that “Good fences make good neighbors”. The wall keeps falling down for various reasons but in the spring, the two neighbors meet and put it up again anyway, and the cycle goes on.   

Lessons

“The Raven” and “Mending Wall” talk about different subjects and themes. “The Raven” centers on death and grief while “Mending Wall” talks about the notion of building a wall as perceived by two different people and its effect on them.

In “The Raven”, Poe explains how a person’s grief can cause him to be irrational to the point of being paranoid. In truth, the raven is simply a bird and is not capable of speech but because of his grief, each croak of the raven sounds like ‘Nevermore’, mocking him, deepening his despair and tossing his soul into an internal conflict.

In “Mending Wall”, Frost says that walls are not exactly a bad thing. True to the adage, they make good neighbors since it brings two people together even if they are trying to keep each other apart. He goes on to say that walls serve two purposes – keeping people in just as they keep people out – both of which should be considered whenever a wall is built.

Spells/ Poetics

Just by going through both poems, it is easy to see which one was written by Poe and which was penned by Frost, which, aside from their themes, can be explained by their language and use of poetics.

In terms of their choice of words, for example, Poe uses archaic words, including words like ‘Nepenthe’, the term for an ancient potion that makes a person forget and ‘Pallas’, which is a lesser known name for the goddess Athena, whereas Frost speaks in a simpler language. Poe also uses words like ‘midnight’, ‘dreary’, ‘bleak’, ‘sorrow’, ‘darkness’, ‘grim’, ‘melancholy’ and others, which paint a dark and depressing picture for the readers in accordance with the theme.

Poe goes on to create this picture with his rich symbolism. The raven itself is an ominous symbol while the words ‘midnight’ and ‘December’ symbolize death in the sense that both indicate an end to something – the end of the day and the end of the year, respectively. There are also symbols of beauty such as the silken curtains and the velvet cushion, reflecting the beauty of Lenore and religious symbols such as the Seraphim, censer, Aidenn and Balm of Gilead which give the raven a divine attribute, as if it is a religious messenger.

Poe’s use of imagery is just as rich as his symbolism. Just by reading the first line alone, the reader is introduced to a world of darkness and sorrow, perhaps one that is even suspenseful and eerie. Poe is especially good at visual imagery, although he also employs auditory imagery – “As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door” and “And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”; organic imagery – “All my soul within me burning” and kinesthetic imagery – “Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter”.

In contrast, “Mending Wall” uses little imagery. This is not to say that Frost is good in imagery. His use of it in “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” proves otherwise. Compared to Poe, though, he uses it sparingly, especially in “Mending Wall”. Still, his well-known nature imagery is there – the image of spring and trees, of the two men persisting the wall in spite of the fact that they seem to be against nature.

He also uses few symbolisms, the main symbol being the wall. Apart from the physical barrier, the wall can also be a symbol of borders between countries since two countries, even if they are conflicting, need to come together to mutually agree on their boundaries. It could also symbolize the invisible barriers people erect around themselves, which do not just keep others out but keep themselves in.

The sound devices used in both poems also differ. Most noticeably, “The Raven” is a rhyming poem while “Mending Wall” is a blank verse, without any rhymes, though it is an iambic pentameter. “The Raven” also uses alliteration a lot – “weak and weary”, “surcease of sorrow” and “Doubting, dreaming dreams” to name a few while “Mending Wall” again is not as rich in sound devices as Frost’s other poems, with its sole alliteration evident in the line “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”

“Mending Wall” is rich in figurative language, though. Here, Frost uses simile – “Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top in each hand, like an old-stone savage armed”; metaphor – “To each the boulders that have fallen to each. And some are loaves and some so nearly balls”; apostrophe – “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” (addressed to the wall) and personification – “My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines, I tell him”.

Poe uses even more in “The Raven”. In particular, he uses plenty of personification like “And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor”, “Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling” and “the lamplight gloated o'er”. There are also examples of metaphor – “fiery eyes”; and hyperbole – “What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore”.

There are examples of irony in both poems, as well. In “Mending Wall”, the irony is that the two men build the wall to keep them apart and yet are brought together by it. In “The Raven”, the raven itself is ironic, since at first it is referred to by the speaker as a messenger of God (“thy God hath lent thee- by these angels he hath sent thee”) but later on as a “thing of evil” sent by the Tempter or the devil.

Indeed, both poems are very well written as expected of Poe and Frost, and yet they leave their mark on the reader in their own way – Poe leaving the reader slightly depressed and fearful, perhaps sympathetic towards the speaker, and Frost leaving the reader with an insight into human relationships.

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