While both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman wrote during roughly the same time period, their poetry couldn’t be more dissimilar. Particularly in the verbal and literary landscape that each author’s works occupies. Walt Whitman was a vibrant, active engaging man, unafraid of his body, his soul, or of anyone else’s. To him, the world was a thing to be explored and that man and woman were beings to be worshipped on the most personal of levels, by the self. His poetry reflects the expansive view he held both of the world and of himself. Dickinson’s world was much smaller. In her reclusive, secluded existence, she had the time and inclination to examine the smallest elements of life. Her every literary effort strained to find the most economical of descriptions. Each author’s works, regardless of their scope, represented a turning point in poetry. Whitman’s exploration of the expanded self is filled with grandiose and assertive imagery that drives his work. Dickinson’s infinitesimal world, and the extreme boundaries of the self, guided her to create poetry that was no larger than her self or her life. Thus, imagery and landscape, within each author’s works, though divergent are the core of what they were. In this paper, it is hoped to demonstrate that it was Dickinson who achieved a more effective use of both.
Whitman, who had achieved independence by the age of 15, reveled in the extremes of human behavior and of society. As he grew older, and therefore more aware of the power inherent in himself as a man, Walt’s work turned increasingly to the creation of a new vision of men and women not as servants to God, or to the state, but as brightly independent wholly self-sufficient individuals. Whitman’s physical and spiritual world contained the entire world itself. “The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself (Whitman, Preface to “Leaves of Grass”).” This is the impression that he has of himself as the poet. It is this view that dominates his poems. From the beginning of “Song of Myself”, Whitman asserts that the world is his and that he is the world, as is everyone. “I celebrate myself, and sing of myself / And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you (Whitman, 885).” Such a grandiose self-concept required an equally enormous scale within which to express itself. Song of Myself is 1346 lines long.
Though this is certainly one of the longest of his works, it demonstrates a typified style of writing. Whitman, because he was a man, and had an inflated ego, could afford to write without concern about economy or effectiveness. In “Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson”, Whitman attributes his current state of awareness to that other author’s works. “Those shores you found. I say you have led The States there – have led me there…others may line out the lines, build cities, work mines, break up farms; it is yours to have been the original true Captain who put to sea, intuitive, positive, rendering the first report…(Whitman, 934).” His language does not encompass small things. His words and concepts embrace the entire scope of his unlimited world. Even in one of his shortest poems, A Noiseless Patient Spider, consisting of only 10 lines, manages to bring the entire universe to the life of a small arachnid. “And you O my soul where you stand,/ detached, in measureless oceans of space, (Whitman, 965).” This, perhaps, is the most effective of the three Whitman works discussed here. The reader becomes lost in the free flowing associative thought patterns of Song of Myself, and nearly drowns in the effusive adoration in Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but is able to feel, more keenly, the specific strength and message of Spider, primarily due to it’s conciseness.
Emily Dickinson was a woman increasingly trapped in a shrinking world of her own making. Like Whitman, her work too reflects the scope of her world and of herself. Unlike Whitman, Dickinson perceived herself to be almost a non-entity, preferring to disappear and be unseen than to expose herself to the world. Where Whitman actively sought fame and recognition for his work, Dickinson kept the vast majority of her more than 1700 poems hidden within her childhood room where she increasingly remained until her death. In one of the many letters she wrote, she said “I…am small, like the wren; and my hear is bold, like the chestnut burr, and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves (Dickinson, vi).” Dickinson’s works reflect an acute awareness of the glory of the small. She thought herself small, she lived in a small room, her world was very small, and, therefore, so too were her poems. Her love of words and their individual and group power is evident throughout her work. Unlike Whitman, who thought of himself as the progenitor of modern poetry and as the most important of writers/thinkers of the time, Dickinson maintained no such illusions.
She employed no real formal theory of poetics. Instead, she maintained a very consistent idea of how a poet is inspired as being possessed by a creative spirit that required control and stern management. In 34, Dickinson demonstrates the enormous strength found in an economy of words. Rather than painting a picture of freedom, life, or religion with thousands of words, Dickinson packages an intensity of understanding in just four lines. “’Faith’ is a fine invention / when Gentlemen can see -- / But Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency (Dickinson, “34”, p20)”. Here, she explodes the duality of religion and science within us, attributing benefit to both. She said, much like Whitman, that life is a combination of the spirit and of thought, of faith and of science. Unlike Whitman, she didn’t need endless repetitions of the concept to get her point across. In many other ways, Dickinson’s works are visually and sensually superior to those of Whitman, particularly in the quality and lack of pretense in the imagery. Dickinson actively pursued the purity of a thing. In that pursuit, she found that purity comes only from simplicity.
For her, single words were enough to convey the entirety of the world. Rather than trying to put the entire world onto a page, she condensed it into a single phrase or line. In 177, describes that the death of beauty is also the death of truth. This equation, which is discovered only after each have been destroyed, is demonstrated in only 12 lines. In 184, “I heard a fly buzz – when I died –”, Dickinson’s imagery helps us to see that life is never as precious to us as when we are about to die. Her works are simple for a reason, it was the only way she could contain what was herself. She knew she could erupt in uncontrolled language, spewing thousands of words upon the page, but strove instead to find the shortest, most precise way to contain the universe.
When examined side by side, it becomes clear that these two incredible poets were opposites. Often, opposites are difficult to compare against each other because of that polarity. But, in the case of these two authors, who strove to convey the importance of what they felt and saw in the world, it is Dickinson who stands out as the true master of the language, and therefore of the imagery and scope of her poetry. Whitman relied upon revolutionary spiritual concepts, language, and imagery to paint grandiose pictures of the free self and the liberated individual. Dickinson sought to create works without room for expansion. Her poems are not bloated with self-importance and gluttony, they are at once as dense as a dwarf star and as light as helium, but never self-indulgent.
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