The Contrast In Whitman’s And Dickinson’s Poetry
Throughout their extensive collection of poetry, we can see both a lot of similarities and differences between poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Both were poets of the nineteenth century, a time that was considered the Romantic period and a time that changed a lot of the style of American poetry. Both Whitman and Dickinson have a history of writing about some of the same topics. These topics touch on issues including nature, death, and even immortality. Through these topics, both poets explain the connection between nature and God as well as stress the importance of individualism in society. Though these poets may have several things in common, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson’s writing style and content actually contrast each other pretty severely. Through these two poet’s similarities and differences, we are able to see that they often deal with the same themes, and both pioneered their own unique style of writing, though vastly different from one another. Together, we can see how these poets helped to shape American poetry into what it is today.
One of the first major differences between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and arguably the most obvious, would be the gender difference. Emily Dickinson being a successful female poet at this time was a major achievement, even though her poetry didn’t become popular until after her death in 1886. Whitman’s and Dickinson’s difference in gender can be seen driving their feelings on certain subjects throughout their work. Aside from gender, their general upbringings and background made huge differences in who they were as poets and as people. Walt Whitman is often portrayed as a carefree and casual man both in his personal life as well as in his professional. Whitman was raised in a humble background, by a working-class family of Quakers. He was expected to work many jobs while growing up which, to his benefit, sometimes included working for different magazines and printers. After spending time in his youth working with these mediums, Whitman decided to be a nurse to help soldiers wounded by the war. This time spent as a nurse is the source of a lot of inspiration for his writing and led him to question the need and necessity for war. One of Whitman’s greatest inspirations was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who took a liking to Whitman’s work from the early days of his career. Whitman was looking for fame, that was his goal. He loved to please others and have their approval, which is why he wanted to be famous from his writing.
Unlike Whitman, Dickinson was raised very conservatively and structured. Her family belonged to the upper-class and were highly religious with Calvinist beliefs. Due to her family’s prosperity, she never had to work, which already gives her less life experience compared to Whitman. Once Dickinson was of age, her parents sent her to a boarding school where she really seemed to struggle and eventually didn’t complete. While Whitman was seen as opening and carefree, Dickinson was often portrayed as a recluse and closed off. She lived with her parents for her whole life, aside from the brief time spent at boarding school, and she was never married. Though she remained single and a homebody, she did have friends and even some possible love interests, which is what many believe to have inspired her romantic poems. Another major difference between the two authors is unlike Whitman, Dickinson didn’t set out to get famous. Quite the opposite really, as most of her poetry was published posthumously, after her death and without her pushing them to do so. Walt Whitman’s and Emily Dickinson’s differences in what life was like growing up and their varying backgrounds made a huge impact on how they wrote their poetry and what influenced them to do so. This is a major difference that would influence almost every other aspect of their careers.
Emily Dickinson’s rigid upbringing can be seen influencing her later in life through her writing style. She wrote rather rigidly yet defies what was expected. She wrote in what is called fourteener meter. This is oftentimes seen in nursery rhymes or even hymns of the Church. In fact, most of Dickinson’s work can be read in the same tune as “Amazing Grace”, read it like this once and I promise you can’t read it any other way. Though her writing style can be read in the same manner as cheerful children’s tales, the pattern was a very strict and rigid one. Often times the content of these poems take on heavy and serious topics including death, nature, and religion. Her take on some topics surprised many, including me. For example in her poem 202, she discusses her believes on Faith and what it means to belive in something. This can be a surprisingly deep message for readers when reading in a cheerful and sing-song tone. Not only does she use the unexpected form for her poetry, but she also throws in unexpected style by adding her own touch of dashes and unique capitalization as seen in her poem number 225. Dickinson states “I’m ‘wife’—I’ve finished that— That other state— I’m Czar—I’m ‘Woman’ now— It’s safer so—”(Dickinson, 1662). Her use of dashes here shows her ability to stray from the strict style and be more creative. Dickinson, too many, can be seen as more creative in ways that some would argue is even more so than Whitman’s style. Overall, Dickinson’s style can be seen to many as rigid but often times it defies expectations in both style and content.
While Dickinson has more of a rigid and structured writing style, Whitman’s progressive nature can be seen throughout his work in both style and content. Whitman wrote in free verse, with no meter or strict rhyme. This is quite the opposite of that of Dickinson. Though at first glance, this could seem chaotic, free for all of a writing style, Whitman added some structure to his works by playing with other devices such as repetition and alliteration which added more fluidity to his poetry. Whitman’s poetry tended to be long and included intense imagery, such as “Song of Myself” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, while Dickinson’s tended to be much shorter and condense with less imagery. Whitman wrote a lot about nature and what that meant for the average, everyday man. His time spent as a nurse allowed him to write about the war and those affected by it, including soldiers. Whitman’s poetry seems very personal when reading it as if you are the one experiencing it. I don’t get that feeling with Dickinson.
One thing that these two poets had in common would be there use of death as a theme throughout their work, though they approached this theme very differently. Whitman tended to view death as a chance to see life after death, though this is not always easy to accept. In his poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” we see Whitman struggling with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This poem is split into three sections, first being the process of Abraham Lincoln’s coffin being transported to it’s final resting point, the next section is the poet thinking deeply about the sprig of lilac meant to be laid on the coffin on the President and what it means to die and be in mourning, while the third section contains symbolism of a bird and a star to show that even nature is sympathetic to human society and it’s turmoils. “I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”(Whitman 1382) here we see Whitman uses the season of Spring to juxtapose the dark theme of this poem because normally Spring is a time of new beginnings, but for the poet, it is now a time of sadness due to losing his friend. Though he is incredibly sad and doesn’t know why this happened to Lincoln, or to anyone for that matter, we see him come to some sort of contentment at the end of the poem “I will duly pass the day O my mother, and duly return to you”(Whitman 1394), I interpreted this as the poet being excited to be reunited with Lincoln one day. Even with such a complex and seemingly open thought poem, Whitman is using the style of an Elegy to write this poem. An elegy, is a poem written in elegiac verse, couplets consisting of a hexameter line followed by a pentameter line, this structure to this poem is what Whitman brings to the table in terms of professional style.
Dickinson’s view on death and mourning are much more entangled and ambiguous. We see Dickinson giving human like qualities to the idea of death and mourning, especially in her poem number 479, “Because I could not stop for Death”. In this poem, Dickinson portrays death as a kind carriage man who picks her up in a “carriage held but just for ourselves-/And Immortality”(Dickinson, 1676). This carriage ride seems to be taking the speaker of the poem through all of lifes different stages until coming to a stop at what we conclude to be the speaker’s own gravesite where she is most likely already deceased. Dickinson’s unique personification of death is very different to that of Whitman’s approach, though both are touching on the same subject. This is what makes these poets both similar, yet vastly different. They are able to both discuss similar themes in their poetry, but in different styles and with very different content.
Tied closely to the idea of death, is Dickinson and Whitman’s take on religion throughout their work. During this time period, religion was one of the things to develop quickly after being dissected and scrutinized for being irrelevant or out of touch. Whitman oftentimes tried to combat the idea of religion, partly due to his philosophy of transcendentalism. In his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” Whitman touches on the idea of believing in what you can see versus just being told what to believe. In this poem, Whitman gives us the speaker of the poem listening to an astronomer lecture. The astronomer is doing everything he can to prove to the speaker what he is doing is true and correct, “when the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,/ When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them….How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick.”(Whitman, 1375). Even with all the proof in the world, the speaker still would rather see things for themself rather than be taught or talked at about them “in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/ Look’d up in the perfect silence at the stars.”(Whitman, 1375).
This take on only believing what you can see is pretty similar to Dickinson’s approach in her poem number 202, she discusses her believes on Faith and what it means to belive in something. The first line “‘Faith’ is a Fine Invention”(Dickinson,1661) shows Dickinson stating that, to her, faith is an invention or something man-made up, as she puts it in quotation marks. The final two lines stating “But Microscopes are prudent, In an Emergency (Dickinson, 1661) makes the audience believe that faith is almost scientific, and if applied in doses under a microscope, can be helpful. This is a perfect example of how Whitman and Dickinson approach similar topics in drastically different ways and styles.
Throughout their work, we see many different similarities and differences in poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Alike, they often touch on similar themes of death, like Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and Dickinson’s poem number 479, “Because I could not stop for Death”, or religion and faith like Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and Dickinson’s poem number 202, “Faith”. Though dealing with similar topics, Dickinson and Whitman do a good job of writing in vastly different styles, Whitman often more open free verse, and Dickinson with the more rigid and structured fourteener meter. There different backgrounds and time spent as youths make them very different poets who have their unique style and content which helped them to shape American poetry into what it is today.
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