The Theme Of When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer And Other Poetry

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Two of the most influential poets in American history were Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Both fueled the transcendentalist movement with their ideas such as the benefits of nature, individualism, intuition, and the oversoul. Emily Dickinson was famous for her use of metaphors and personification, and Whitman was well known for his use of an empathetic tone and free verse to make his poetry easier to understand. Despite both using distinctly different writing styles, the literary devices used by Whitman and Dickinson in their poems are effective at getting across their messages and discussing and spreading the transcendentalist ideas they held.

Dickinson utilized many different literary devices in her poetry, but none is more characteristic of her writing than the metaphors and personifications she used to convey complex ideas. In “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, she takes the abstract idea of death, and personifies it, as a friendly traveler ‘Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me’ (line 1). Dickinson conveys through this personification that death wasn’t in a hurry to catch the speaker of the poem, and instead took his time. ‘My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility –’ (line 8) From this, we can infer that she isn’t afraid of death and respects him/it. Clearly, the use of personification adds more meaning to this poem and is effective at conveying her fond tone towards death by allowing the reader to make inferences about the subject matter that would be impossible otherwise. This positive representation also plays into the transcendentalist view of death, which is that it shouldn’t be feared, because in the end, death is just a person’s return to the Oversoul or Universal Spirit, which was believed to be a connection between all things. A striking example of a metaphor used by Dickinson is in “Apparently with no Surprise”. The whole poem is a metaphor for the cycle of life and death. “To any happy Flower, The Frost beheads it at its play—… The blonde Assassin passes on— The Sun proceeds unmoved’ (lines 2-6) Dickinson comments on the unforgivingness and harsh reality of nature. In simple terms, the frost kills the flower, and the sun kills the frost. She also could be making a statement about how she believes that God, represented by the sun, is indifferent to human suffering and chaos happening down on earth. Regardless, the metaphor allows many more levels of meaning to be explored in the poem. Lastly, another good example of a metaphor is in “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed”, where she compares nature to an intoxicating beverage. This is her conveying her transcendentalist views of the benefit nature can have on a person. “I taste a liquor never brewed –… Inebriate of air – am I – And Debauchee of Dew – ‘ (lines 2-6). In this quote, Dickinson compares the elements of nature to alcohol. From the way she describes nature, we can clearly see that she is hypnotized by nature’s beauty. She is drunk on the effects of being in nature. She wants the reader to immerse themselves in nature, and comparing it to an alcoholic beverage is a good start. She attempts to lure the reader into indulging in nature’s beauty. Clearly, Dickinson’s frequent use of metaphors and personification effectively convey and simplify her complex ideas.

A strikingly different transcendentalist poet is Walt Whitman. In his writing, he often used free verse to better convey his thoughts in a more conversational and natural tone. His rare use of metaphors, and an often empathetic tone, helped to simplify his poems. This contrasted Dickinson’s writing style because although she used metaphors to simplify her ideas, you still had to be well versed in poetry to understand them. A good example of this is in Song of Myself #1, when Whitman describes himself observing nature. ‘I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.’ (lines 4-5). Whitman is describing how he values simplicity and nature. He conveys this by using free verse, poetry that does not has rhyming or normal meter, making the poem sound like he is having a conversation with the speaker. This contrasted the poetry that was popular at the time, which often felt as if you were listening to a preacher. This was a unique element of his writing, that allowed him to be very deliberate about what he said and is effective, because Whitman’s writing doesn’t feel strained and he is free to say exactly what he wants. To this day, Whitman is still known as the ‘Father of Free Verse’ Another quality of Whitman’s poetry was using an empathetic/fond tone toward the subjects in his poetry. For example, in ‘I Hear America Singing’, Whitman describes the work force of the United States. ‘I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,’ (Lines 1-3). Whitman describes the workers as cheerful, strong, and carefree. In this passage, Whitman idealizes the ordinary person, and this was also a transcendentalist view. Instead of focusing on the activities of the wealthy class, he explores what the majority of America is doing, working. This is very effective, because it appeals to a wider audience that can relate to his poetry and feel represented in his literature. Clearly, the targeted audience isn’t the upper class, but the everyday person. In Whitman’s mind, the more people reading and experiencing his poetry, the more widespread his transcendentalist ideas and messages can be. Clearly, Whitman’s appeals to the common person are effective in conveying his transcendentalist ideas because anyone can relate to the subject matter and message, due to his empathetic tone towards the characters in his poetry and his use of conversational free-verse. His rare use of metaphors contrasted Dickinson’s frequent use of them, and this meant that the reader didn’t need to be an avid poetry reader to understand what he was saying. This along with the conversational and thus more accessible style of his poetry went on to fuel the transcendentalism movement as we know it.

Lastly, despite their differences in writing style, both Dickinson and Whitman used imagery to convey their transcendentalist view of the benefits of nature effectively. To Whitman, Dickinson, and other transcendentalists, being in nature was the most important thing a person could do. In nature, they believed, you could lose yourself in the beauty of the natural world. No poem by Dickinson emphasizes this more than ‘I Taste A Liquor Never Brewed’. In it, Dickinson describes the snowball effect that being in nature has on her. ‘When ‘Landlords’ turn the drunken Bee Out of the Foxglove’s door –When Butterflies – renounce their ‘drams’ –I shall but drink the more!’ (Lines 9-12). As the speaker of the poem discovers each new intricate aspect of nature, they are compelled to immerse themselves in nature even more. Dickinson is perhaps saying that the speaker’s appreciation for nature is even stronger than even that of the insects that she describes. Or maybe she is contrasting the hard working and hurried nature of the bugs to the relaxed joy she derives from watching them. 

Nonetheless, Dickinson’s imagery in this quote is effective in making the reader see the benefits of nature because the reader can clearly picture the situation she describes in their mind and thus clearly can understand her message. Another example from ‘I Taste A Liquor Never Brewed’ is when she describes summer. ‘Reeling – through endless summer days – From inns of molten Blue –” Dickinson describes the summer day as ‘endless’ and paints a vivid picture of a ‘molten’ blue sky. Clearly, she wants the reader to imagine a lovely scenery of nature and uses imagery to help the reader do this more effectively. Again, the more beautiful and serene she can describe the scene, the better the reader can understand her perspective and message of the benefit of nature. Whitman also used imagery to convey his messages about nature. In ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’, the speaker of the poem grows bored of listening to an astronomer’s lecture. The speaker decides to go outside and gazes in wonder up at the stars. ‘In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars’ (lines 7-8). Whitman describes the night sky and the calming effect it can have on a person viewing it. Words such as ‘mystical’, ‘moist’, and ‘perfect’ all add to the description of this scene in nature and help the reader understand how beneficial and serene this setting can be. The ‘perfect silence’ he talks about also helps to convey how the speaker of the poem could suddenly think clearly when he went outside, and the effect nature had on them. As you can see, using imagery was very beneficial to the writing of both Whitman and Dickinson despite their different writing styles.

In conclusion, Whitman and Dickinson used very different writing styles, but both were effective at conveying their messages. Although both were very different, they both used vivid imagery to convey their transcendentalist ideas and to shape the world that we know today.


Read more