Comparison and Contrast of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman

Updated on November 1, 2016
Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman | Source

The 1800s was a time of new and exciting change in literary culture in America. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two of the most famous poets from the time period who daringly revolutionized both the subject and style of American poetry. While both are famous trailblazers the two are vastly different. The poets come from opposite backgrounds, and while they do write from some shared inspiration sources, they do so in distinctive ways. Together, they have helped to shape American poetry, and their influences can still be seen today.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously called for a “metre-making argument,” which spurred a pursuit of ingenuity within Whitman and Dickinson (Baym 20). This allowed the two poets to push through the standard mold of poems to invent their own styles. Whitman uses extensive nature imagery throughout his works, such as in Song of Myself: “The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,” (24). Dickinson also uses nature imagery in some of her poems: “These are the days when skies resume / The old – old sophistries of June - / A blue and gold mistake,” (83). Additionally, both poets submitted some of their pieces to politically-based works. Whitman was published by Democrat, while Dickinson was published by Republican. Interestingly, there is speculation that both poets may have had homosexual relationships (Baym 81). This, however, is where the similarities between the two run short, as they are more opposite than they are alike.

Walt Whitman seems carefree and easy going, both in his life and his poems. Whitman grew up in the working class in a family of Quakers (Baym 20). He worked many jobs throughout his life, including working for many magazines and printers. Later in life, he took up nursing wounded soldiers, about which he was very passionate (Baym 22). His time as a nurse greatly influenced his writing, and the dying men surrounding him moved him to question the morality of war. During his life, Whitman wanted badly to become famous for his writing. Although he was not immediately popular, other than with Emerson, whom he deeply admired, people eventually warmed up to his work. Toward the end of his life, Whitman even had an expensive mausoleum erected in which he wanted to be buried so that everyone would remember how famous he was (Baym 23).

Whitman’s progressive, liberal nature is seen in his work, through both the style and content. He responded to Emerson’s call to be more creative by abandoning poetic structure – so he wrote in free verse, with no meter or strict rhyme (Baym 20). However, he does play with other poetic devices, such as repetition, alliteration, and stanza breaks, that give his poems life. Whitman wrote extensively about nature and the average man. He also wrote a lot about soldiers and war later in life. His poems are generally long and winding with intense imagery. They also seem very personal, as if Whitman is telling you everything he has ever thought within his poems. Whitman does not hold back – in fact, his poems are sometimes too revealing, which garnered criticism, especially when the topic involved sex or the human body (Baym 22). Overall, Whitman can be seen as a bohemian who wanted to join the artists whom he admired, most notably Emerson, in literary fame.

Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, was very structured and conservative. She was born into an upper-class Calvinist family, which meant that she never had to work (Baym 80). She was sent to a religious boarding school, which she did not complete because she told her teachers that she had “no hope” (Baym 80). Dickinson lived with her parents for her whole life and did not leave the house much, leading to tales of her being a recluse. However, she did have a few friends and possibly some love interests, which may have inspired some of her love poems (Baym 81). Unlike Whitman, Dickinson did not seek fame during her life. In fact, very few of her poems were published until after her death.

Dickinson’s reserved personality translated over into her writing. She was very well read; in fact, influences from Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Browning, and even the Bible can be seen in her works (Baym 80). The poems she wrote indicate that she was fascinated with the concepts of death, love, and religion. She explores these through the use of figurative language, such as the personification in poem 479: “Because I could not stop for Death - / He kindly stopped for me,” (Dickinson 91). Dickinson answered Emerson’s call in a way that some would argue is even more creative than Whitman’s style. Rather than throwing away all poetic structure, she added her own stylistic touch – most notably, dashes and capitalization. Dickinson wrote in a very strict fourteener meter that is commonly seen in nursery rhymes and church hymns. However, within these poems, she covers serious topics and often surprises the reader with her treatment of a topic or the conclusion she draws from it. For example, in her poem 236, she basically puts down those who go to church and says that she is better off talking directly to God in her own home (Dickinson 84). This would have been a fairly scandalous idea for the devoutly religious, even though the poem is presented in a simple, almost sing-song fashion that is enhanced by her ABCB rhyme scheme, which is consistent throughout all of her works. Overall, Dickinson’s style is rigid but defies expectations in both style and content.

While Whitman’s flowing, carefree, hippie-like poems seem very different from Dickinson’s rigid and sometimes ambiguous work, both poets have two very important things in common. First, they both answered Emerson’s request for poetry that transcends the everyday poems from that time period. As a result of this success in Emerson’s mission, the second commonality was achieved – both have become hugely influential poets whose work still persists to this day. Whitman’s legacy is large, containing the likes of Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg. Dickinson’s pervasive inspiration, for both style and content, can arguably be seen in the works of writers such as Sylvia Plath and E.E. Cummings. Both poets will be remembered as innovators who changed the landscape of American poetry by thinking outside of the box.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A.
New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. "122.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature.
. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 83. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. "236.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature.
. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 84. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. "479.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature.
. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 91. Print.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature.
. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 24-66. Print.

© 2016 ReverieMarie

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Jackson 

      19 months ago

      Thanks for sharing this essay on here. Now I can see the difference between those 3 poets

    • ReverieMarie profile imageAUTHOR

      ReverieMarie 

      2 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama

      @Chef-de-jour , thank you for reading and for the comment! These two authors are among the first that come to mind when I think of poetry, and I think it's incredible how their incredibly different styles can speak to people all the same. Good luck with Leaves of Grass!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this insightful essay comparing Whitman and Dickinson. Both are fascinating pioneers of poetic language and form no doubt, the former all title and glory, the latter untitled and secretive?

      I'm slowly working my way through Leaves of Grass, a monumemtal effort. I admire Whitman's unorthodox language and subject matter - from compost to universal love - his (very American) ego - and his compassionate feel for life. Dickinson too is special. I can just see her composing inwardly in her quiet room, daring to pen such deep emotive words.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)