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.
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
Jackson on March 30, 2017:
Thanks for sharing this essay on here. Now I can see the difference between those 3 poets
ReverieMarie (author) from Tuscaloosa, Alabama on February 24, 2016:
@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!
Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on February 24, 2016:
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.