Whitman and Dickinson Compared: The Power of Expansion and Contraction

Self-expression and self-identity are equivalent to Freedom and Liberty. Therefore, an American could consider writing poetry a patriotic act. At a time when the nation was falling apart over its struggle for the equality of men, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were translating their experience through poetry. Their ability to bear witness to their lives enriches our understanding of the issues that affected Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, and how men and women expressed those issues.

Self-expression and self-identity are equivalent to Freedom and Liberty. Therefore, an American could consider writing poetry a patriotic act. At a time when the nation was falling apart over its struggle for the equality of men, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were translating their experience through poetry. Their ability to bear witness to their lives enriches our understanding of the issues that affected Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, and how men and women expressed those issues.

Whitman was brought up in a politically radical household. He was self-educated, an out-spoken abolitionist, and political journalist. His life was very public. On July 4, 1855, Whitman declares his own independence and equality and invites his readers to do the same with his self-published poem Song of Myself. “I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman 2863). With this poem, Whitman breaks all poetic conventions; the stanzas do not rhyme, the line breaks happen where he pleases, there are no obvious verses, no title page with the author’s name. In fact, Whitman does not name himself until about one-third of the way through the poem, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” (2882). He is within the poem, has created the poem, but the poem is larger than him and it reflects his feeling about America and its expansive potential.

Dickinson, on the other hand, had a very private life. She grew up in a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts, and spent most of her life in the family home. She was expected to cater to the social obligations of family and church; however, she rebelled by following her intellectual pursuits. She wrote poetry for close friends and for herself. She published only a few poems anonymously.  She requested of her family and friends that any writing left behind upon her death be destroyed.

The “tight” structure of Dickinson’s life is reflected in the way in which her poems take form. Each poem is short and self-contained, adhering to a meter scheme of nursery rhymes, hymns or ballads. Whitman called his first poem to the world a “song” but Dickinson’s poetry, which she never titled, actually could have been sung. At first glance the strict form masks the raw content of her work. Perhaps she wrote in song style because it would have been familiar to her readers, or perhaps the meter represented the way in which she spun over words in her mind. Maybe she chose nursery rhyme meter as a comment on society’s way of forcing women to remain in a perpetual childlike state by keeping them ignorant of the world.

While Whitman was breaking out of the confines of conventionality, Dickinson looked inward for inspiration. What was underneath the surface fascinated her, she wrote often of volcanoes waiting to erupt, powerful and potentially dangerous. By not bringing attention to herself, she was free to write powerfully about whatever she pleased. Her power was in her anonymity and she knew it. “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you—Nobody—too?/ Then there’s a pair of us!/ Don’t tell! They’d banish us—you know!” (Dickinson 2979) Whitman literally thrust himself into the public eye with manly will by publishing a poem that was bigger, wilder, and longer than any poem America had ever seen. “I dote on myself . . . there is a lot of me, and all so luscious” (Whitman 2883). It appears that his volcano erupted.

Whitman and Dickinson embraced that volcano, and lakes, trees, the sky. To them, the land is holy. Both writers have a transcendental approach to spirituality. The American landscape is Whitman’s church. Why would God create the world if people were not to celebrate it? Whitman is the worker who steps outside and is renewed by what he sees. He opens his mind like a child. “A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; . . . I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven” (Whitman 2867). The “wind’s genitals” caress him, and all the people, maidens, farmers, blacksmiths, slaves, Indians, bartenders, etc., who share the air with him. Whitman transcends the body by celebrating the body; he transcends the earth by celebrating the earth.

While Whitman and other men are free to run around all over the streets and wilderness, Dickinson has her transcendental experiences in her backyard garden. “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—/ I keep it staying at Home—/ With a Bobolink for a Chorister/ And an Orchard for a Dome” (Dickinson 2984). The orchard suggests that everything she could possibly need is there, that her garden is Eden before the fall. She also wears “wings,” suggesting that her existence is holy. “So instead of going to Heaven at last—/ I’m going all along” (2984). Women do not have a place of power in the church and she rejects the idea that a clergyman can translate what she sees. She lets nature speak to her, lets go of the social conventions of church, lets go of herself, and experiences the beauty of heaven directly.

Since the earth is a holy place, it makes sense that Whitman and Dickinson celebrate the sensuality of the physical world. The earthiness in Whitman and Dickinson’s poetry has weight. It is difficult to separate their spiritual experience from their bodily experience. Whitman is “the poet of the body,/ and the poet of the soul” (Whitman 2879). He writes of God as “a loving bedfellow” (Whitman 2865) who leaves gifts in the morning. Whitman’s sexuality is “robust” and masculine. He is pansexual, finding the potential for pleasure everywhere. Although he never admits to being homosexual, he enjoys men in his poetry, “A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,/ The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full” (Whitman 2886). His relations with women seem less about love and more about patriotism, procreativity and power, “I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these States” (Whitman 2924). He asserts his will like he asserts his poetry, “I listen to no entreaties,/ I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me” (Whitman 2924).

Being far less “pushy” about her work, Dickinson writes in a letter to a friend that  she has never read Whitman, “but was told that he was disgraceful” (Dickinson 3016). Whitman is brazen, but Dickinson’s sensuality smolders just beneath the surface of her poetry’s form. Her poetry is independent of male sexuality, is about pleasure, and does not concern reproduction. Her sexual metaphors take form in nature. “Come slowly—Eden!/ Lips unused to Thee—/ Bashful—sip thy Jessimines—/ As the fainting Bee—/ reaching late his flower,/ Rounds her chamber hums—/Counts his nectars—/Enters—and is lost in Balms” (Dickinson 2977). Sex is heavenly; in this poem pleasure seems languid. Lips sipping and humming in chambers full of nectars are filled with vaginal and oral imagery. The flower only needs to exist to have power; the bee cannot help but be intoxicated by its fragrance. For Dickinson, her poems only needed to exist to have power for her.

With pleasure in life, comes pain. In a time when the nation was suffering over slavery and Civil War, Whitman and Dickinson explore misery. In describing the suffering of soldiers, Whitman says, “Agonies are one of my changes of garments;/ I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . I myself become the wounded person, / My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe” (Whitman 2894). Dickinson says that pain breaks down language, we cannot describe it, our only connection with it is to fell it or witness it first hand. “I like the look of Agony/ Because I know it’s true” (Dickinson 2977). It is so true that it cannot be described. Dickinson describes the feeling of pain as it ceases to hold its grip, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—/The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—/” (Dickinson 2985). Exhaustion comes next, “This is the Hour of Lead—/remembered, if outlived, /As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—/ First—Chill—then Stupor—then letting go—/” (Dickinson 2985).

After pleasure and pain in life, comes death. Whitman states, in an utter rejection of Puritan values, “Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? / I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I know it” (Whitman 2868). By living and loving, as long as the nation stands, by accepting that we are part of something larger, we become immortal. After the Civil War he still asserts that we must come to terms with death and live our lives for the greater good. “My enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead, / I look where he lies white-faced and still in his coffin—I draw near, / Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin”  (Whitman 2940).

Dickinson uses death as a metaphor for social constraints. Her ride with the gentleman Death sounds like marriage. “The carriage held but just ourselves—And Immortality” (Dickinson 2998) She stops her “labor” and “leisure, too, / For His Civility—/” (Dickinson 2998). Death is natural. It is the noise of life that people pay attention to. “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—/” (Dickinson 2989) and it is the distractions outside of ourselves that keep us from truly knowing the Divine, even as we die.

Whitman and Dickinson’s poetry have shaped the American literary landscape, as well as reflected and shaped American thought.  Whitman’s poetry is his work, and with his creation he is part of eternity. He challenges his readers to rise to their life’s work when he says of the gods, “they were alive and did the work of their day” (Whitman 2902). Even after his death, his work is expansive, inspiring new generations of poets to tell their truth. Dickinson spoke of immortality in many of her poems and letters.

“When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality—but venturing too near, himself—he never returned—Soon after, my Tutor, died—and for several years, my Lexicon—was my only companion—Then I found one more—but he was not contented I be his scholar—so he left the land.” (Dickinson 3016). Upon her death, seventeen hundred poems were found, many of them lovingly bound in little bundles called fascicles. Instead of destroying her work, Dickinson’s family released her poems upon the world like little seeds of potential waiting to be born.

© 2003 Holly Troy

walt whitman emily dickinson

  1. Great analysis. As the poets who really defined American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson serve as a kind of yin and yang…though it’s not always clear which is which.

    One of the most powerful of Whitman’s shorter poems is one in which he addresses that which he can’t be fully “public” about:

    Earth, my likeness,
    Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there,
    I now suspect that is not all;
    I now suspect there is something fierce in you eligible to burst forth,
    For an athlete is enamour’d of me, and I of him,
    But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me eligible
    to burst forth,
    I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs.

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    1. Thanks Jay. Been digging through old work, and this felt “right”. One more paragraph to tie it up at the end – but – post it and let it go for now.

      Whitman and Dickinson seem more relevant to me than ever. There is a sense of so much just below the surface – and that surface tension feels ready to break.

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  2. tension – in their poetry and issues in our culture right now

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    1. and now more than ever, people need to start getting creative – writing, making art, dancing, all of it. I know I need it.

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