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Whitman and Dickinson: The Greatest of All Time?

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Is poetry dead? Uninterested students and people more concerned with social media and the Kardashians would say yes; however, poetry is alive and well, and the foundation set by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson is just as influential today as it was when it was originally conceived. Whitman and Dickinson are often categorized together because they both wrote in the mid nineteenth century and were essential in establishing uniquely American poetry, but in reality, the poetic duo does not have much in common. They are both studied today because they were not afraid to take risks and be unique with their writing. Whitman achieved this with his free verse and cadence while Dickinson wrote short, but extremely thought provoking, poems. The unique literary styles and various themes inspired by events that happened around them and their lifestyles accentuate the differences between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.


Unlike any other poet at the time, Walt Whitman broke the rules of traditional poetry. He wrote elongated, sweeping poetry in his signature free verse style. Whitman’s free verse did not rhyme or follow a strict meter. Instead his poems achieved a lyrical quality through cadence. Cadence is the voice’s effect on poetry when spoken aloud. It uses the natural rising and falling of the voice to set rhythmic pace and make poems flow. For example, Whitman used cadence in his final poem of Leaves of Grass “Coda #52” to create a memorable final impression. He wrote, “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.” Although it does not seem like much, Whitman’s poetic qualities are on full display. He purposefully chooses the word depart and runaway because when read, the contrasting high and low pitches make the line flow. Whitman’s cadence was vital since he was not using the traditional meter used by other poets like Emily Dickinson. In addition to Whitman’s cadence, his expressive punctuation complemented by his extravagant diction make Whitman’s poems upbeat and memorable. When Whitman first began writing, he discovered the difficulties in expressing his emotion and passion purely with his words. Naturally, he turned to punctuation to help him achieve this goal and was immensely successful. In his poem “O Captain, My Captain”, Whitman’s heart yearns for Abraham Lincoln: “But O heart! heart! heart!” The exclamation marks indicate to the reader than Whitman is not just privately mourning the death of his beloved captain, but rather weeping aloud. The expressive quality of Whitman’s poetry created with captivating punctuation allowed his poems to relate to readers in a deeper, more emotional manner. Just as America was distancing itself from the rest of the world, Whitman distanced himself from traditional poetry and his diction was no exception. He is known for choosing abundant wording. The distinct diction makes the reader ponder what Whitman has to say and take in his message knowing that the meaning is up for interpretation. His poetry “demands to be read with the same attention given to the most sophisticated poetry in our language.” In fact, Whitman used his famous diction to describe what he believes to be will be his fate when he dies: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.” One possible interpretation is that Whitman wished to become apart of nature when he died, but another could be that he will live on through the American people who he adored. His thought provoking diction added a different dimension to his already revolutionary style of literature. It made readers interpret the poems and make inferences as to how Whitman connected his poems to the issues of the time. But Whitman’s free verse was not complete. He still needed one more aspect to glue his poems together and truly cement his place as a great poet. His mastery of literary devices such as listing and anaphora enhanced the philosophical meaning of Whitman’s poems. Listing was one device unique to Walt Whitman. “He takes delight in catalogues--in the long listings of things, names, and activities.” The catalogues added to the simplicity of Whitman’s poems, but also provided shrewd insight. For instance, Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” was one giant list and it demonstrated Whitman’s tendency to fuse together multiple literary devices to create a lasting impression. The verses all start with “The (occupation) singing” followed by a description of their contribution to society. Parallelism and cataloging are used by Whitman to gush over the laborers of America and describe the peace Americans have found in life. The listing was a device to showcase the many talented people in America while parallelism indicated that no occupation was inherently better than the others. Whitman’s style was extraordinary and its complexity was fostered by his free verse and cadence. His emotions were channeled through the use of abundant diction and expressive punctuation. Literary devices were the glue that held Whitman’s poems together and truly makes them great. But this style would be worthless without a purpose. Whitman derives the themes of his poem from his lifestyle and experiences in life.
The events of Walt Whitman’s life and his basic morals were reflected as themes in his poems. As a matter of fact, Whitman’s optimistic tone might be attributed to the boost he received from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman’s first collection of poetry Leaves of Grass was initially not well received. “Its publication went all but unnoticed.” But failure at first glance could not dismay Whitman. He sent out samples, one of which reached Emerson who wrote Whitman a letter that praised his writing. Whitman never gave up and it paid off huge because with Emerson’s endorsement, Whitman was recognized as a real talent. His poems were known for having an optimistic view of life and this perspective was given to him by Emerson. Emerson’s praise  proved to Whitman that if he worked hard and was diligent, anything was possible. He ended the poem “I Hear America Singing” by saying that the people were “Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.” In the poem he named professions that many Americans had and described their toil. The poem as a whole had a very positive connotation and the ending was quite fitting. The strong melodious songs were the tales of success and the realization of dreams were a result of the hard work of the American people. Whitman has an optimistic view of life that was refreshing for his time and he owed part of it to the aid of Emerson. Furthermore, Whitman gained a new perspective during the Civil War. He served “as an observer and prophet--as a private man tending the wounded in the hospital wards of the Civil War.” Seeing war first-hand only strengthened Whitman’s anti-slavery sentiment and argument for equality. He also gained a profound respect for Abraham Lincoln. In fact, Whitman’s poem “O Captain, My Captain!” was written about Lincoln after the assassination. He celebrated the emancipation of the slaves, but made it clear that it did not come without paying the price. But Whitman did not stop with the battle for emancipation, he also believed in full fledged equality. When introducing himself to readers in his poem “Song of Myself”, Whitman said, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” He made it very clear that nothing should get in the way of equality. Besides, why else would he put himself in danger in the Civil War? Lastly, Whitman was proud to be an American and to have American lineage. It only took him seven lines in “Song of Myself” to tell the reader that he was one hundred percent American blood: “Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.” His passion for America did not cease at his heritage. He loved all Americans and the ideals that the United States was founded upon. Whitman was the ultimate patriot. His poem “I Hear America Singing” celebrated the hard-working Americans and the success they found. Many of Whitman’s themes like optimism, democracy, equality, and celebration of everything America had to offer stemmed from Whitman’s own experiences. Similarly, the experiences of Emily Dickinson directly contributed to her own literary style and themes.


Emily Dickinson’s poems followed a very precise pattern and could be described as neat and economical in every regard. In contrast to Walt Whitman’s free verse, Emily Dickinson’s poetic form was fixed and traditional. She abided by strict meter. Lines of iambic tetrameter, four feet of an unstressed, stressed pattern, were followed by lines of iambic trimeter, three feet per line. This metrical pattern forced poems to flow unlike the cadence used in Whitman’s poems. All of her poems conformed to this strict style. For instance, Dickinson wrote, “Faith is a fine invention/ For gentlemen who see.” Examining the second verse in particular, it features six syllables in an alternating unstressed stressed pattern. Read it aloud. It rolls right off the tongue. In this regard, Dickinson adhered to the rules of standard poetry and the King’s English, but if she conformed in every regard, she would not be talked about today. Notice two things about that last line. Firstly, the italicized “see” stands out. Dickinson used italics and random punctuation throughout her poems to create emphasis. In some cases like when she writes “Heart! We will forget him!” she uses expressive punctuation like Whitman, but Dickinson primarily relied upon italics, capitalization, and the dash. To demonstrate, Dickinson used both the dash and capitalization when she wrote, “In this, as All, prevail--.” The all is intentionally capitalized to make it stand out so later on the reader can realize that she was referring to all of society and the tendency for conformity to prevail. Additionally, Dickinson’s lack of titles defied the rules of standard poetry. While there is no concrete reason why she would not title her poems, it can be inferred that like Whitman, she intended to leave her poems up to interpretation. Also, it is consistent with her meticulous and economic style. To say Dickinson was a woman of little words would be an understatement. Most of her poems are less than eight lines and words are chosen methodically. She quickly described the relationship between imagination and logic by simply writing, “The revery alone will do/ if bees are few.” Let that resonate for a while. Whereas Whitman would use long, sweeping verse to get his message across, Dickinson expresses herself in two short lines. Essentially, she tackles whole themes by using metaphor. Like the revery and bee, Dickinson  frequently materialized her ideas into simple symbols and used metaphor to stimulate the reader.  She pours all her thoughts about logic and the material world in the form of a microscope in one of her poems: “But Microscopes are prudent/ In an emergency.” Dickinson’s metaphors allowed her to keep poems short. She had no need to use extravagant language or long verse because her metaphors did the talking. Building on her metaphors, Dickinson also mastered metonymy which is the substitution of the name of an attribute for that of the thing meant. Particularly, when she wrote, “Heart! We will forget him!/ You and I--tonight!” she is not talking to her literal heart. Dickinson used metonymy to make the heart embody all things happening emotionally and spiritually. Her use of literary devices like metonymy and metaphor gave her poems a hidden, acute meaning in such a short amount of words. Of course, Dickinson had no obligation to write with such precision just like Whitman was not forced to write in free verse; however, like Whitman, the events in Dickinson’s life influenced her literary style.


Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle and its roots are directly reflected in the themes of her poems. Her childhood was nothing out of the ordinary. She was “born to a religious and well-to-do New England family.” In fact, religion was something that stayed with Dickinson for the rest of her life. Repeatedly Dickinson affirms her faith in God. Even though there was no tangible evidence of his existence, Dickinson stood by her faith and it never waivered. She wrote, “I never spoke with God/ Nor visited in Heaven--/ Yet certain am I of the spot/ As if the Checks were given--.” She believed it was her fate to go to Heaven and her devotion to God was a result of how she was raised as a child. Faith was important to Dickinson because it gave her something to believe in even though the zeitgeist struggled with faith because of the emerging scientific concepts. However, Dickinson was not the stereotypical woman for the time. She became reclusive after her struggle with finding love. She was denied the chance at love because her two potential suitors were men she could never marry; both of which were older and already married. This denial caused Dickinson immeasurable heartache. “The young woman quietly and abruptly withdrew from all social life except that involving her immediate family. Within a few years, dressed always in white--like the bride she would never become--she ad gone into a state of seclusion.” While others like Whitman were out exploring what the world had to offer Dickinson remained at home occupying herself with domestic duties and writing poetry. Love and relationships were a persistent theme since Dickinson struggled the pain caused by the heartache. Despite begging her heart to forget the pain she wrote, “Haste! Lest while you’re lagging/ I remember him!” The very thing that made Emily Dickinson reclusive was something she could not overcome and perhaps was the reason she never integrated herself back into society. Above all, all of Dickinson’s experiences made her pity conformity and embrace the individual spirit. After all, she was not ashamed of being herself and shutting herself off from the rest of the world. She may have thought that if she can do as she pleased, others could also embrace their individual wishes. Conformity to Dickinson is the source of the artificial attitude embodied in society at the time. She wrote that “Assent- and you are sane-/ Demur-you’re straightaway dangerous-/ And handled with a Chain-.” According to the poem, agreeing with the majority is the only way to be perceived as sane and to deviate will result in being thrown in jail regarded insane and unfit for life. Like Whitman, Dickinson was a nonconformist who followed her own rules whether in literature or in life; however, Dickinson was influenced more by her own thoughts since they were the only ones that existed in her world. While many might categorize Dickinson as insane, those who appreciate her work see that Dickinson lived life how she wanted. The life she lived and emotions she felt can be experienced by readers for generations to come through her poetry.


Despite being categorized together, the differences between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are best be seen through their unique literary styles and various themes inspired by their own lives. While Whitman wrote in free verse that was considered informal for the time, Dickinson wrote in strict meter. In contrast to Whitman’s extravagant diction, Dickinson chose to be more economical and adopted metaphor and metonymy. Both Whitman and Dickinson used unique punctuation to highlight emotion and meaning, but Whitman built upon this with his prolific use of literary devices like cataloging, cadence, and enjambment. Although it is a matter of opinion, Whitman’s poems are more enjoyable because of the optimistic tone and themes like equality. His experiences like that in the Civil War add a dimension to his poetry that Dickinson could not achieve. They also leave the reader more satisfied because the meanings are clear, and they leave the reader in a more buoyant state of mind. Both Dickinson and Whitman deserve to be regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time. They were revolutionary for the time and not afraid to push the boundaries despite what society must think. Today, conformity is just as prevalent and it will take another person like Whitman and Dickinson to break the walls of conformity just as they did in the past.






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