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Walt Whitman And Emily Dickinson Were Giants

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1559 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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It is indisputable that both walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were giants in the history of American literature owing their extraordinary accomplishments in poetry composing plenty of poems, focusing on a wide range of themes such as emergent America, its expansion, its individualism and its Americanness, and most importantly, creating the poems in refreshing ways that have broken the convention of the iambic pentameter and exerted great influences in the following generations. Meantime, significant differences also exist between the two poets. In terms of their backgrounds, themes focused and writing techniques and styles, the two masters presented their uniqueness respectively.


Walt Whitman came from a working-class family with eight siblings and the family could hardly support his access to higher education. As a result, he had to start his experienced life at a very early age. At the age of eleven, after his five-years formal schooling, he started to work to earn income for his family. In a word Whitman did not receive much education and his study was almost on his own. After his first job, Whitman worked as an office boy, a printers apprentice, schoolmaster, printer, editor and journalist. Successively, he contact with different levels and various things therefore gained a thorough knowledge of life and the country, which laid a solid basis for his creation of poetry.

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Emily Dickenson, on the contrary, grew up in a rather prominent family of Amherst and was well educated. Being rooted in the puritanical Massachusetts of the 1800s, the Dickinson children were raised in the Christian tradition, and they were expected to take up their fathers religious beliefs and values without argument. Later in life, Emily would come to challenge these conventional religious viewpoints of her father and the church, and the challenges she met with would later contribute to the strength of her poetry. Moreover, unlike Whitman, she led a quite pure, to some degree, secluded life, withdrawing herself from society and diving into the study of the Bible, classical mythology, and Shakespeare, which enabled her to focus on her world more sharply and acquire a brand new understanding and vision for the simplest things in her daily life.

Hence it is comprehensible why Whitman often demonstrated a national outlook in his poetry, showing his concerns on the common people and his country and Emily Dickinson, would dwell on comparatively narrow aspects, namely, the inner life of the individual.


Besides their different backgrounds, exposure to different influences and different personalities also led to their uniqueness in poetry creation.

Possessing an optimistic mindset, Whitman often composed in a cheerful tone, singing for democracy and freedom and with great expectations and enthusiasm for new things and a new epoch. Dickinson, shy, sensitive, sometimes rebellious, however, would express herself in a tragic tone, creating a comparatively pessimistic atmosphere.

Subject to various influences such as The Enlightenment and its ideals of the rights and dignity of the individual and Transcendentalism and its tenets of believing in living close to nature, teaching the dignity of manual labour, advocating self-trust, valuing individuality and self-reliance, Walt Whitman, poet of the common people and prophet and singer of democracy, would usually show a keen eye on man and nature. He extols the ideals of equality and democracy and celebrates the dignity, the self-reliant spirit and the joy of the common man. Songs of Myself, a highly representative poem from Leaves of Grass, Whitmans masterpiece, illustrates very well Whitmans thoughts. Titled as song of myself though, it is more a song of all the human beings, of any vivacious existence in the universe, not confined to the historic Walt Whitman only. By displaying various people, man and woman, whoever has a decent job such as being the president or not as being as prostitute, Whitman sincerely sang praise for the equality and democracy among human beings; by beautifying the animals, for instance, the wild gander leading his flock through the cold night, Whitman showed his respect for animals and indicated the equality between human beings and animals, and his song of nature, to a large extent, the song of the whole universe.

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Distinct from the grandness of substantial issues like patriotism in Whitmans poems, Dickinsons poems appear more regional and individual, mainly dwelling on issues of the individual world. Natural phenomena, changes of seasons, heavenly bodies, animals, birds and insects, flowers of various kinds are often the subjects of her poetry; death, love, friendship, nature and immortality are the recurrent themes. For example, in This Is My Letter to the World, she implicitly expressed her loneliness and disappointment of not being recognised, yearning for someone to know her, fully understand her and recognise her. It is easy to find that most of Dickinsons poetry is more a natural flow of personal feeling and experience far from society, many of which partly resulted from her reclusive life and solitude and which can not be separated from the religious influences she received during childhood and adolescence. Calvinism with its doctrine of predestination and its pessimism pressured her and colored her work so that her basic tone was tragic. Coupled with her frequent witnessing of deaths of many friends, especially the bereavement of her tutors, Benjamin Newton and Charles Wadsworth, the repressive dogma made death a main topic of Dickinsons poetry, confronting which Dickinson could still behave with poise and on which she could surprisingly exert profound pondering. For Dickinson, death leads to immortality; it is not to be feared but a natural part of the endless circle of nature. This is reflected in one of her poems, Because I could not stop for Death. In this poem, she imagined the time when she died: He kindly stopped for me, indicating that death was not terrible for her. We slowly drove He knew no haste, showing her peaceful and calm mindset towards death. Actually, in the first stanza, The Carriage held but just ourselves And immortality, has already told her attitude towards death; together with death, there came immortality. The comparison between the transience of mans life and the eternity of God in the last stanza also showed that she enjoyed the death.

Just judging from the lengths of Whitmans and Dickinsons poems, we can already tell the difference of their styles. The most conspicuous differences between the two poets lie in their special techniques.

The most distinctive characteristics of Whitmans poetry are the use of repetition, parallelism, rhetorical mannerisms, the adoption of the natural cadences of speech in poetry, and the employment of the phrases instead of the good as a unit of rhythm. Most notably, to comprehensively express himself, Whitman broke the conventional poetic form and extensively used free verse in his poems. Disobeying the iambic pentameter form, her tried to approximate the natural cadences of speech in his poetry, carefully varying the length of his lines according to his intended emphasis while ensuring every aspect of life was able to speak without restraint. In I Hear American singing, there are the paralleling singings of a multitude of people ranging from the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker, the wood-cutter, the plough boy, the mother to the young wife; in O Captain! My Captain!, there are the repetitions of �O Captain! My Captain!�, �on the deck my Captain lies� and �Fallen cold and dead� which strongly suggest Whitman�s profound love for Lincoln and desperate sorrow for his death.

Dickinson, however, was famous for her startling and original diction. Her poems, terse, simple and direct, marked with her style of no title, capitalised words, dashes to create cadence, images and symbols, establish her as one of America�s great lyric poets. �Her gemlike poems are short, fresh and original, marked by the vigor of her images, the daring of her thought and beauty of her expression.� Simple and even unusual as some of her words are, they are thought-provoking and of fundamental meanings. In Because I could not stop for Death, she personified death as a carriage-driver, compared the journey to death as travelling by carriage and compared �children�, �the Fields of Gazing Grain� and �the Setting Sun� to childhood, adulthood and old age respectively, thus displaying her feelings towards death in a vivid and expressive way.


In conclusion, while Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson both commenced a new era in American literature, they varied from each other in diverse ways. Whitman was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works and is often called the father of free verse; whereas, Emily Dickinson, adept at employing images in her poetry, greatly influenced further Imagists such as Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, and became, with Stephen Crane, the precursor of the Imagist movement. In the development of American literature, they both made indispensable contributions.


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