In Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth lays out the rules of romantic poetry. He defines it as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” that uses the language of “real men” and reflects lessons derived from nature. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, as different as their works appear on the surface, both produce works that embody these principles.
In Whitman’s most celebrated work, Leaves of Grass, he breaks convention by writing in free verse rather than typical poetic diction. He writes in the language that people speak. The speaker’s emotion as he encounters nature is powerful and palpable.
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic
Whitman’s exuberance hearkens back to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads:
Now if Nature be thus cautious in preserving in a state of enjoyment a being thus employed, the poet ought to profit from the lesson thus held forth to him…
Dickinson’s poems share many of the same Romantic devices Whitman uses. Like him, she avoided the usual forms of poetry, favoring dashes over conventional punctuation and varying meter within poems. Her speakers were often charged with emotion as they spoke of nature.
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me, —
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
Whitman and Dickinson share another standard of Romantic poetry: the subject of death. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman includes the poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a tribute to Abraham Lincoln in which he shares his grief in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination. Dickinson also ruminated on death and grief in such poems as “A Certain Slant of Light,” “I measure every Grief I meet,” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Below the surface, both Whitman’s and Dickinson’s works share the principles of Romantic poetry.