How does Whitman use death or describe death in "Song of Myself" ?I am writing a paper on Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Dickinson's "Because I Could not Stop for Death", and I would like...

How does Whitman use death or describe death in "Song of Myself" ?

I am writing a paper on Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Dickinson's "Because I Could not Stop for Death", and I would like information on the differences in thier opinion of death, difference in how they each portray death.

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Song of Myself", Walt Whitman does not apply to death the qualities of personification that are used by Emily Dickinson in "Because I Could Not Stop for Death". Rather, the poem "Song of Myself", treats death as a process, in fact, as a beginning process, rather than an ending. Whitman denies the significance of death as a negative aspect of life and gives it positive qualities. Among these positive qualities, he treats death as a door that opens the passageway from one world to another, allowing for life to re-start and perpetuate its eternal cycle. Whitman is fearless about it and he addresses it directly.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

The use of nature as the setting for his ode to death is significant because it is in nature where we witness the most pure and clear processes of life, from the moment a sprout grows, to the moment when a tree is fully-grown, and until the last leaf dies in the Fall. However, he is clear in that this is just one part of an ongoing process that, like life itself, never ends.

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

I know I am deathless,
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter's compass,
I know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.

Dickinson treats death differently in "Because I Could Not Stop for Death". She uses personification by describing death as a gentleman that will lead her to the place where we all have to go sooner or later.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

Dickinson contrasts greatly from Whitman in her views of Death in that she points out its finality while Whitman emphasizes on its quality of perpetuity. However, the element of eternity is also addressed by Dickinson in that she admits that death will eventually be the way to get to eternal life.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Therefore, both Whitman and Dickinson treat death in an allegorical way. Whitman does it by exalting the mystery of life and awarding death the honorable ability of bringing closure to life so that it can begin again. Contrastingly, Dickinson personifies death by awarding it human qualities and by treating it as a person whom will escort us toward the end of our days and, eventually, to eternity.

Jane Ames eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a quintessential Romantic poet, Whitman reveres and is inspired by nature. This includes the concept of the circle of life, how the living and dying of all creatures feed into one another in a neverending loop. Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, paints death as a kind of one-way departure. Death interacts with life, but it is not necessarily equal or similar. Dickinson characterizes death as something rather ominous and unearthly—though not necessarily unwelcome.

The first Educator was right to quote the line in "Song of Myself" which reads "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death." Later in the poem, Whitman observes, "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." Whitman suggests here that death may be a virtual extension of life, and he embraces it as a part of the relationship between life, death, and nature. Whitman believes death exists as a part of a larger whole in which all parts are equal. In this sense, death is nothing to fear and, though it is unknown, may not be so wicked and unfathomable after all.

Dickinson's attitude takes a more somber tone. Death is portrayed as a long, slowly paced ride, which is a metaphor for the eternal state of death. Unlike Whitman's circle of life and death, Dickinson's death views memories of life from afar, and moves individually on a one-way trajectory. Rather than being one with the universe, Dickinson's death is particular and singular: "The Carriage held but just Ourselves - / And Immortality." To Dickinson, death is solitary, chilled, and distant. This is a far cry from Whitman's happy sprout of life.