What were Whitman's and Dickinson's attitudes toward nature?

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brandyhwilliams's profile pic

brandyhwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson both revere nature, though for markedly different reasons. To Whitman, nature is the essence of all knowledge for man- if he will only pay attention to it. Whitman revels in explaining the human condition and really exposing the intricacies of life through the stalemate of a flank of grass. For example, read, "On The Beach At Night", and you will find the metaphoric explanation of life and death, through the eyes of a little girl who cries as "burial clouds" or stormy, thick clouds, cover the sky and hide the stars. Whitman explains, "The ravenous clouds shall not long be victorious, They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,..." In this moment, Whitman uses the cloud coverage of the stars to reference the pain of death. He hold that this pain will not last forever, as this is a temporary condition. 

For Dickinson, nature is more perplexing and convoluted. Within Dickinson's works, she uses nature to play off the mysteries of life and how life changes in a moment's notice. She often makes the darkest, most painful human emotions and conditions, more gentle and easy to tolerate. This can be seen in "A Bird Came Down The Walk". In this poem, the bird begins as a predator, who indifferently eats a worm. In that one moment, the bird is predator, and sitting atop the food chain with not a care or concern. Then Dickinson explains that she is spying and the bird notices, and becomes uneasy. Thus, showing how conditions and interactions vary based on perspective. She also illuminates the joy that comes from being in a position of control and dominance. See here from the poem as a switch happens between the two stanzas:

He bit an Angleworm in halves And ate the fellow, raw,

He glanced with rapid eyes That hurried all around— They looked like frightened Beads, I thought— He stirred his Velvet Head
mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Thoreau once remarked that

....The actual object which one man will see from a particular hill top is just as different from those another will see as the beholders are different; we can not see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it.... and then we can hardly see anything else.

Certainly, both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson were "possessed with the idea" of Nature, and they took it completely "into their heads." 

Walt Whitman

  • admires and respects Nature
  • perceives Nature as teacher
  • considers himself as a part of Nature
  • revels in Nature, spending time in it joyfully

Whitman wished to embrace everything as liberally as he perceived Nature doing, feeling one's way to knowledge, rather than attempting rationalization. Like Dickinson he closely observed Nature with deep respect. One of his poems that explicates lessons learned from Nature is Whitman's rather lengthy poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Doorway Bloom'd," in which he observes the rebirth of nature in the perennial, the lilac. He extrapolates this rebirth and applies it to the fallen soldier, perceiving his rebirth through others. In this way, the poet consoles himself over the tragic loss of life that the soldier has suffered.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love....

Emily Dickinson

  • feels the necessity for Nature
  • recognizes a profundity in Nature
  • finds harmony with Nature
  • finds Nature a source of beauty and joy
  • finds it fascinating
  • finds that the perception of beauty in nature is subjective

Perhaps better than anything to explain Dickinson's feelings and perception about Nature are her own words contained in this poem:

"Nature" is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
...Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
...Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity. 

Both Whitman and Dickinson found in Nature a source of joy, beauty, harmony, an image of the supernatural, and a certain fascination. Certainly, they found many private and profound experiences.

Sources:

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