Walt Whitman

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Comparison of themes and content in Walt Whitman's and Emily Dickinson's poetry

Summary:

Whitman's and Dickinson's poetry both explore themes of self and death, but Dickinson's work is more philosophical, while Whitman's is celebratory. Both poets use nature as a metaphor for human life, employing natural themes and animals to convey insights about human nature, such as Dickinson's frog in "I'm Nobody" and Whitman's various creatures.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How do themes in Whitman's poetry compare to those in Dickinson's?

Though both speak of the themes of self and death, Dickinson focuses more on a philosophical exploration of the elusive realities of these themes, while Whitman focuses more on a celebration of these themes.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How do themes in Whitman's poetry compare to those in Dickinson's?

Both Whitman and Dickinson use nature as a metaphor for human life.  Natural themes are prevalent in both their poetry, and both use the animals and places to tell us something about human nature.  For example, Dickinson describes a frog in "I'm Nobody" and Whitman also uses animals and creatures.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How do themes in Whitman's poetry compare to those in Dickinson's?

We need to think of purpose and ambition when it comes to these two very different poets. Dickinson never meant her work to be published, from what we can gather, and sent her poems mostly to close relatives. She only gained fame after her death. Thus the scope of her poetry is restricted to the everyday, the America of the individual and her unique take on it. Whitman, by contrast, deliberately set out to write grandiose works capturing the experience of America as he saw it. He set out to be a poet and have his work published in his lifetime. This results in an essential difference between these two poets and the sphere of their work.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How do themes in Whitman's poetry compare to those in Dickinson's?

I agree that one significant difference between Dickinson and Whitman is their  perspective on self. Dickinson reflects on life as an individual and how that works in life, death, and the universe. Whitman reflects on life as part of a collective, as indivuals who are free to be themselves (or at least they should be) but are also connected to one another.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How do themes in Whitman's poetry compare to those in Dickinson's?

In my mind, I think that Whitman's poetry and Dickinson's poetry is strikingly similar in their embrace of individual freedom and the ability for the individual to be the author of their own narrative.  Where there is significant divergence seems to be in their embrace of a political end to this freedom.  Whitman is very open about his belief that individual freedom and endeavor has to strive towards this concept called America and the promises of its fledgling democracy.  This becomes part of Whitman's core value system and something highly evident in his writing.  Yet, Dickinson does not outwardly embrace this political end, remaining to reside the domain of the personal and introspective.  To this end, there is significant difference between them.  This is not saying that Dickinson would not have embraced the political ends that Whitman did in his work.  Yet, it does bring out another important difference between them.  The poetry of Dickinson is very individualistic, while the poetry of Whitman embraces a community.  It is here where the differences on more than a political level for a choice within the individual.  Dickinson's individually drawn sense of identity is set against Whitman's embrace of American consciousness, one where a political community is forged through individual freedom.  It is here where I think that themes and implications of both writers end up taking form and shape.  There might not be an ultimatum being forced upon the reader, but certainly there are different implications in each upon which reflection is critical.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some of the ways that you can compare and contrast Whitman and Dickinson?

The previous post was quite thorough.  I would only like to add that one particular point of convergence in both is how the notion of American literary voice was rooted in self expression.  Both thinkers held true to the idea that any notion of the universal comes from the subjective, and that from this only can truth be fully understood.  However, within this form of expression might also be a point of divergence.  Whitman is quite passionate about the democratic political form as being the best political structure to express this subjective experience.  Whitman is able to assert complete confidence in how the heterogeneous composition of American Democracy helps to enhance individual voice.  Dickinson is not so sold on the idea of political expressions of the good, in general.  Her writing does not explicitly articulate how politics fits into the subjective expression of self.  This difference in perception on the role and function of political orders might be one additional area of contrast between both thinkers.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some of the ways that you can compare and contrast Whitman and Dickinson?

Though many teachers, professors, and experts like to lump Whitman and Dickinson together into the category of Transcendentalists, I prefer to teach Whitman with Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau and to teach Dickinson as a poet who does not necessarily fit any particular literary period. While Whitman (a bit) more strictly writes his poetry as reflections of the Oversoul (God, nature, and humans are all connected), Dickinson values nature, but does not really include any other tenets of Transcendentalism in her writing. Both Whitman and Dickinson were known for being social outcasts, in a way. When Walt Whitman first published his most famous collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, critics and common American audiences thought it "crude" and "vulgar". We surmise now that he was probably also bisexual, though there is no solid evidence of any same-sex relationship in his life. Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, lived a very solitary life -- out of choice -- and some experts say she only left her house to go on trips six times during her life. Reclusive and misunderstood, she never married; after she died, her sister found hundreds of poems strewn about her room, even stuffed in desk drawers. As far as their writing styles were concerned, they marched to the beats of their own drummers (a phrase adapted from a famous Thoreau quote). Whitman was one of the first American poets to use free verse, an unrhymed, unmetered type of poetry; and Dickinson was one of the first to use unconventional punctuation (such as dashes) and capitalization. Many critics hail both Whitman and Dickinson as the all-time "greats" of American poets. A few of Whitman's and Dickinson's personality differences translated into differences in their poetry, however. Whereas Whitman was quite outgoing and even spent part of his life volunteering to help wounded Civil War soldiers, the extent of Dickinson's generosity involved her lowering mid-afternoon treats out of her bedroom window for the neighborhood children to enjoy. Whitman's experiences with the wounded soldiers led to some thought-provoking writing, starting with his journals and ending with some heart-wrenching poetry. Once his "Captain" of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, had died, Whitman wrote his famous tribute in the form of "O Captain, My Captain!" Dickinson's typical lack of human interaction may have contributed to the overall depressed tone of her poems, with the notable exception of "Hope is the Thing with Feathers". Also, Whitman's poems quite often proudly blazon his individuality ("I celebrate myself, and sing myself" -- from Song of Myself), while Dickinson's quite often make more blanket statements about humankind in general ("Demur -- you're straightway dangerous -- and handled with a Chain" -- fron "Much Madness is Divinest Sense"). I hope this answer helped you. If you need more help understanding Transcendentalism -- or any of the other American literary periods, for that matter -- just let me know!
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the content of Walt Whitman's poetry compare to Emily Dickinson's?

[eNotes editors can only answer one question per posting. If you have additional questions, please post them separately.]

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are extremely different in terms of the content of their poetry.

Whitman became educated to a higher degree than his parents, but spent a great deal of time after "organized" education to educate himself. He was of the working class, and had several different kinds of job, and a variety of literary experiences. It is then, no surprise, that Whitman developed a strong literary voice based upon the extensive experiences of his life.

Whitman became involved in writing about politics, and at some point, it is uncertain what the particulars are...

As we have noted, Whitman the journalist spoke to the interests of the day and from a particular class perspective when he advanced the interests of white workingmen while seeming, at times, unconcerned about the plight of blacks. [There was] a change that [may have been] intensified by an increasing number of friendships with radical thinkers and writers who led Whitman to rethink his attitudes toward the issue of race. Whatever the cause, in Whitman’s future-oriented poetry blacks become central to his new literary project and central to his understanding of democracy.

...While most people were lining up on one side or another, Whitman placed himself in that space—sometimes violent, sometimes erotic, always volatile—between master and slave.

Whitman became a poet of the people, and changed poetry forever. The world-at-large was his inspiration.

Emily Dickinson is a very different kind of poet; the first reason would be that she was a very different person. Emily was particularly able to observe and understand what was going on around her, although she did not an active social life. Whereas Whitman wrote about the world-at-large, Emily wrote about the microcosm in which she lived: a world she grew up in. In fact:

She was born in a large house built by her grandfather...except for absences of about a year for her schooling and seven months in Boston, she lived in it all of her life and died there...

As with Whitman, she was inspired to write by the world which she occupied. Her work was much more philosophical, dealing with people in her "every day" experiences.

It is paradoxical that a woman who led such a circumscribed and apparently uneventful life managed to acquire the rich perceptions that enabled her to write...poems unlike any others in the English language. ...many are masterpieces. The circumstances of her life, therefore, hold a special fascination for readers of her verse.

Dickinson's sharp perceptions and brilliant inner life arise primarily from her background.

When the Civil War broke out, Emily was greatly influenced by the atmosphere this created, as well as concerns for friends with poor health and involvement of one man in the Union's efforts in the war. Then, between 1874 and 1882, Emily lost six family members and friends, and began to write a great deal about death. By 1886, Emily herself would have passed away.

Whitman's was a strong poetic voice, driven by his experiences out in the world. He wrote about what he saw, and the people he knew. He changed the face of poetry. Even though Emily Dickinson also lived during the same time, her poetry was emerged from the limited circle in which she lived, but her poetry was no less impressive for her lack of life-experience.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the theme differences in Walt Whitman's and Emily Dickinson's poetry?

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are considered to be the two greatest poets that America has ever produced. That said, they could not have been more different in style, though not entirely in content.

Whitman is known for sprawling free verse. His poetry attempted to embrace an entire nation (e.g., "Song of Myself"), then the entire globe (e.g., "Salut au Monde"). According to Whitman scholar Ed Folsom, Whitman believed, however foolishly, that a poem could prevent the Civil War. He responded to an ad which requested such a reconciliatory poem in jest, though the young poet's intentions were very much in earnest. 

In his construction of "Song of Myself," he attempted to limn and describe every aspect of American humanity, allowing every type of person -- Northerner and Southerner, slave and free, male and female -- to enter through him. The poem did not prevent the war, but it did help more Americans to appreciate the diversity of the nation. Whitman would create a collection that would focus on the Civil War, "Drum Taps," as well as a controversial cluster of poems in Leaves of Grass called "Calamus" that would explicitly deal with sexuality.

"Explicit" is not a word that should be used to describe Emily Dickinson. While Whitman dealt with broad themes, working from the outside-in, Dickinson focused more on interiority -- working from the inside-out. Instead of free verse, she employed near-rhyme, generally rhyming every other line. Whereas Whitman's verse sprawled out onto the page, Dickinson economized, leaving much empty space. While Whitman made bold proclamations, Dickinson chose to be wry and elliptical, always leaving the reader wondering about her true meaning or intent.

Though Whitman had not traveled much, only within the United States and once to Canada, Dickinson seldom left Amherst, Massachusetts, only traveling to Boston. She stayed in her family home until the end of her life and focused much of her time on botany. Many of her poems are about flowers, which she is suspected of having used as metaphors to describe other aspects of life.

Whitman, too, was interested in aspects of the natural world. His continually revised collection, Leaves of Grass, also expresses an interest in nature. Both were influenced by the Transcendentalist movement in this respect. 

Though both poets expressed an empirical, or observational, interest in the natural world, they were repelled by fields of science that attempted to dissect every aspect of life until there was nothing left to examine. They disliked the idea of scientists eliminating mysticism from nature.

Whitman expressed his distaste in his poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," in which the narrator walks out of a lecture on astronomy to go and look at the stars for himself. Dickinson expressed her distaste in the poems "The Chemical Conviction," in which she imagines (perhaps) the study of chemistry tearing her body apart. However, she is more elusive in "'Faith' Is A Fine Invention," in which she may be deriding blind religious faith in favor of science, or in which she may be wryly attacking science for its presumption of clearer insight. With Dickinson, one can never be sure.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on