Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson’s works have numerous differences. Compared to Dickinson’s short and seemingly simple poems, Whitman’s are long and often complex. Yet both twentieth century writers share several similarities when delved into thoroughly. Though their approaches differ, they often deal with the same themes, and both pioneered their own unique style of writing.
Using death as a theme is probably the strongest connection that Whitman and Dickinson share. Whitman’s view on death is reflective of his belief in Transcendentalism. In “Song of Myself”, Whitman uses the scientific principle of Thermodynamics to assert that there is life after death, because energy cannot be destroyed; only transformed. In stanza six, he writes “And what do you think has become of the women and children?/ They are alive and well somewhere,/ The smallest sprouts shows there is really no death”. Whitman contends that life remains long after death, and to find him now all one must do is look “under your boot-soles”.
Dickinson’s writings on death are more complex and paradoxical. She personifies death, generally seeing as a lord or as a compelling lover. In one of her more popular poems, “Because I could not stop for Death”, death is like a kindly courter. He picks her up in a “Carriage held but just for Ourselves-/ And Immortality”. Many of her other poems are about the moment of death, and what happens when the living cross over into the dead. In “I heard a Fly buzz- when I died”, Dickinson tries to explain what happens at the boundary of death. She describes the experience as conflicted as she strives to define that moment with vivid images and sounds. Although Whitman and Dickinson write about death in different contexts, both seem to feel compelled to tackle the issue repeatedly. It is also apparent that neither felt intimidated about death. Whitman refers to his impending death in the final stanza of “Song of Myself”. Dickinson herself wrote (to her cousins), “Little Cousins,/ Called back-/ Emily.” on her deathbed.
Religion is also another subject both writers struggle with, and it often ties into the death theme. During the Romantic era, previous ideals and morals were questioned. Religion was scrutinized, and often considered outdated and irrelevant. Whitman challenged the traditional idea of religion, basing his philosophy off of transcendentalism. He collapses the distinctions between the spiritual and the secular. He often puts himself in place God. For example, in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he implies that he can see across time. In stanza three, he directly associates himself with Jesus Christ by writing “I am with you”, an echo from the Bible. Whitman frequently uses this echo technique, not only in “Crossing”, but also in “Song of Myself”. Stanza 19 in “Song” is parallel to the feast of the rich man in the Bible. Once again he compares himself to Jesus, inviting “the wicked just the same as the righteous”. Despite the tendency of Romantics to dismiss God completely, Whitman, perhaps due to Puritan pressure, felt the need to address the larger issues of religion and God. His assertion that spirituality is found in each of us, not in some higher being is a result of his constant questioning of traditional beliefs, combined with his inability to discard all notions of morality and values.
Emily Dickinson’s philosophy on death was much more traditional, yet she too constantly questioned the Calvinistic beliefs she had grown up with. Her fixation on death is a fundamental part of her religious beliefs, and many of her poems focus on her anxiety over her Elect status. Many of her poems seem to question God’s existence, and the importance of Him if He does exist. In one poem she seemingly makes fun of God, saying “That we had rather not with Him/ But with each other play”. Yet many poems seem quite sure that He does indeed exist. This belief is emphasized by such lines as “I know that He exists”, “I never spoke with God/ Nor visited in Heaven-/ Yet certain am I of the spot/ As if the Checks were given-“. Like Whitman, Emily feels the need to challenge the role of religion, yet both ultimately are incapable of tossing old beliefs entirely.
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson both have been hailed as original and unique artists. They each have distinctive voices that many have attempted to replicate and have been unable to do so. Whitman wrote in epic like proportions, a very unepic-like manner. He developed his own rhythmic structure, creating complex lines and stanzas. Whitman’s style of free verse become synonymous with his name and works, and helped distinguish him as a great American poet. His preoccupation with sex, the human body, and numerous other “taboo” subjects, changed the American publics view of poetry. Dickinson’s works are just as unique, due mainly to her odd placement of punctuation, unusual grammar, and simplicity of language. Her lines end abruptly, outwardly innocuous words are often capitalized, and her tendency to write meters typical of hymnals all distinguishes her from other writers. Both Whitman and Dickinson write of common and everyday objects and people, while addressing the larger issues of life within that context.
While Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson’s works seem to be quite different, they share common themes, namely death and religion. While their views may differ, there is a sense of commonality when reading their works side by side. Both poets are acclaimed American writers, offering up distinct voices and beliefs that echo still today.