If one were to merely glance at their work, focusing solely on the structure and form of their poems, it would seem appropriate to place Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson on opposite sides of their poetic spectrum. With Whitman’s words and line lengths following as freely as a wind through grass blades in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” or Dickinson as concise as a slant of light on a winter afternoon in “Poem 320,” both poets appear light years apart from each others subject matter, yet, despite their varying forms, both poets achieve a similar intimacy with the their topics. By using the human body as a vessel to describe emotional states of existence, both Whitman and Dickinson are able to express emphatic oneness and explore their relationships with their fellow humans as well as nature by weaving together these internal and external worlds.
“There's a certain Slant of light,” Dickinson begins in “Poem 320”, “Winter Afternoons – / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes – / Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – / We can find no scar, / But internal difference – / Where the Meanings, are – “ (Dickinson, Lines 1-8). Through its em-dashes and enjambment, each short, concise line forces the reader to take each word methodically, being drawn inward, toward a quiet sense of contemplation. While we may have begun observing light crawl across a room, the experience morphs into something more molecular as we continue to read. It’s when we hit “internal difference,” which em-dashes us further into “Where the Meanings, are –,” (Dickinson) we become enveloped by the speaker’s mind and realize what we’re witnessing is the death of a thought, an event as fleeting as a slant of light. As Yvor Winters concisely states in “In Defense of Reason,” “[Slant of Light] is rather a legitimate and traditional form of allegory, in which the relationships between the items described resemble exactly the relationships between certain moral ideas or experiences (Winters).”
Dickson further explores the dynamics of relationships through her use of allegory within “Poem 764” by identifying the speaker with the “Loaded Gun.” “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - / In Corners - till a Day / The Owner passed - identified - / And carried Me away -” (Dickinson, Lines 1-4). As Adrienne Rich points out, “[Dickinson] sees herself as split… between the hunter, admittedly masculine, but also a human person, an active, willing being, and the gun—an object, condemned to remain inactive until the hunter—the owner—takes possession of it.” By objectifying the speaker, Dickinson is able to express an experience of powerlessness and an inability to escape a situation or predicament through one’s own autonomy. While, simultaneously, showcasing through the hunter that one’s power to change one’s surroundings can come from outside oneself but one must seek out said power first.
Similar to Dickinson, Whitman not only uses structure to reflect his subject matter but also creates allegorical imagery to express an empathy gaze. Such is perfectly observed in Section Seven of “Lilacs”:
(Nor for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)
Compared with the preceding section (Section Six), Section Seven is enclosed within parentheses suggesting more internal thinking than what followed it. This enclosure also suggests that Section Seven is taking place inside the speaker’s mind while Six is happening, with Section Six ending with “I give you my sprig of lilac” and Seven being a more personal meditation of the speaker’s mourning and their lilac sprig: “For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death, (Whitman),” the speaker claiming to “break the sprigs from the bushes” in copious amounts and bring them to the coffin in arm-fulls. Here, the speaker might also be meditating on the momentariness of human life as each lilac sprig is a living thing and the speaker is bringing said sprigs to a coffin/funeral. What’s more, while Whitman’s line lengths and diction are still more verbose than Dickinson’s, Whitman mirrors Dickinson’s attempts to decelerate the reader’s pace to convey a sense of contemplation by shortening his lines comparatively. Section Seven not only contains “Lilacs’” smallest lines but also the piece’s largest concentration of short lines, meaning that Whitman was conscious of the molecularity of introspection and, much like Dickinson, molded his lines to echo this.
However, just as short line lengths can infer a musing or reflection, longer lengths can exude the indescribable, or rather the speaker’s inability to take in everything a moment has to offer (immense sensory overload). For Whitman, “Lilacs’” cascading cadence transmits the immeasurable sadness the speaker experiences as they watch a funeral procession while, in tandem, admiring the landscape of nature (both in terms of rolling terrain as well as the landscape of the human figure). In happens most notably in Section Fourteen:
The many-moving sea-tides, and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages,
And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo, then and there,
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.
While Whitman describes being in a busy street during the funeral march, he uses provocative language (“With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,” “their throbbings throbb’d,” “Falling upon them,” “enveloping me”) that can propose a sexual encounter (a mé·nage à trois, perhaps). Such figurative language allows Whitman emotional complexity, less that the speaker wants to “get down” during a funeral and more that the speaker’s tremendous love of the person who just passed is equaled only to the sadness the speaker feels regarding their absence. “In the face of the overwhelming grief and guilt,” writes Michael Moon in “Disseminating Whitman,” “Whitman relaunches a self through a poetic congeries of the defiles of signified desire… [intertwining] the subject into sexuality with the recognition of death, [linking] the political and historical catastrophe of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln with… the recapitulation of the catastrophe in the [cultural psyche] (Moon).”
Whitman also uses expresses such compassion on the smaller scale as well, seen in “I Sing the Body Electric”: “I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons, / And in them the fathers of sons, and in them the fathers of sons. // This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person, / The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes (Whitman).” Here we see Whitman use similar detail and focus as in “Lilacs” but on a Dickinson scale, magnifying one person in one moment instead of multiples of either in tandem. What’s fascinating is how Whitman maintains an affinity regardless of his scope, be it one person, three, or a funeral procession. Such an overwhelming surge of feeling equates to the second-by-second daily experience of human beings, an emphatic aspect Whitman shares with Dickinson.
While Dickinson’s lines remain consistent throughout most of her work, there are times we encounter Whitman-esqe moments which convey grand sweeps of scale and emotion, usually when she chooses not to include her signature em dash. As mentioned previously, for most of “Poem 320” Dickinson chooses a deliberate pacing, pausing with em dashes as well as enjambment in order to convey contemplation about the word/idea being pause upon, yet between lines three and four we see Dickinson have more fluidity with her diction; “That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes –“ (Dickinson). Unlike the majority of the poem’s lines, the enjambment between “Heft” and “Cathedral Tunes” does not end with a comma nor em dash and, according to the grammar used, can be read at a more ecstatic pace. This increase in tempo suggests a revelation on behalf of the speaker and, continuing with the interpretation that this poem is about the death of an idea, comes at the exact moment when the speaker realizes their idea is first lost. Additionally, as Donald E. Thackrey points out, “the sudden, inward change is so thorough that the poet, holding her breath and listening, sees her own emotional state reflected in the very landscape and shadows. The emotion, too intense to last, subsides as the slant of light lengthens and lowers into the gray of twilight (Thackrey.)” Furthermore, in lines fifteen and sixteen, we see a second revelation, the enjambment between “Distance” and “On the look of Death – (Dickinson)” except, this time, it’s the speaker realizing the thought is gone forever. By book-ending the poem with these revelations, Dickinson mimics circularity of thought processes as well as the ephemeral nature of consciousness. Much like Whitman’s lilac sprigs, Dickinson’s lost thought represents a human awareness and empathy toward its fleeting moments.
While both poets operate within different scales of experience, a common intense immense empathy is shared between both. Be it every single face in a massive crowd or a hunter and his tool of choice, to slivers of light crawling across a room or the immeasurable meaning of a farmer’s yellow teeth, both Whitman and Dickinson express an affinity for the other. Through such passion do they teach lessons in finding commonplace with one other, seeing our faces in the eye which stare back. As Whitman writes in “Body Electric,” “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!”
Dickinson, Emily. "Certain Slant of Light" Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Dickinson, Emily. "My Life Stood—a Loaded Gun" Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass". Cambridge: Harvard Univ, 1993. 219.
Rich, Adrienne. "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson." On Lies, Secrets, and Silences. N.p.: W.W. Norton, 1979.
Thackrey, Donald E. Emily Dickinson's Approach to Poetry. Darby, PA: Norwood Editions, 1985. 76-80.
Whitman, Walt. "I Sing the Body Electric." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Whitman, Walt. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation
Winters, Yvor, and Kenneth Fields. "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment." In Defense of Reason. Athens, OH: Swallow, 1987. 283-99