Roar and Whisper: Whitman and Dickinson as Poets of the Self


In viewing how poets have asserted their own identities in their work, it is difficult to find two more contrary such poets than Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.   Both famously American, and both sharing distinct inclinations to address the forces of nature and God, Whitman and Dickinson nonetheless seem to take very different courses in how they perceive and present themselves through their work.   Whitman virtually bellows the fact of his existence; Dickinson is invariably demur and unassuming, even as she probes her own being and soul.   Despite the contrast in intensity and style, however, both Whitman and Dickinson pursue the same goal, that of better understanding how this thing we call “self” belongs to us and to the world.

Two Voices, One Song

It is tempting to conclude that Emily Dickinson took a more quiet, subtle path in her exploration of self in her poetry because she was a woman of the nineteenth century, and one who led an exceptionally cloistered life.    Conversely, Walt Whitman's seemingly gregarious, extroverted presence as reflected in his work must be at least partially due to an equally robust personality.   Moreover, reading the poems of each only serves to reinforce this suspicion that ways of living themselves dictated how the poets interpreted his and her self.   Ultimately, however, both poets are merely employing different tools to achieve similar ends.

Whitman, in a word, roars.   While his overt extending of his own persona is evident in much of his poetry, it is best reflected in his aptly named, “Song of Myself”.   The title itself is nearly ridiculous in its affirmation of being, and may be mistaken for a narcissistic expression.   The reality, however, is that Whitman exalts his existence only as a vessel of sorts.   He gives himself a kind of omnipotence, certainly, but it is never entirely his to command, nor may he ever take credit for the magnificence of his being:  “In me the caresser of life wherever moving...not a person or object missing,/ Absorbing all to myself and for this song” (Whitman 13, 13-16).   As poet and man on a journey, Whitman never loses sight of the fact that whatever glory there is in his self is not of his own making, even as he revels in it:  “I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,/ Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself” (Whitman 48, 18-19).   The self he so delights in remains a mystery to Whitman, and something of an obligation as well.

Emily Dickinson is equally confounded by the meaning of self and her own existence, and equally determined to comprehend the impact and potentials of it; she simply stays at home in doing so, and speaks in more modest tones.   It is not that Dickinson is less impressed by the fact of her being, but seems to prefer to conduct her soul searching in stillness and isolation, as opposed to Whitman's traveling.  For example,  “The soul selects her own society,/ Then shuts the door” (Dickinson 229, 1-2),  is more than a social inclination.   It is a necessary seclusion, if insight to the self is to be gained.   It appears, in fact, that this element of privacy is essential for Dickinson's exploration:  “I felt my life with both my hands/ To see if it was there” (Dickinson 351, 1-2).   There is an intimacy in the lines that demands her withdrawal from the world, even as they also resonate with an implacable acknowledgment of being.   Moreover, Dickinson sometimes exhibits a playfulness which contradicts any thinking that her introversion translates to a denial of self:  “I'm nobody! Who are you?/ Are you nobody, too?/ Then there's a pair of us – don't tell!” (Dickinson 474, 1-3).   This is confidence at work, no matter how demur and quiet the poet's voice.


It is ironic that two such ostensibly diverse poets should ultimately share a common, poetic ground, yet that is the case with Dickinson and Whitman.   One is nearly pathologically hushed, and one is boisterous and lusty, but both devote a great deal of their energy and art to seeking out the truth of the self as felt by them.   Contrasts in intensity and style notwithstanding, Whitman and Dickinson work toward a single aim: that of better understanding how this thing known as the “self” belongs to us and to the world.

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Posted by December 3rd, 2014