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American poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are best known for their confessional works, in which they express their inner desires and urges. Both poets reflect their own unique qualities through choice of style, form, and language, as they discuss their feelings of sexual dissatisfaction and longing. Dickinson and Whitman stand on opposite ends of the poetic spectrum in terms of their expression of desire, which is clearly reflected in Dickinson’s “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” and Whitman’s eleventh section of “Song of Myself.” Each poem addresses a different model of desire, contains different language and structure, and describes different ways in which desires are fulfilled. While both poems may appear quite distinct from one another, there is one steady similarity to consider. In the two poems, Dickinson and Whitman coalesce through their expressions of separation and expulsion from one’s somatic desires.
Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is commonly known as her most erotic poem. The title of the poem itself signifies a sense of mental and sexual release as the word “wild” is often affiliated with untamed freedom and a loss of self-control, and “night” is known as a time of darkness and secrecy as the consciousness of society dims with the ticking hours. The title ends with an exclamation point, which indicates forcefulness and intensity, as if the speaker is full of excitement, passion, or anger. Such emotions are directed towards a particular unnamed individual/lover, in which the speaker refers to as “thee.” This model of desire is singular and specific, a common poetic trait of Dickinson. The individual is absent, which causes the speaker great dissatisfaction and displeasure. The only way the speaker will be fulfilled is if the individual is physically with her rather than symbolically: “Wild nights… Were I with thee” (3-4). Dickinson uses nautical imagery throughout the second half of the poem to describe the rough, sensual wind and ocean-like energy in which the speaker wants to create with her lover: “Wild nights should be our luxury! Futile – the winds…Ah, the sea!” (3-10). If the speaker’s lover was physically present, they would create their own stormy, “wild nights” of sexual passion, indulgence, and privilege. The stability of their love allows the speaker’s heart to remain “in port,” as if she is a boat sitting over calm water (6). Their love also does not require a “compass” or a “chart,” meaning there is no need for any source of control or reason; it is untamed like nature itself. The speaker then imagines the pleasures of “Rowing in Eden,” (9) which connects sensuality and eroticism to earthly paradise. The poem closes with forceful and urgent lines: “Might I but moor—Tonight—In thee!” (11-12). The speaker wants this pleasure tonight, not any other day; however this will not happen as her lover is nowhere in sight. Thus, she is left unfulfilled as she can only dream of the sexual satisfaction in which the presence of her lover claims to provide.
While the subject matter of the “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is not necessarily conservative or reticent, the way Dickinson expresses such provocative, carnal material is quite compressed as she hides it under nautical elements which appear nonsexual at first glance. The structure of the poem is condensed and brief, containing only a few words in every line, which parallels with Dickinson’s desire to keep her poetry and deep thoughts private and contained. Compression is Dickinson’s unique method of thinking, as it draws attention to silence and the unsaid. There are multiple dashes throughout the poem, which formalize the silence in what cannot be said to the self or to the lover. Like many of her other poems, this poem is one of lyric solitude. The speaker and the lover are the only figures in the poem, however there is no actual conversation between them, which provides a more remote tone, as if the mind is thinking alone. Silence itself becomes Dickinson’s way of mastering feelings, which intensifies the speaker’s demand for erotic pleasure and the tortuous pain of receiving none.
Walt Whitman does not display any repression of eroticism in his poetry. The eleventh section of “Song of Myself” strictly focuses on bodily and physical desire, as it includes multiple anatomical descriptions of the male body. The speaker in the poem is a removed observer, identified as a woman through the use of the female pronouns “she” and “her.” A dramatic vignette is presented within the first lines: “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore” as a lonesome woman watches, hidden behind the blinds of her window (1). This woman is a member of the upper class, as she owns a “fine house by the rise of a bank” and “hides handsome and richly drest” (4-5). The woman fantasizes of participating in the men’s joy and playfulness, referring to herself as the “twenty-ninth bather” (10). Like Whitman himself, the woman enjoys observation and experiences sexual release through conjoining with other individuals. The imagery of the poem suddenly becomes erotic as Whitman begins to describe the physical assets of the men as they bathe: “the beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair, little streams pass’d all over their bodies” (12-13). The woman’s fantasy grows deeper as she then imagines herself as an “unseen hand” that sensually touches each man’s body, which deepens the woman’s desire for an intimate physical connection. Like the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, she never obtains the true pleasure she craves; she can only mentally experience such sexual satisfaction, as she remains secluded in her house. However, she does not appear to experience any frustration as the poem still ends within a sexual fantasy: “they do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch, they do not think whom they souse with spray” (18-19).
Neither speaker receives physical intimacy, however Whitman’s speaker does experience some form of fulfillment towards the end of the poem while Dickinson’s speaker is left in only discontent. As stated previously, Whitman does not show difficulty in expressing eroticism. His model of desire is all-inclusive, as he refers to each of the twenty-eight bathers as the poetic other. The structure of the poem is free flowing and elaborate, containing multiple short stanzas. There are no dashes or periods, indicating a sense of openness, generativity, and expansion. His language is strictly observational and unembellished, only describing the real and physical aspects of his environment. There is no sense of regularity or concern towards propriety, which provides the poem with rawness and carelessness, demonstrating Whitman’s strong aspiration to share his inner desires with the public world. A sense of fulfillment and hope appears through the closing lines of the poem, ultimately reflecting Whitman’s determination to discover pleasure through simple visual examinations of the ordinary world. Dickinson keeps her desires and urges repressed and contained through a first-person narrative, which transforms her speaker’s physical cravings into one strong spiritual yearning. Whitman transmits his speaker’s desires and urges through a dramatic scene, which transforms his cosmic self into a living phenomenon. The way in which each poet achieves the fulfillment of desire is extremely different. However, the ego of the speaker in both poems is restricted, either voluntarily or involuntarily, causing an immediate detachment from their desires.
Once detached, both speakers are left only to imagine satisfaction, which in itself creates a new form of thrill and pleasure; however, it is not the same. The sensual tone of Dickinson’s “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” portrays the speaker’s deep passion for her lover and her yearning for physical intimacy. Like Whitman, Dickinson uses environmental images such as water and wind to illustrate the beauty and allure of somatic contact and movement. Both speakers feel the same yearnings, yet they do not directly achieve them. In Dickinson’s case, her speaker’s lover is not physically present, which causes her yearning to grow deeper. Her speaker does not attempt to contact or search for her lover; she remains removed and distant, which indicates a sense of shame or hesitation towards her desires. Whitman’s speaker portrays similar behavior as she does not leave her house to physically join the bathers, remaining hidden and locked within her imagination, only able to fantasize of her satisfaction. Despite different methods of erotic expression, both speakers act upon their desires through physical detachment and receive similar consequences of isolation and restlessness.
Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman display polar opposite poetic qualities, most notably through their choice of language and structure, but also through their expression of desire and fulfillment. Dickinson demonstrates a sense of privacy and compression in terms of expressing one’s desires while Whitman demonstrates publicity and expansion. However, similarity arises as both speakers in the two poems display similar behavior as they are confronted by their sexual urges and choose to detach from them, only able to receive a taste of fulfillment through their imagination.
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