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In the discussion of literary trailblazers in America’s shallow history, poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are seldom left behind. Whitman and Dickinson are often tagged by their ability to fuse form and content as they made huge risks and created revolutionary work. They produced poetry with a massive impact on Americans, and humans in general. Both authors explored the social restrictions of the time through their disregard to the formalities of poetry, and the societal borders regarding self-identity, sexuality, and spirituality.
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Self-identity was something early Americans struggled with, seeing as the nation was growing at a rather undesired pace. This sense of individualism, like many of the other social trends at the time, was mirrored in the work of artists, writers, and politicians. Specifically, the idea of self-identity was muddled when the early American society began to form. From then on, a consistent battle with the idea of freedom has raged inside the souls every American citizen. Dickinson and Whitman, two main players in the revolution against conformity in early America’s discovery, challenged close to every American belief in their work – specifically “Wild nights – Wild nights!” “Song of Myself,” and “I felt a Funeral.” These three poems had a significant effect on the thought process of Americans, and broke through the walls of conformity of that period of time. They established their own voice in the discussion of self-identity through their work.
Sexuality in the younger days of American culture was not an advertised issue – most people had a closeted concept of the sexuality of others, and the sexuality of themselves. Emily Dickinson, with enthusiastic repetition, frames a curious and adventurous young soul dealing with their journey with sexuality in her poem, “Wild nights -Wild nights!” This concept of sexuality as a mysterious life journey is craftily coupled by nautical images. The speaker of the poem’s enthusiastic and optimistic approach to his or her life sheds light on the author’s disregard for the norm. Dickinson’s use of sailing vocabulary, words like “port,” “Compass,” “Chart,” “Rowing,” “Sea,” and “moor” make sexuality an easier concept for her readers to understand. Portraying sexuality as an ominous, terrifying feat a person must conquer in order to move on in life is not an effective, constructive approach. Dickinson’s use of exclamation points also adds to the excitement of seeking sexuality as an enjoyable journey, instead of a tasking odyssey. The word “Wild,” as it is used in this poem, has a positive connotation because it is posed as an exclamatory statement, instead of, merely, a warning. This poem reveals a refreshingly playful side to Emily Dickinson that most of her readers never really get to see. The poem, “Wild nights – Wild nights!” preaches to readers that the only way to find yourself, is by yourself, without the aid of any devices. This message of self-exploration heavily stresses Dickinson’s disobedience to the social uniformities of her day.
Walt Whitman’s influence on America’s view on sexuality was subtle, but sneakily finds itself between the lines of Whitman’s expansive and illustrious poem, “Song of Myself.” Whitman was also an explorer of the body, and in the fifty-second section of “Song of Myself,” he writes, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,” insinuating an intimate physical relation to nature, one that Whitman has already established as an important influence in his life as a writer and a human being. Whitman’s connection to nature is not only physical, but spiritual in the sense that the feelings that nature evokes in Whitman make him deeply happy. He further provides evidence for his love of nature in the fourteenth section when he states, “The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections, / They scorn the best I can do to relate them.” Whitman’s philosophical work often questions, as apposed to Dickinson’s declaration of her beliefs through a speaker. Whitman directly addresses the questions he has about the world, a spiritual interrogation that can often blind readers to the fact that Whitman does not know all the answers. He tries to tackle the important questions using nature, humanity, and spirituality as the vessel to find the heavily sought after answers.
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“Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?” “What is a man anyhow? What am I? What are you?” “Why should I pray?” The very act of questioning already proves that Whitman was not one to allow himself to fall into a line, or restrict himself simply because others chose to do so. In addition to this, the particular questions Whitman poses are important to those trying to find themselves. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” empowers the thinkers in an age that promoted conformity.
Dickinson also refuses to question the inevitable in “I felt a Funeral,” her spiritually enlightening, metaphysically pleasing piece about a journey through different spheres of being. This poem’s meaning hides between the specific diction Dickinson chooses, that of a ceremonial funeral. Death falls into the category of the unknown, the unchallenged, and the untouched. Death has scared human beings for as long as human beings have been dying. And, along with death, comes recognition of death through a funeral and burial. Each stanza is a step in the speaker’s journey to their eternal resting place. The first sets the stage of the funeral. The second portrays the entrance of her body into an arena of mourners. The third displays the burial of her body after the service, while the fourth and the fifth detail the speaker’s dead and nonexistent mindset. The act of dying is not only physical, but spiritual too, because as a body dies, so does the soul.
Whitman’s Song of Myself conquered the preconceived notions of the boundaries concerning poetry’s form. This poem utilizes free verse, a form of poetry that would have been seen, in Whitman’s time, as slightly outlandish. The use of free verse allowed Whitman to explore the boundaries of the acceptable and the unacceptable. In “Song of Myself,” rhyme is used sparingly, if at all. Rhyme is a basic element of poetry, yet Whitman chooses deliberately to disregard this traditional approach and create his own true, real, raw poetry. Emily Dickinson is also a notorious grammatical lawbreaker. Her use of capitalization, punctuation, and line and stanza break affect the outcome of the poem. She plays with the seemingly insignificant and wreaks havoc by unleashing her nonsensical grammatical syntax. Dickinson sets the prior formula of poetry on fire and rebuilds her own poetic voice with the rubble and ash.
These literary revolutionaries aided the new age of poetry. Romantic poets fit a mold, they glorified their subject matter, while Whitman and Dickinson were realists, and their poetry certainly reflects their own philosophical beliefs and personal lives. Through these two authors’ distinct and fresh creative voices, the literary world benefitted and continues to benefit from their unique styles. Through both authors’ seamless combination of form and content, their mission and individual goals are seen easily by readers. Together, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson brought a new age of poetry to America, signifying the dawn of a new day that would eventually help common Americans with their own self-identity.
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