|Comparing Whitman and Dickinson on the length of their lines and its apparent relationship to the kinds of ideas each poet develops.|
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are often considered the two most representative and influential American poets, and yet they are, in many respects, very different. One of the hallmark differences between them is in the length of lines they use in their poems. Characteristically, Whitman employs, and is indeed the master of, the long line. Dickinson, on the other hand, makes use exclusively of short, staccato, unadorned lines. A case can be made for the notion that a relationship exists between line length and the kinds of ideas expressed by these poets. The ideas Whitman presents in his poems are more individual, personal, and emotional, whereas Dickinson presents ideas which seem more universal and at times almost factual in nature. This basic difference between the two can be supported by examining a “typical” poem by each poet.
When Whitman presents the idea of death in his poetry it is very personalized, almost to the point of being unique to him. In “Song of Myself,” stanza 49, he addresses Death directly: “And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me” (Norton, p. 33, l.1289). He admits that Death has the power to do as he wishes, to do him harm, to take him away in his “bitter hug of mortality,” but he will not be afraid. He is not readily resigning himself to Death, and he will certainly not be intimidated. “And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me” (Norton, p. 33, l.1294). He sees the good that can come from Death. “I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing, I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish’d breasts of melons” (Norton, p. 33, ll.1295-96). Furthermore, even though Death may take him now, killing him, bringing him down, “(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before)” (Norton, p. 33, l.1298). He is going because he has no choice, but it is not the end, and he will argue and put up a fight. He will rise above the inevitable:
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry limbs.
I ascend from the moon, I ascend from the night,
I perceive that the ghastly glimmer is noonday sunbeams reflected,
And debouch to the steady and central from the offspring great or small.
(Norton, p.33, ll.1305-08)
We can see that Death is not a simple idea for Whitman. He faces it unafraid, tries to talk it down, push it back, beat it away. Ultimately, he accepts it, yet does not. He taunts Death in his defiance and in his affirmation of life.
Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, presents the idea of death in a much different way. In her poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” one simple idea is expressed, that Death is inevitable. Because most people do not ask for Death, “He kindly stopped for me” (Norton, p. 52, l. 2). Then he went slowly about his business, taking her along with him on his journey. They passed by life, youth, children, and the fields and light of Earth. They “paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground” (Norton, p. 52, ll.17-18) before continuing “toward Eternity.”
Not once does she fight the inevitable tug of death. She is going just like everyone else has gone and must go. It is a simple thing. There is nothing to be done about it, so go along just like everyone else. She is uninterested in persuading or in even discussing the subject. Instead she presents her idea as it is, almost factually – Death is here and I am going with him. She is resigned to her fate, a universal fate, not particularly personalized for her. In this case, it is almost a pleasant experience, a comfortable resignation to what is inevitable.
We can see then that the long and complex lines of Whitman are used for deep and complicated and emotional expression. His ideas are seldom simple, but instead, multifaceted and sprawling in scope. They are steeped in individuality, rooted in and reflecting the frequently illogical fluctuations of personality. There is plenty of room in his lines for such expression. Whereas Dickinson, due in part to the abbreviated, staccato nature of her lines, is much more limited. There is no room in her poems to expand and explore, demonstrate, preach, convince, and implore. Yet both, needless to say, say what they must clearly and beautifully.
|Return to ESSAYS|