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Intro to Unit III: Whitman and Dickinson
Transcript of Intro to Unit III: Whitman and Dickinson
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson
How was American literature viewed in Europe?
“They paint with colors borrowed from foreign manners; and as they hardly ever represent the country they were born in as it really is, they are seldom popular there. The citizens of the United States are themselves so convinced that it is not for them that books are published, that before they can make up their minds upon the merit of one of their authors, they generally wait till his fame has been ratified in England, just as in pictures the author of an original is held to be entitled to judge of the merit of a copy. The inhabitants of the United States have then at present, properly speaking, no literature. The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They indeed are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them. Other authors are aliens; they are to the Americans what the imitators of the Greeks and Romans were to us at the revival of learning – an object of curiosity, not of general sympathy. They amuse the mind, but they do not act upon the manners of the people.” -Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America,
“The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson detailed what he thought were the essential principles of a poet’s work. He claimed
“the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”
In Need of a National Poet
Emerson had pronounced in his essay that America was in need of a national poet.
"We have no genius in America … yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination and it will not wait long for meters."
In “The Poet,” Emerson lists many traits that the ideal American Poet should embody. These include:
• The poet ought to be all-embracing, that is, democratic in spirit.
• The poet ought to be a national voice for the United States.
• The poet ought not restrict himself with rhyme and meter.
What do we recall about Emerson?
“Every man is so far a poet as to be susceptible to these enchantments of nature: for all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration. ... hunters, farmers, grooms, and butchers, ...” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” (1844)
“Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? ... A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance” (1841)
How does an individual function in a larger society?
Perhaps the most significant question in all of American literature and culture, is “How does an individual function in a larger society?” Whitman embraced this question in full force in his first book of poems, Leaves of Grass. While ideas of self-reliance and individual liberty may contradict functioning as a member of a larger society, Walt Whitman took to the challenge of becoming the poetic voice of America, all while focusing on one major theme, the self.
While Walt Whitman attempted to directly address Emerson’s concerns and challenges, another poet also answered Emerson's call for a great American poet, Emily Dickinson.
Whitman and Dickinson are considered to be the father and mother of American Poetics. On the surface, Whitman and Dickinson had very little in common. Whitman was brash, bold, and wrote about current issues and events. Dickinson was shy and reclusive, living her entire life in her native New England, finding influence almost entirely within herself.
Emily Dickinson’s subject matter was extremely personal. She most often explored themes of love, death, immortality, and nature. Over the course of her lifetime, Dickinson wrote over 1,800 poems, while only a few were ever printed while she was living. Living as a recluse, her public life contrasted the intense creativity of her inner self.
What did they have in common?
Both poets felt restricted by the conventional ideas and forms of poetry, how poems should look and what they should say. Their poetry was so radical in form and content that it took many years for readers to appreciate these authors on a broad scale. Ultimately, both poets focus on the “self” while writing in radically different styles.
by Walt Whitman
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
Whitman's Stylistic Traits
-Free Verse (verse that does not follow a fixed rhythmic pattern)
-uses repetition to create rhythm
-Enumerations: to mention in a list, as if counting
-gives voice to Emerson’s notion of the poet
-Radical Empathy, the poetic spirit understands all, hierarchy is eliminated
-not limited to traditional “poetic” subjects. If it was a part of American life Whitman wrote about it.
-voice of Democracy
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppress, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
'Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Dickinson's Stylistic Traits
-concise and compressed
-uses of dashes to create pauses
-Slant Rhyme, also called off-rhyme. When either vowels or consonants of the stressed syllables are identical in sound
-explores her own interior
-attempts to give a voice to the experience of death and consciousness
-knowledge is arrived at in an indirect way
-explored themes of love, death, immortality, and nature.
Walt Whitman read Emerson’s “the Poet” as a calling. He wrote, "My ideas were simmering and simmering, and Emerson brought them to a boil." He agreed with Emerson’s notion that America was itself, a poem, claiming “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
#258 by Emily Dickinson