Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson Project, in Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson project, in their poetry, an individual identity that achieves its power from within, thus placing a premium on the individual self. Ironically, this premium on the individual self was very much in vogue in America at the time; from Emerson to the early pioneers of 19th century industrialism. As a result, their projections of individual power were greatly influenced by the culture in which they live in. This is just one way in which cultural power influences individual power. Another way this occurs in their poetry has to do with their treatment of gender. America during the late 19th century can be characterized as a time of great social upheaval, but also as a time when gender roles were still very much strictly prescribed. Both Whitman and Dickinson, while challenging the cultural assumptions about gender in the late 19th century, also project an individual identity, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, that very much keeps in line with those very cultural assumptions. The individual identity projected in their poetry is influenced by cultural power; Whitman and his individual identity of masculine virility and Dickinson and her individual identity of feminine domesticity. Both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in their poetry project an individual identity, that while defined in opposition to cultural norms, are nonetheless greatly influenced by the ideas and rhetoric circulating through American culture at the time.

In Whitman's groundbreaking poem "Song of Myself" he projects an individual identity that defines itself in opposition to society. As he boisterously proclaims,

People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation, the latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new, My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues, the real or fancied indifference of some man or women I love... These come to me days and nights and go from me again, but they are not the Me myself. Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am"(page #).

As we see from this passage what Whitman defines as the ME, is separate from all the workings and concerns of society. He gets his individual power, as far he's concerned, not from the society and culture he is living in, but within himself. This idea however is culled from the rhetoric and ideas of the culture he wrote in, an echo of familiar sentiments offered up by the likes of such well-known luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, among others. Thus demonstrating how Whitman's professions of individual power are influenced by the ideas of his culture. Similarly in Dickinson's poem, #750, she tells us that,

Growth of Man-like Growth of Nature

Gravitates within

Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it

But it stir -- alone

Each -- its difficult Ideal

Must achieve -- Itself

Through the solitary prowess

Of a Silent Life -- ."(367).

Like Whitman, the individual identity projected in this poem of Dickinson's achieves its power from within, from the solitary life, not from society. In many of Dickinson poem's she puts a premium on the individual self as something that is above being touched, it is, as she says in poem# 1351, "that indestructible estate"(584). In many of her poems the individual identity of the speaker achieves its power from within. For example, poem #540, "I took my power in my Hand and went against the World"(263-264). The significance of this similarity between Whitman and Dickinson is that it demonstrates how their poetry is very much in dialogue with the culture they wrote in, more specifically the intellectual milieu of late 19th Century New England. The fact that they share similar ideas about the individual self and project in their poetry an identity defined in opposition to society, is surely no coincidence.

In "Song of Myself" Whitman portends to encompass both masculine and feminine qualities, essentially defining himself in opposition to cultural…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Johnson, Thomas H. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed.

Maynard Mack et al. Expanded edition in one volume. New York W.W. Norton, 1997. 2305-13.

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