I used to think that Walt Whitman was the good guy of late nineteenth century U.S. poetry, and that Emily Dickinson was irrelevant. In what way did I think she was irrelevant? Irrelevant to the political, spiritual, and social revolutions that were churning at that time.
Whitman, on the other hand, earned his living partly as an orator, making fiery speeches against slavery and in favor of populist American democracy. Emily Dickinson sat in a room in her father’s comfortable house in the little town of Amherst, Massachusetts and had almost nothing little to say publicly about the political storms of that period. To me, they seemed like polar opposites. Well, not exactly polar. Dickinson seemed like a frozen pond, and Whitman like a jungle during a sunshower.
Then I read Richard Sewell’s The Life of Emily Dickinson. It’s entirely my fault that it took me so long to find this book, since I actually took a Shakespeare class with Professor Sewell when I was an undergraduate at Yale at the same time he was writing his biography of Dickinson. But I didn’t follow Sewell’s work after I finished the final paper for that class. I only read his book on Dickinson when I reluctantly prepared to teach her writing in an American poetry survey class about thirty years later.
In his biography, Sewell reveals what a complex and interesting response the poet had to her time. He describes how Dickinson was more or less driven out of Mount Holyoke College (then called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) because she was part of the group of students considered “hopeless” by the fundamentalists of the Second Great Awakening, which was then hurricaning through New England.
And when I read Dickinson’s poetry in that light, I started to see that she was profoundly rebellious as well:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
What more eloquent statement could there be of the individual’s right to communicate directly with the Spirit, and to see the divine directly in nature? And how similar to Whitman’s “The bull and the bug never worshipp'd half enough,” in “Song of Myself.”
Around this time I also read Adrienne Rich’s remarkable essay on Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home.” Rich makes a convincing case that Dickinson understood the explosive nature of her rebellion, and that that Dickinson deliberately kept close to her home to protect the revelation of her poetry and her ideas. “I have a notion that genius knows itself;” writes Rich, “that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”
I think Rich is right that Dickinson’s reticence to share her poetry was not the withdrawal of a dry school marm but a savvy choice. Emily Dickinson's father was the local congressman. Dickinson had the shelter of his home as a writer’s retreat—so long as her work didn’t embarrass or disgrace her father and the family. Dickinson’s best choice for publishing and preserving her revolutionary poems was to turn them into a sort of time capsule. That way her poems could be read, understood, and appreciated in a future century—which they are.
Rich does not put much emphasis, though, on Dickinson’s love poems. Yes, Dickinson wrote love poems, and they can be quite sexy:
Is it too late to touch you, Dear?
We this moment knew—
Love Marine and Love terrene—
Love celestial too—
If Whitman had known that poem, I wonder if he would he have seen the parallel with one of his most sensual poems, “I Sing the Body Electric,” where he says, “If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred.”
I just wish that Emily could have met Walt, and they could have sat down together in a café in Brooklyn. I imagine that she would order Darjeeling tea and a lingonberry scone, and he would order coffee and pour some of a flask into the steaming cup. I think that if they could have bridged the enormous cultural gap between small town New England and the alleyways of Brooklyn where kids played deafening ballgames, Walt and Emily would have realized that they were both rebels in their own ways, and had more in common than they had differences.
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry