War! What Is It Good For? Comparing Whitman To Dickinson

What I have learned from literature was that there were no winners in the Civil War, and many authors used poetry to validate the need for war as well as document for future societies that it comes with high prices from both sides who choose to engage. Authors documented lost lives, lost limbs, and lost liberties, but they also recorded the need to right a wrong long denied slaves which captured the violence and the conflict of the Civil War era.

American Renaissance writers, like Walt Whitman in particular, saw abolitionists as people who had to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the rights of others which documented their mentality in that it was a do or die situation. Whitman wrote in ‘Over The Carnage Rose Prophetic Voice,’ “If need be a thousand shall sternly immolate themselves for one” (10).

Emily Dickinson also promoted a similar message in Part IV; Time and Eternity. She wrote, “Captivity is consciousness / So’s liberty” (15-16). Dickinson was much like Whitman in that she wrote at the moment and was instrumental in bringing about significant social change through her poetry. Themes in her poetry were widespread as she wrote about things around her that affected her directly which included nature, self-identity, feminism, and love.

I think that Whitman and Dickinson’s tones are similar yet their writing styles differ. Their poetry represented their lifestyles significantly. She was forced by societal norms to attend school to which she disliked and later quit, and Whitman’s poetry shows first-hand knowledge of slavery, war, and care for wounded soldiers. Whitman displayed human emotion, and it was clear that he felt that both sides suffered losses that would take a long time to overcome. She, however, focused on social dictates that affected her and other women in society be it by work, education, or alienation.

Classism was also a focal point in their literature which eventually forced lower classes to fight for equal rights.  Dickinson and Whitman each capture the conflict and the violence through the use of their language choices. Dickinson used language in No Rack Can Torture Me like ‘torture, enemy, and flee’ to capture the flight of a slave existence. She also seemed to relate to captivity as a woman to fight with the only weapon she could: her voice. Whitman used ‘perils, dishearten’d, and battlefield’ to capture the soldier’s journey while two sides were fighting for or against the state rights and, by defacto, slaves existence whether it would continue in bondage or freedom.

It was a major issue that caused civil, political, and legal disobedience since the Slave Act of 1850 was the law of the United States. When this law became a federal statute, it forced people’s backs against a wall as the penalties were high, and it often enslaved people who had escaped even when they were not the ones the bounty hunters came to the North to capture.  The authors reflect the discontent of citizens, the reasons they justified war, and the after-effects that it takes on their social conscience in shaping the people who lived through them.

Gray writes of Whitman, “Appropriately, for the poet who was to see himself as the bard of American individualism and liberty, this occurs on the subject of slavery” (A Brief History Of American History 116). Dickinson and Whitman were at the forefront of the movement which began with Transcendentalism and ended with Abolitionist Practices. They were self-taught poets, yet their poetry is considered among the best written during the 1800s.

Dickinson best records the theme of nature with lines like, “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose/ A Ribbon at a time / The steeples swam in Amethyst/ The news, like Squirrels, ran/ The Hills untied their Bonnets” (I’ll Tell You How The Sun Rose). She was every bit a lyricist, and her use of language to describe the world around her packs in emotion, form, and personal style.

Whitman was best known for his poetic verse on nature, but he also wrote about the events happening around him to warn future societies about war. They chose to critique their cultures, however, which seemed to be eerily similar in social beliefs and political structures because of classism and social dysfunction. The people felt little recourse but to validate war as they thought the laws did not protect all citizens which all of the authors seem to capture correctly.

What I have learned from comparing Dickinson and Whitman’s Transcendentalist literature is that social beliefs never change regardless of the period a society represents. There will always be people who feel a social responsibility and those who are interested only in their livelihood.

Dickinson, Emily. “Part Four; Time and Eternity.” Bartleby. Etext. Accessed 22 Mar 2018.
Gray, R J. A History of American Literature. Blackwell Publishers. 2nd Edition. 2012.
Whitman, Walt. “Poems of the Civil War.” National Humanities Center. 2010. Accessed 22 Mar 2018.

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