Compare and Contrast Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman

The most elaborate relationship between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman is the theme of death evidenced in their works. Death is understood as one of the mysteries of life hailing from the beginning of times till nowadays. Every person is expected to meet their death at some point, it is a fact that makes people equal. One element that humans spend a lot of time and effort unearthing is immortality. The uncertainty of death brings mysteries that many people would like to explore, and the poets have expressed their perspective through the topic of death. Understanding the similarities and differences in the works of Dickinson and Whitman is imperatively drawn on the theme of death.

The idea of death is the most reliable link which was highlighted in the works of Dickinson and Whitman. However, the authors had a different perspective and presented the subject differently. In the interpretation of Whitman, death was considered as a reflection of the claims in transcendentalism. Whitman used the foundations of science to support his arguments and illustrated the presence of life of death in Song of Myself. He explained that the various forms of energy were impossible to destroy but may be converted to other forms. In the sixth stanza of the poem, Whitman wrote, “And what do think has become of the women and children. They are alive and well…. the smallest sprouts show there is no death” (1881). Conferring to the sentiments of Whitman, the line depicted that to get a life after death, an individual may have to look under the sole of their boots. On the contrary, Dickinson described life as a cycle in the written work, Because I Could Not Stop Death. His opinion was evidenced when she inquires in her poem, where do women and children go after death (Dickinson). Moreover, Dickinson interprets death in a different way as other people do. Her perception of death is a stage of life unlike the dark lights as many people would understand. Dickinson, unlike Whitman, depicts that it is a stage of life but should be avoided.

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From another point of view, the two authors use a different style of writing in expressing their content. For instance, Dickinson’s poem, Because I Could Not Stop for Death is very brief while Whitman’s Song of Myself is very long. The poems by Whitman are generally long due to the detailed description and wordiness that he uses to express her ideas. On the contrary, Dickinson uses very few words and chooses the words for expressing her ideas sparingly. Most importantly, Dickinson made an enormous collection of poems though only a few were published when she was alive. Though Whitman composed a few of his poems, most of his collections were extended and published. Swenson, explains that Whitman’s compositions were epic since he formed a structure of rhythm which formed complex stanzas and lines (Macleod 5). The above element makes a whole big difference between Whitman’s and Dickinson’s ways of composing their works. Whitman’s approach in his poems created an American revolution in poetry and paid more attention to issues that were considered as taboo by society. Similarly, Dickinson’s compositions also have a unique approach due to the odd use of punctuation, the use of simple language as well as the unusual grammar. She also utilized dashes and block letters in the middle of her lines.

The varying writing skills also highlight the structures of the poems and the creation of rhythms by the two authors. Whitman did not use any structure in his poem but rather tends to run on, due to the too specific length, stanzas, and lines. Her writing style can be interpreted as a free verse due to the synonyms in his works and the simple use of words. Whitman’s way of writing, however, made a name as one of the distinguished poets in America. On the contrary, Dickinson followed a definite structure when composing her poems. Her poems had ballad stanzas, which had four lines each and an alienated in an iambic structure. The pattern formed a structure of her poems, which was unique and concrete. Whitman’s poems had no rhythmic flows in the stanzas (1881). He shifted from the tradition and followed his own standard which was not common. Dickinson, however, used slant rhyme in her poems within the stanzas. The slant rhyme involved the application of near rhymes and estimates for comparing a contemporary notion. Therefore, the poets use rhymes differently in their poems, which brought a point of difference in their compositions.

Away from the writing styles and their compositions, the two poets hailed from different backgrounds and went through different education systems. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1849, went to Amherst Academy where she completed after six years. She later joined Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1947. Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in West Hills New York. Whitman hailed from a low-income family, which forced him to drop out of school when he was eleven-years-old. He then became a part-time carpenter, as he worked his way out to feed his impoverished family. Whitman had many siblings and was the elder one. For this reason, the situation saw him assist his parents to make a living for the other children. He worked in various jobs in his entire life, including jobs such as a journalist, a nurse, and a teacher. Even though he spent most of his time working, he continued pursuing his interests in literature and wrote several compositions (Griffith 136). His lack of proper education is evidenced in his literal works, which lack rhythm and a proper structure. Dickinson went through formal education and learned the standard way of writing poems following a proper structure and rhythm. The contribution of both Dickinson and Whitman to the American literature was mainly influenced by the family background that each of them was brought up in.

In conclusion, Dickinson and Whitman are well known through their literary compositions which they wrote during their time. The works of the two authors have a universal theme, which has stood the test of time and remained still relevant. Their poems appear similar and carry the subject of death, which is common in their literal impressions but also have varying elements. For instance, their works have diverse structure and themes. Both Dickinson and Whitman contributed greatly to the contemporary audience who sampled their works though they used different writing styles and hailed from different backgrounds. They were influential in the American literature and have continued to impact many poets who read their poems.


Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Poetry Foundation, 1999, Accessed 10 Mar. 2021.

Griffith, Clark. Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Macleod, Glen. “Influence or Affinity?” Wallace Stevens Journal, vol. 40, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-5.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself: With a Complete Commentary. University of Iowa Press, 2016.