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Lecture 6
WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892)
He grew up in Brooklyn and never benefitted from
formal education; self-educated man and self-
created artist;
He worked as a carpenter, a printer, a teacher, a
journalist and as editor of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
in 1846; because of his anti-slavery views, he was
fired from the newspaper; in 1848, he edited The
Freeman and he was again dismissed for the same
during the Civil War, he volunteered and became a
1855 he published the first slim edition of Leaves
of Grass (12 poems), which grew in successive
editions to include 400 poems; the volume grew
organically like leaves of grass;
The title of one of the poem: I Hear
America Singing could be the motto for all
his verse as he drew inspiration from the
contact with ordinary people (carpenters,
drivers, sailors, soldiers, farm boys and
fishermen, the mass of people being like
leaves of grass);
His poetry proclaims its faith in democracy
and the value of the common man and
woman; it is patriotic, but not uncritical of
certain aspects of the American society; it is
frank about male and female sexuality;
The poems are written in free verse and
American English, which is, according to the poet,
the dialect of the common sense. It is the
speech of he proud and melancholy races and of
all who aspire. It is the chosen tongue to express
growth faith self-esteem freedom equality
friendliness prudence decision and courage;
He mastered the spoken arts: oratory, theatre,
opera, bardic poetry his style;
Whitman spent his life exploiting his personality
in a book that grew with his life
Camerado, this is not book,
Who touches this touches a man.
His book is to be appreciated in its totality; he
believed in the concept of organic art and the
nature of the poet as prophet (divine
mediums-through them come the spirits and
the materials to all the people, men and
He looked to nature as his teacher: Nature,
the prime genial artist, inexhaustible in
diverse powers, is equally inexhaustible in
forms; each exterior in the physiognomy of
the being within its true image reflected and
thrown out from the concave mirror;
The movement caught by poetry is that of
the soul, of the mergence of identities from
infinity and eternity into the temporal form;
this emergence of identity is seen as a
miracle; all living identities are miracles;
celebrate as the key verb;
identities being body and soul have to be
loved and everything has to be included in
his poetry, especially what has been
excluded before;
life and death are perpetual transfers and
America is the stage for perfection of man
on earth; it is the land that nurtures the
newest, largest race; the natural and
historic past was only preparation for
Representing America on a grand scale;
Poet of New York City: movement, mobility,
ferries and bridges, crowds, diversity;
American openness: blacks, native
Americans, prostitutes, workers, mothers,
American slang, latest gadgets a variety of
critical approaches: feminist, African-
American, Native American, gender, popular
culture, cultural studies, etc.
Ezra Pound about Whitman: a forefather of
Modernism; He is America ... I honour him
for he prophesied me while I can only
recognize him as a forebear of whom I ought
to be proud (CC 194);
Henry James, William James, Marcel
Duchamp, William Carlos Williams (simile,
direct style) refer to his modernist features:
a liberator of the artist, the eligibility of all
things and persons for art, the priestly role
of the artist, assimilative capacities, emotion
and vision.
She was born in Amherst, Messachusetts and
lived an outwardly uneventful life;
She attended Mount Holyoke Female
Seminary, which was meant to prepare girls
to become good Christian wives; she was the
only one in her class to reject this
interpretation of Christian Duty and left the
school; however, church played an important
role in her poetry and her verse responded to
the religious experience;
Her father was an important lawyer and
served in the US Congress; he was taken care
by Emily and her sister Lavinia;
Emily spent most of her time in the house
and garden, not going out or receiving
visitors; she and her sister never married; at
the end of her life, even her handwriting
showed the need for separation, each letter
in the written word was formed separately,
not touching its neighbour; the soul selects
her own society, then shuts the door.
It is known that there was a correspondence
between Emily and Thomas Wentworth
Higginson, an editor of the Atlantic Monthly;
she had sent him some poems in response to
his demand for poetic texts and he suggested
changes, which she never operated;
At her death, she left her poems in desk
drawers and boxes; no one had suspected
they would be about 1700 in all; Lavinia
asked Higginson for assistance regarding
publication and the fist volume appeared in
1890 and the second one in 1891.
Critical studies depict her as an isolated and
individual artist genius, but in an age of massive
social transformation, with a new industrial elite
of business and money, her work is seen as a
reaffirmation of the cultural power of the mind
and genius over the capital marketplace and the
democratic masses;
the battle between the houses of Dickinson
(Lavinias descendants) and Todd (Mabel Todds
descendants, Mabel being her brothers lover) over
the manuscripts donated to Harvard and Amherst
College Library copyrights strictly controlled
Publication is the Auction/ Of the Mind of Man.
Her poems are not topical; they are not
about the Civil War or slavery or America;
The topics are:
The individual and the society
The poet and the world
Her definition of poetry: If I read a book and
it makes my whole body so cold no fire can
ever warm me, I know it is poetry. If I feel
physically as if the top of my head were taken
off, I know this is poetry. These are the only
ways I know it;
She was aware of her uniqueness and she
stood up resolutely for her right to be
Her favourite punctuation mark: the dash- it
may mean comma, pause, anticipation,
The temptation to read her as a confessional
poet: When I state myself, as the
Representative of the Verse it does not mean
me but a supposed person (CC 91); her
poems are dramatic in that they depict
personae engaged in monologues/ dialogues
and in construction situation-crisis-
An all-embracing poet, like Whitman: My
Business is Circumference her world views
are existential (about the individual self as
responsible for their destiny);
She was influenced by the Danish philosopher
Kierkegaard, who considered that individual
existence is flawed but that is what defines its
authenticity and there is no need to try and escape
Dickensons speakers are ironically secure with the
uncertainties of their limited existence;
It is hard for me to give up the world! the
realization of life devoid of any higher meaning than
itself produces extreme anguish, necessary as the
next step towards taking charge of our destinies;
Sciences/philosophies/religions that argue for
universal system of truth are invalid.
Her style against the prosy chat of her
mother, the prose admonitions of her father,
the lengthy sermons of the priest;
Her confessions to Susan Gilbert, her brother,
Austins wife, about her fear of the sun/male
depriving her of energy and integrity: We
are the only poets, and everyone else is
prose (CC 83);
According to Adrienne Rich, Dickinsons
power is underground (the subconscious, the
uncivilized, the raw, the reality beyond the
daily existence).