Indistinguishable From Magic:

Challenging the Misunderstood Pedagogic Value of Comic Adaptation


     As secondary school teachers wrestle with the demands of modern multimodal literacy, comic books are finding an ever more prominent position within the curriculum. In classrooms desperately vying for the attention of a student body beset by endlessly multiplying media sources, teachers, in many cases rightly so, see comics as possessing what Gretchen Schwarz calls the medium’s ability to “drive current traditional curriculum goals, teach new literacies, offer new topics with which teachers and students can engage, and enable new ways of learning” (Schwarz 53). However, in addition to, or tragically in lieu of, the roles stated above, the expectations of comic adaptations, specifically those of classic literature, are decidedly more complex and are often inextricably linked with the notion that they are expected to generate interest in a resistant audience, provide gateway engagement with materials considered to be culturally relevant but intellectually dense, and through it all remain neutral with regard to interpretation so as not to taint student’s succeeding interactions with the adaptation’s source. With the exception of the last of these, the impossibility of which colors the attempt in hubris, comics are largely capable of completing these tasks. Unfortunately, harkening back to the mantra of the handyman emphasizing the choice of appropriate tool for a given task, this is in many ways akin to using a katana to slice snacktime apples; it will serve, but it will eventually dull the blade to the point where it is fit for no other task.

     This is not to suggest that teachers are callously pawning a medium in which they have little actual investment onto disinterested students as a result of frustrations caused by the seeming inability of classic literature to compete for the motivated attention of young learners. However, the values of the genre, in many cases, ultimately become subservient to its more apparent functionality. In one representative anecdote, Adam Martin, a high school english teacher, lauds the success of Stefan Petrucha and Kody Chamberlain’s Beowulf in adapting a work of “classic literature into a medium more “user friendly” to our increasingly visual student population” and even goes so far as to say that “their work stays true to the original epic” so that a student could “read the epic (proper literary elements included) and have visual cues to follow the story line” (Martin 30). In a way there is a danger to the prolific attribution of Martin’s “user friendly” and “true to the original” to the value of comic adaptation. Hardly a lonely voice in this estimation, his sentiments are echoed by educators like Jesse Karp who reinforces the concept of comics as literary bait when he points out that graphic novels have a “knack for attracting reluctant readers”(Karp 34), or by Dr. Kate Monnin of the University of North Florida when she praises the Manga Classics adaptation of Great Expectations and its ability to allow the text to become “more approachable” or Jane Eyre’s  to exemplify “the most effective attention to canonical detail” and preserve “Austen’s purposefully subtle nuances in regards to her character’s emotions” (Monnin). While this is perhaps an oversimplified representation, each of these educators expresses a more comprehensive understanding of the pedagogical value of comics in general, nevertheless with regard to specifically the genre of comics as adaptation Martin’s two pragmatic qualifiers are the primary motivators of functionality in the classroom. The problem with this is that it creates a reductive attitude towards the genre itself, or as high school freshman Chris Fallis simplifies in his contribution to Young Adult Library Services, “Graphic novels have long since provided a center of education in a more visual and comprehensible format…that the modern teen is more oriented to…graphic novels have created a learning environment that is both simple and fun”(Fallis 16). 

     Simple and fun, no two words could more definitively toll the death knell of critical thought. There is a not-so-subtle genius behind presenting difficult works, such as Shakespeare, in a less visually daunting aesthetic form as it instantly mitigates a student’s predisposition to believe the work simply beyond their ability to comprehend, or as Rocco Versuci points out, “Too often, students perceive such [traditional] works as occupying a space above their level of thought” (Versaci 66) but, intentionally or not, this also instills the idea that these works in fact need translation to be understood or, worse yet, that they must be “dumbed down” to be approachable. Herein lies the great disparity between what comic book adaptations are doing and what they are capable of doing. If comics are functionally responsible for driving an interest in reading, they are succeeding. Alison Ching, a high school librarian explains that comics represent nearly eighteen percent of her library’s circulation coming in markedly ahead of the next three categories (Ching 19). If they are responsible providing a bridge to presumably inscrutable texts they appear to be accomplishing this goal as well, shown admirably in Shari Shabeti’s exploration of the collaborative efforts of publishers, artists, and educators in the production of comic adaptations, and these creators viewing their work as having a decidedly pedagogic emphasis (Shabeti 337). The goal of this argument is not to suggest that comic adaptations are misappropriated in fulfilling these rolls, but rather that by relegating the genre to this functionality it has hamstrung a creative form that is capable of much more. There is a reason that when lauding the merits of the comic medium names like Maus, Persepolis, Sandman, Watchmen, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth have appeared and led critics like Andrew D. Arnold to boldly claim “The debate over comics’ qualification as art has been crushed, like an icky spider under a pile of masterful books” (Arnold 12). However, it is just as telling that none of the works considered pinnacles of the form are adaptations of classic literature though they have been continuously produced since before the 1940s. To put this into context, four of the American Film Institute’s top one hundred movies of all time are adaptations of novels(AFI’s 100 Years). Have comics, in jealously clutching their hard won critical acceptance, attempted to distance themselves from elements of the medium that have, in their own estimation, questionable or artistically cheapening creative motivations? Or, have begrudging cultural critics been at long last forced to admit, under the sheer weight of evidence, to amend their long standing objections to the medium, but refusing to do so without qualification?

     The answers to these questions are not easily unpacked, but both lead the questioner in the direction of the source of pedagogic underutilization of these comics and go a long way to explaining the overall atrophy of the genre. Doing so unfortunately does not allow for a direct dive into the current state of the genre and its uses within the classroom as any analysis of this sort must first grapple with the complicated idea of what comics are and how they work. From there, the natural next step will be to analyze the process of comic adaptation from the production through to its implementation along with reviewing the stated pedagogic expectations of educators. Finally, and most dauntingly, the goal will be to show how comic book adaptations can be mined more thoroughly to meet those expectations. Should some creative talent stumble across this humble exploration and subsequently realize that “user friendly” and “true to the original” need not be the only benchmarks to which their adaptation need aspire and feel inspired to produce something that successfully garners recognition for the genre as a more legitimate form of adaptation, so much the better.


  1. What comics are


     One of the biggest hurdles to maximizing the pedagogic value of comic adaptations as a genre is the wide variety of definitions and interpretations of what constitutes an inclusive member of comics as a medium. In fact the discussion of the art form has risen to such a level that Thierry Groensteen, in his landmark work The System of Comics, goes so far as to describe comics as a language and “an original ensemble of productive mechanisms of meaning”(Groensteen Loc 61), yet the image conjured by the word is still largely disposable episodic serials designed as distractions for children. I will not go so far as to say there is no place for a study of comics so nuanced as to suggest that it would require a prerequisite of its own linguistics course, but for the purposes of pedagogy, particularly in the secondary school setting, a more practical definition would be that presented by Scott McCloud in his graphic exploration of the medium, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. As he puts it, comics are “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 9). Using this definition as a baseline, the factors that will be discussed here, and hereafter referred to as the virtues of the medium, are comics’ ability to unite received and perceived information, incite reader interaction through closure, and show how texts introduce time to an apparently static image.

      The prevailing perception of comics as a medium is that it is a hybrid form consisting of writing and illustration. As such, and owing to the believed concessions made by both in order to successfully coexist in one space, it is seen as representing a form not literary enough to be literature and not artistic enough to be art. This is particularly true of comic adaptations as it is difficult not to see their production as images added to an existing text rather than indivisible parts of a new text. The patchwork appearance of the medium and assumptions that comics create with a borrowed rather than intrinsic vocabulary, explain in part why they appear to “limp along as the ‘Bastard Child’ of words and pictures”(47).  However, realizing that the unifying point of received information(images) and perceived information(reading) is a unique piece of the comics vocabulary, and one that contributes most heavily to the apparent educational value of the form, which allows for a wholly unique method of meaning making.  For example, in David Hontiveros and Carlo Vergara’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, they do more than merely illustrate the words they are paired with.

                                                                        Fig 1. (Hontiveros 8)

     Representing one of the more prevalent frame transitions in the western comics tradition, this series expertly features a “single subject in distinct ACTION-TO-ACTION progression” (McCloud 70). While it is true that a reader without the requisite reading level to comprehend the text on its own will be aided by the context of the image, these image/text combinations are doing far more. Not only are the text and image inseparable, in this instance the text very literally is part of the image. In all three frames the texts exists between the water and the prisoner despite the fact that it oscillates between the top and bottom of the image. The action of the falling piece of masonry, the sound of the splash and subsequent echo, and the thoughts of the narrator all exist in the same physical space. When viewed as distinct elements the text seeks to explore the scene, the image seeks to evoke a vertiginous sensation, but together the series brings the emptiness between the water and the edge of the pit into hyper-focus forcing the reader to contemplate that space in the same way that the narrator is.   

     This inevitable demand for reader participation is even more prevalent in comics’ insistence on closure, or “observing the parts perceiving the whole” (63). Closure itself is not unique to comics as it takes a real role in how people perceive the world around them every day, but is unique in comics as the “gutter”, or the space between frames, forces the reader to build the connective tissue in order to “mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (67). Two frames from Roy Thomas’ adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, though separated by a page break, is a prime example of how comics elicit this response in its readers.

Fig 2. (Roy Thomas Loc. 20-21)

     All of the time, however short, between the pull of the trigger and the impact of the bullet is contained in the empty space between the frames. Citing Gaudreault,  Groensteen refers to this as “extrinsic narrativity: narration” that “is born from the articulation of its contents, but it cannot be found inside each image”(Groensteen loc 1436). The reader does not need to see the injured Iroquois warrior to know that he has been struck by the well aimed shot of Hawkeye. More than Thomas, or even Cooper, here it is the reader who is responsible for constructing how the scene is playing out. Beyond forcing the reader to participate actively in the construction of the scene, the gutter also encourage the reader to retrace their steps and reevaluate the first frame in light of the second.  As Marion Perret points out, “the eye of the comic’s reader does not simply move across the page left to right, top to bottom, but takes in the whole page at a glance, nearly simultaneously, then shifts sequentially from one panel to another”(Perret 74), and the conversation between the two frames is constructed wholly by the imagination of the reader based on two temporally instantaneous images.

     Closure is an element closely connected with this manner of presenting time. Comics readers are not only required to create the illusion of time between panels, but also within them. While we are used to seeing any static image as a single instant in time, within a frame comics creators have the ability to use text to introduce a time element that would not exist without it.

Fig 3. (Loeb 176)                                    *From left to right: Clark, Lana, Martha, Jonathan

This panel, from Jeph Loeb’s Superman for all Seasons, has an even more complicated relationship with time than might be supposed upon first glance. Were all of the dialogue removed from the image, it could be argued that the image is a perceived moment of time much akin to what is seen in a photograph. However, the four dialogue bubbles force the reader to imagine a moving scene, and one that offers a surprising variety of readings. The most straightforward reading is from left to right. Lana is clearly not meant to be speaking over Clark’s response to Jonathan from the previous panel, and Jonathan is reacting to Martha. However, since Loeb chose not to break this frame into two panels it also lends itself to a reading of two simultaneous conversations which fundamentally alter how the image is read. In the left to right reading Martha’s “Hasn’t Lana turned into a fine young woman Jonathan?” is a reaction to Lana’s consideration and helpfulness expressed in what she has said. Alternatively, in a simultaneous reading she is instead reacting to the way Lana is looking at her son. The conversation between text and image here is a prime example of how this unique feature of comics entices the reader to construct new and intricate time relationships within and between frames.


  1.  What comics are expected to do and what they are doing


     Having made a valiant effort to define the qualities, virtues, and language of the medium it is important to turn to the practical use, or nonuse, of  those elements within the classroom and the ways in which teachers are currently employing comics to meet requirements of curriculum. In doing so, for the purposes of this argument, it will be necessary to distinguish between the pedagogic strategies employed in the use of the subgenre of comic adaptations and the broader comics medium. This is not to suggest that comic adaptations are lacking in any of the elements  I have used to craft my definition of the medium, though they are often encouraged to do so, but rather to demonstrate the disparate educational strategies that are employed for comics in general and those of  the specific genre of adaptation. It is likewise important to note that in order to properly contextualize the state these items are in when educators receive them, a slight diversion into the factors that influence the production of comic adaptations will be useful as they dramatically affect the way in which these creators view both the process and the product.

     While the differences between comic adaptation and its parent medium cannot be reduced to a discussion of the varying economic forces exerting a gravitational influence on them, it is one of the first in the process of their creation to uniquely segregate adaptations from other comics. Namely, adaptators must often consider the reception of their work not only by the general public, but also by the educational apparatus when assessing the financial viability of their product. This burden, particularly weighty on comic adaptations, is a byproduct of the fact that these artifacts are not merely creative or commercial but must also be functional. As a result textual decisions are often intensively vetted with the educational requirements of a specific student audience in mind, or as Shari Sabeti explains of comic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, there are different “comic book adaptations currently on the market where different versions (full text, modernised, redacted and modernised) of each play for use with different ability groupings or ages are possible” (Sabeti 338), this practice is most evident in the works of Classical Comics, a British publisher of comic adaptations of classic literature with an emphasis on classroom utility.

                                                               Fig 4. (“Education”)

Each variation of the above text is designed for a different level of student readership. While this provides educators with skill level flexibility in presenting the adaptation it also shows that from an educational perspective, text within a comic adaptation exists not to serve the image as much as it does the reader. This also implies that comic text and comic images are divisible parts, echoing the notion that one or both of these parts can be exchanged at will as fits the needs of comprehension for the reader. However, the best way to accurately summarize the pre-production mentality of comic adaptations is to relate, in its entirety, the self described mission statement of a company, specifically Classical Comics, working in that field:

“Our main aim is to make classical literature appealing to all; needless to say, this starts with younger readers and in education. To aid in differentiation in classes of mixed abilities, our range provides multiple text versions of each title, with the range broken down into “Shakespeare” and “Classics”.

Shakespeare Range In order to be true to the Bard’s works, our Shakespeare titles feature the entire script, unabridged, in the original setting. That is our starting point – the “Original Text”.

Our research revealed how the complex Shakespeare language can deter many readers, especially those coming to a play for the first time. To cater for that, we publish a translation into plain English (from the entire script) that we call “Plain Text”.

We took this process a stage further to create our third reading level, “Quick Text”, that features reduced and simplified dialogue for younger and reluctant readers. This version is also ideal for students where English is not the first language, and also for a quick introduction to the play for even mature students”(“Education”).


In the entirety of this lengthy goal structure there is not a single mention of the medium or its unique contributions to the pedagogic framework as these qualities are not directly linked to fidelity and ease of consumption clearly seen as the genre’s particular value. Again, if comprehension and motivation are the extent of the educational expectations of comic adaptations there is evidence to suggest that, at least on these counts, they are encouragingly successful. In her comparative study of comprehension differences between comic adaptation and original text readers, Dr. Eileen Richardson of Cameron University,  found that “there was no difference in comprehension scores between those who read the traditional text and those who read the graphic novel” (Richardson 27). While Richardson’s study focuses on 5th and 6th grade students, a comparable study, described by Chandra Johnson in her April 2017 report for Desert News InDepth and conducted by Eric Kallenborn, generated similar results in that even with a text as complex as Beowulf there there was only a 3 point disparity between test scores of students utilizing the original and comic text.  Sadly, if comic adaptations are doing no better than their original text sources their value is reduced even further to that of a role that is purely motivational.

      This is in many ways different from the way in which non-adaptation comics are currently being treated in the classroom. While non-adaptation comics are free from fidelity criticism, the cost of that relief comes in being assigned the task of being a representative gesture on the part of the educational system to the increasingly important realm of multi-literacy or multiliteracy. Gretchen Schwarz points out that “Increasingly, scholars and teachers realize that in a media-dominated society, on traditional literacy- reading and writing of print- is no longer sufficient”, but even this concession does not especially qualify the medium, only acknowledge the importance of variety in literacy education. She goes on to explain that “young people also have to read films, TV shows, magazines, and Web sites” in order to “acquire the analytic tools necessary for critically ‘reading’ all kinds of media texts” (Schwarz 59). Yet still there is nothing in her description that makes comics a more fit educational vessel than the “TV shows” and “magazines” she lists. Bill Boerman-Cornell, an associate professor at Trinity Christian College, comes perhaps somewhat nearer an educational trait unique to comics when he claims they “offer additional ways to make intra- and inter-textual connections, allude to other works, establish characters, and develop themes”, but eventually falls back on on comic’s ability to “teach multiple media, including websites and movies”(Boerman-Cornell 76).

     With all of that said, the wide consensus among educators when it comes to implementing comics into the curriculum value appears to focus on three major functions which are concisely presented in Karen Gavigan’s article Sequentially SmART- Using Graphic Novels across the K-12 Curriculum where she lists “Multiple Literacies”, “Reading Comprehension”, and “Reading Motivation” as among the core virtues not involving english language learners or special needs students (Gavigan 20). To these, in regard to the specific genre of adaptation is added the encumbrances of fidelity.  These are important goals to be sure, but there’s little discussion of why comics are better suited than film, television, websites, and video games, which are so frequently mentioned in the same pedagogical breath, at achieving them or even what unique educational goals can be met by having students interact with sequential art.


  1. What are comic adaptations capable of?


     This is the million dollar question. If it is admitted that fidelity, motivation, and multiliteracy is the pinnacle of what the genre is capable, then it needs be also admitted that they have acquitted themselves admirably and should resign themselves to their yeoman’s work. We must concede that no adaptation will ever be considered a truly important example of the medium, that more complex pedagogic goals must satisfy their thirst at some other well, and that we must be grateful that our students are reading at all. Luckily, nothing could be further from the truth, and a wealth of new educational opportunities lie in wait without the suggestion that adaptations need to wholly sacrifice the tasks they have so admirably completed to this point. Plainly speaking, and not by any means claiming to be a comprehensive list, comic book adaptations are uniquely capable of engaging students with: concepts of how meaning is constructed when interacting with a text, the empathetic connection between adaptation and source, visual representations of abstract concepts and amplifying thematic ideas present in their source text, how their perceptions of the world around them are necessarily fragmented, and the creative power the reader has in interacting with the text.

     The first task of realizing the educational value of comic adaptations is to disabuse students, and teachers, of the idea that these adaptations are simply illustrations added to existing texts. This would be easier to do if so many comic adaptations weren’t so set on appearing to possess this very fault. This perception, while allowing students to trust they are still interacting with the “real” text, is misleading at best and at worst damaging to both the adaptation and its source. It would never be suggested that having seen The Godfather film was analogous to having read the novel, yet comic adaptations, as seen in the previously cited studies, are often being presented as an alternative to the source text, and the merits of this process being hinged entirely on the apparent equality of comprehension.

                                                                     Fig 5. (Russell 29)

     On the surface, Russell’s adaptation seems very “faithful” to Gaiman’s original text, but the differences are striking. Most apparently is the dramatic shift in perspective. In the original the reader inhabits Coraline’s perspective with the focus being on the mysterious features in front of her. However, for Russell the focus is on Coraline and her reaction. While the comic conveys the same general information, surely enough to answer any multiple choice question presented on the scene contained therein, there is also an invaluable opportunity to explore the empathetic nature of constructed meaning. The reader is being shown what Russell sees when he interacts with the original text, and what Russell privileges in that content. It can be difficult for students to realize the extent to which reading any text is a creative process. Comic adaptations a perfect tools to demonstrate that these source texts create images in the minds of their readers and that by exploring Russell’s adaptation they are not only learning about Gaiman’s work, but Russell himself. Being able to see how others create meaning from information, and to understand it in its own context, is a skill of immeasurable value. It is also a skill comic adaptations are uniquely qualified to introduce to students.                                                                                             

     A further oft untapped pedagogic value of the genre is its ability to visually represent abstractions and focus thematic meaning from a source text. Presenting abstract concepts in a visual format is not unique to the comics medium. Film, art, ballet, theater, opera, and other creative forms with visual components wrestle with this concept each in its own unique way, and in the framework of conventions that are particular themselves. What comics can do is put student readers into direct, multilayered interaction with the major theme in a way that allows the reader to hover on the image, react, re-react, and engage. One example of this thematic saturation is Thomas’ The Last of the Mohicans. The last chapter of Cooper’s masterwork is iconic in the heartbreak it leaves its readers with, and the task of capturing that sense of loss is an unbelievably difficult challenge. While Thomas’ work is a much more successful adaptation than it is comic book, owing largely to a uniform gutter and frame throughout the entire work so as not to interfere with the narrative or accidentally introduce any ambiguity to the scenes, one moment where his dialogue is put into harmonious conversation with the source is this very moment, when Old Tanemund sends up his lament for the fate of the Mohican people.

                                                                      Fig 7. (Thomas)

These two frames are centered on the final page and repeat verbatim the words of Cooper’s finale. But the comic, even in so small a space, expands, develops, and yet focuses the awful implications one of the novel’s main themes. Tanemund, his face hidden in shadow by the setting sun, does not guide his people away from the burial mound of Uncas, but rather is guided by the men of his tribe. Even more hauntingly, Steve Kurth’s illustration shows the Delaware fading into the treeline beyond, a foreshadowing of a fate that would not be unique to the Mohicans and make Tanemund’s, “the anger of the Manitou is not done” even more biting. This is an opportunity for teachers to explore how the thematic heartbeat of this scene has changed in the almost two hundred years since the writing of the source. Cooper’s scene focuses specifically of Chingachgook’s loss, Hawkeye’s support, and the lament for the extinction of the Mohican people whereas Thomas’ has the added weight of presenting the fact that the fate of the Mohicans was not to be an isolated incident. For students struggling to find this theme within a sources dense language, comics pull the words away from the obscuring realm of received information towards the more readily apparent one of perceived information, but more than that they open areas of discussion that include historical context, the evolution of audience relationship to a particular theme, and, as already stated, the empathetic conversation that exists between adaptor and adapted.

     Having introduced students to empathizing with the worldview of another, and extrapolating abstract thematic ideas from complex visuals, one of the most important educational values of comic adaptations comes in the form of teaching students to realize that much of what they see and experience is not the objective whole, but the largely imagined whole constructed through closure. Take these two pairs of images.

                  Fig 8. (More 23) Lft. Comedian Rt. Rorschach      Fig. 9 (Hakimata, Legrand)

     In the first pair, from Alan Moore’s masterwork Watchmen,  the comic is daring the reader to superimpose the image of the Comedian onto Rorschach, to make connections based on more than the actions of each to that point in the comic. The two panels take place at different times and under different circumstances, but the reader is subtly forced to compare the actions of the Comedian and Rorschach. Without carefully scrutinizing this sequence, the narrative beneath the narrative would be exerting its influence unobserved. The power of comics in this instance is to teach students that all sequential imagery is narrative. The second pairing, of Presidents Trump and Putin, is even more susceptible to this unintentional closure. In the current political climate there is little chance that a viewer will come to this pairing of images free of preconceptions, but students who have been taught to thoughtfully consider the functions of these “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 9), will be better prepared to “read through” agenda driven visual messaging so prominent in modern culture. They will be able to see how their own experience is unconsciously providing closure for the image narrative and more effectively receive and objectively assess the ceaseless waves of information washing over them every day.   

     Comics are a mature and vibrant art with a history that stretches back before the invention of the written word, and comic adaptations are a natural means by which modern audiences can be introduced to culturally relevant, aesthetically beautiful, and historically significant texts. But more than this, comic adaptations can help students to empathize with the experiences of others and they can demonstrate that perception is always partly a creative act and being aware of that fact is vital in the light of modern media’s increased reliance on perceived information. Motivating students to read, preserving the the texts society has deemed important enough to be considered part of every generations cultural inheritance, and meeting students on their own turf by presenting them as artifacts that create using multiple literacies are all laudable goals. However, even these are far from what comic adaptations are capable of and assumptions that they are the limits of the form forfeits an opportunity to shape more critically minded and discerning students. The genre of comic adaptation has the capacity to create its own masterworks to stand beside the titans of the medium if the restrictions of prejudice and low expectations can finally be removed. Ultimately, of the form as well as from the students who encounter these works within the classroom, more is needed, so more needs be asked


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Thomas, Roy. The Last of the Mohicans. Illus. Steve Kurth. New York: Marvel Comics, 2008.


Woolston, Jennifer M. and Camille McCutcheon. “Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 37, no. 2, June 2014, pp. 231-232. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jacc.12179.

In the second chapter of his work, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud attempts to innumerate the ways and means by which humanity identifies, pursues, and interacts with pleasure. This interaction becomes very apparent as, in building on the work he began in Future of an Illusion in 1927, he posits that religion is an “infantile” coping mechanism that disguises “the purpose of life” which is “simply the programme of the pleasure principle” (Freud 43). To this end Freud delineates three sources of man’s suffering: the human body itself, external nature, and human society. These sources are the framework around which Freud will build an argument that describes the ways in which mankind alleviates his suffering in order to subsequently associate his ability to “escape unhappiness” (44) with pleasure. By these means an individual person becomes responsible for his or her own construction of happiness and what the pursuit thereof entails. Whether a person chooses to define pleasure as the absence of the unpleasurable, isolation, intoxication, or even a momentary respite from the pressures of an external world from which we have artificially divorced ourselves, Freud posits that all of these are elements of an internally derived concept of happiness.
In introducing the ways in which humanity achieves the momentary instances of happiness that it seeks, Freud is quick to point out that of the three main sources of human suffering only those caused by societal interaction are readily available for alteration. However, in any instance, Freud suggests that the most ready alternative to the suffering of a person is “voluntary isolation” (45). While this provides no solace from the withering deterioration of age, “against the dreaded external world” and “the suffering which may come upon one from human relationships” this isolation can provide what Freud calls “the happiness of quietness” (45). This, like religion, is an attempt to avoid the “sensation” of suffering.
Beyond isolation Freud proceeds to offer intoxication as another viable resource in combating human suffering. Owing to the fact that suffering “only exists in so far as we feel it” (45), intoxication can “alter the conditions governing our sensibility” so much so that a person can become “incapable of receiving unpleasurable impulses (46). As this form of pleasure contains its own brand of consequences, particularly the “danger” and “injuriousness” of intoxicants and what Freud refers to as “the useless waste of a large quota of energy” (47), he proceeds to include mental isolation as a natural form of inoculating oneself from external stressors in systems such as Yoga.
Owing to the inherent dangers of intoxication and the mental acuity necessary for “the worldly wisdom of the East” (47) Freud describes a means of staving off suffering in what he refers to as “the displacements of libido” (48). This act involves the investing of pleasurable sensation within the production of some “psychical and intellectual work” (48). While more exclusive in that this outlet is limited to the specially inclined, it extends by proxy to those who have the capacity to derive pleasure from the consumption of art. In this way those who cannot actively participate in the “displacements” Freud describes can, “by the agency of the artist” access that happiness which art is capable of engendering. Each of these interactions with art stands as precursor to Freud’s statement that “happiness in life is predominantly sought in the enjoyment of beauty” (53).
Ultimately, through his careful description of the ways in which mankind seeks pleasure, Freud emphasizes the importance of choice in one’s construct of happiness. It is here that he houses one of his chief complaints against religion when he charges those institutions with imposing “equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering” (56). By freeing oneself from the “psychical infantilism” which offers little benefit save “sparing many people an individual neurosis” (56), a person can be free to define both what constitutes happiness and the best means for achieving it.

Works Cited
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachy W.W. Norton and Company LTD. 2010, pp. 39-56.

Within his exploration of the common elements present in the genre of folk-tales, Vladimir Propp sets himself to the task of scientifically identifying that genre’s common constituent parts in the hopes of establishing a morphology, or a “description of the tale according to its component parts and the relationship of these components to each other and to the whole” (Propp 72). Over the course of his clinical deconstruction of the framework of the folk-tale, Propp seeks first to define what constitutes a folk tale before dexterously identifying the “recurring constants” (72), defining those constants, and finally explaining how they are interrelated across the entire spectrum of the genre.
Propp’s first challenge is to create “an accurate description of the tale” (72) to which he can apply his system of analysis uniformly. After framing this description with a series of examples, Propp presents the idea that though “The names of the dramatis personae change”, ultimately “neither their actions nor functions” (72) do. It is in this notion that Propp grounds his assertion that the relationships and actions of the dramatis personae are identical regardless of what story is being told, and that it is only the superficial elements of character and plot that change from tale to tale. Propp admits that the universal presence of these constructs is vital to the viability of his argument and that in order for him to create a compelling and cross-textual structure he must first “determine to what extent these functions actually represent recurrent constants of the tale” (73).
Propp finds that these constants are indeed recurrent and, using examples such as “Baba Jaga, Morozko, the bear, the forest spirit, and the mare’s head” (73), finds that “it is possible to establish that characters of a tale, however varied they may be, often perform the same actions” (73). At this point Propp sees fit to divorce the labels of the actor and the action from the function these elements serve within the story. By striping the “who” and “how”, which he acknowledges as residing in the “province of accessory study” (73), he is able to reveal the identical skeletal framework that exists beneath these surface qualifiers. Propp notes that this transfer of characteristics had been long noted in the study of mythic stories by academics working in historical fields, but was adopted much later into the study of folk-tales. Because of the shared skeleton, however limitless the variation of coverings which can be applied to it may be, Propp highlights the apparent contradiction between the seemingly infinite variability of the tale and relative narrow scope of the functions used to construct it. Propp explains this paradox by deciphering, “the two fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and or the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition” (73).
Having successfully established the uniform recurrence of functions for the purpose of his study of the folk-tale, Propp proceeds to define what those functions are. In doing so he makes two important distinctions: first that “definition should in no case depend on the personage who carries out the function” and second that “an action cannot be defined apart from its place in the course of narration” (73). In effect a character’s aesthetic qualities cannot be utilized in the study of that characters function and actions with similar aesthetic values are not necessarily representations of similar functions. By way of example Propp offers a difference in function between two marriages, that of Ivan to a tsar’s daughter and another of a father and a widow (73). The aesthetic similarities, that of both actions involving a marriage, does not equate to a similarity of function.
Before going into a detailed description of the functions of the dramatis personae in a tale, Propp, in a short aside, preempts the argument that a tale’s freedom lies in its sequence of events and intimates that, like short story as a genre, the folk-tale operates under its “own laws” and that its “sequence is restricted by the very narrow limits which can be exactly formulated” (74). It is this line of thought that leads him to the assertion that “All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure” (74).
Lastly, Propp undertakes the task of carefully detailing the different functions that are recurrent within the fairy-tale genre. Breaking these function into six unique categories (absentation, interdiction, violation, reconnaissance, delivery, and trickery) and providing examples of instances of these function in use within the tales mentioned at the outset of his essay, Propp demonstrates how these functions cross the textual boundaries and establish a common structure amongst them (74-75). It is with these designations that he hopes to arm readers for a structural analysis of any text within the genre he has so painstakingly explored.

Works Cited
Propp, Vladimir. “Morphology of the Folk-tale.” Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd ed. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell, 2004, pp. 72-75.

In Boris Eichenbaum’s essay “The Formal Method”, as found in chapter two of Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan’s Literary Theory: An Anthology, he explores three distinct elements of formalism. Over the course of the work he concisely describes the definition and formation of formalist criticism to build toward the examples of formalism in practice with which he closes his paper.
“The organization of the Formal method was governed by the principle that the study of literature should be made specific and concrete”(Eichenbaum 7). With this simple declarative sentence Eichenbaum summarized the major tenet defining formalist critical theory. In the effort to give literary study the specificity and concreteness that Eichenbaum mentions, he points out two important distinctions: that of the difference between practical and poetic language, and the evolving relationship between form and content. Practical language, being solely for the purpose of communication and without autonomous value, is an entirely different language system from poetics and it is “important to establish this difference as a foundation for building a poetics”(8). It is by instituting the notion that poetic language has an autonomous value that formalist critics can begin to divorce form from content and analyze the use of images and structures without regard to specific content. The example Eichenbaum puts forward is, in reference to Osip Brik’s article, “the supposition that repetition in verse [alliteration] is analogous to tautology in folklore”(9). In this instance the alliterative voice is not merely an acoustic or aesthetic choice, but a form with a specific interpretive meaning.
It is the establishment of poetic language as a separate system that allowed the formalist critics to change the relationship between form and content. In effect form, “no longer had to be paired with any other concept, it no longer needed correlation”(9). Contradicting the classical notion that form was simply the vessel within which the content was kept, form could be foregrounded to transcend content and give to literary studies a standardized set of structures that would make up what Viktor Sklovskij referred to as “scientific poetics”. In this manner Eichenbaum posits that literary studies can, “establish the unity of any chosen structural procedure within the greatest possible diversity of material”(11). He proceeds to describe the transition in the study of form which ultimately becomes a complete inversion of the previous model leaving form the prime element for analysis and, “subordinating everything else as motivation” (11)
Having described both the definition and the formation of the formalist method, Eichenbaum continues on by giving specific examples of this method in practice. To that end he chose to pay particular attention to Sklovskij’s studies of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy. By focusing on the elements of form as primary Eichenbaum is able to assert that Don Quixote as a heroic type is a response to the novel’s construction and not simply an element of the plot. In taking this analysis one step further into Sterne’s work, Sklovskij illuminates one of the primary factors of formalist criticism, the notion that the, “violation of form, is what in fact constitutes the content of the novel”(12). Eichenbaum found this transition even more problematic with regard to poetry as the formalist movement had to contend with the rise of “specialized literature” in the early twentieth century. As the formalists were trying to create a lexicon of concrete structures, “no theory of verse, in the broad sense of the word, was to be had”(13). However, Eichenbaum found the genesis of a rebuttal to this ambiguity in Osip Brik’s “On Rhythmic-Syntactic Figures” where Eichenbaum found, “the actual existence in verse of constant syntactic formations inseparably bound with rhythm”(13). This discovery implied that the structural continuity required for applying the specificity of the formalist method was not limited to the prosaic mode, but equally present in verse.
By clearly defining both the philosophy of formalist method as well as its evolution from previous theoretical models Eichenbaum highlights the new relationship between form and content in a critical style that creates consistent structures that exist throughout literature. The emphasis on close reading and, “the principle of the palpableness of form,” which, “had to be made concrete enough to foster the analysis of form itself”(9) is a vital part of Eichenbaum’s description of the formal method.

Works Cited
Eichenbaum, Boris. “The Formal Method.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004, pp. 7-14.

Nature as an expression of humanity’s role is an important thematic element in the works of both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Working in an historical period that would see seismic shifts in society caused by events ranging from the industrial revolution to the American civil war, both of these writers would explore the changing landscape from two drastically different viewpoints. Hereafter follows an in-depth analysis of how each author uses nature to explore gender roles, sexuality, and how each related to their place within the natural world. The first focus will be on Emily Dickinson’s depictions of nature as a representation of motherhood and the gender expectations of women. This will be followed by her use of nature as an expression of sexuality. Secondly, there will be a presentation of Walt Whitman’s use of nature imagery to define his ideal new masculine, which reincorporates the physical and primal elements of humanity that have been so instrumental in the forging of civilization. Finally, and in contrast to the images of annexation that he uses for his construction of manhood, there will be a study of Whitman’s subversion of the masculine gender role definition of his era by expressing sexuality in a much more vulnerable and submissive manner. Both of these artists were limited by the societal gender understandings and expectations of the mid-nineteenth century. However, despite their culture’s insistence on female exclusion, which tempered Dickinson’s images into an associative form, and masculine dominance, with which Whitman would frame his narrative of assimilation, these writers would find ways to explore, illuminate, and even subvert those norms.
The first of Emily Dickinson’s more prominent uses of nature is the exploration of gender expectations of women at the time of her writing. Three facets of this exploration include nature as mother, nature as sexuality, and the inherent separateness of female and male. Through these lenses many of Dickinson’s works apply an associative relationship between the poet and nature hinting at an extreme limit of humanity’s ability to empathize. While the first two of these facets rely heavily on traditional gender role imagery, Dickinson shows, in her subtle subversions of these images, levels of doubt that have become synonymous with much of her struggle to understand aspects of woman’s part in the world.
Nature as an image of motherhood is never more plainly presented than in “Nature- the Gentlest Mother is”, and therein Dickinson paints a typically traditional picture. Nature, as a representation of motherhood, is imbued with the matronly virtues of patience, hospitality, reverence, protectiveness, and affection. Consisting of six four line stanzas and adhering even to a semblance of a traditional rhyme scheme Dickinson reinforces the conservative nature of her imagery in the form of her poem. While structuring the poem in this way could be interpreted as an attempt to show a natural connection between motherhood and the socially prescribed role of women, it is exactly her departure from her typically free verse style that suggests a struggle with this association. The poem is bookended by stanzas that have the rhythmic cadence reminiscent of works such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, but the interior stanzas see a resurgence of the much more Dickinsonian slant rhyme,

Her Voice among the Aisles
Incite the timid prayer
Of the Minutest Cricket-
The most unworthy Flower- (Franklin 741)

The almost nostalgic air with which Dickinson uses the “mother nature” image is compounded with echoing of a more romantic style. However, these forms are not the ones that Dickinson is traditionally known for and this attempt to capture it comes across as the questioning of a social outsider. All of the virtues with which Nature is stereotypically endowed in this poem were social expectations for women at the time not the least of which was motherhood itself. Thus motherhood, being an institution Dickinson would be unlike to participate in as she, “lived in virtual seclusion as an adult”(Franklin 1), is cloaked in an older form that is separate from her less formal and free flowing self as though she is relegating that personification of a nature mother to an older age.
This relegation is further promoted in the opening lines of Dickinson’s much less traditionally formatted poem “The murmuring of Bees, has ceased”.

The murmuring of Bees, has ceased
But the murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come. (Franklin 1142)

Here Dickinson implies that something has come to fill the void once consumed by the voice of the bees, a literary animal that Jane Wright describes as, “associated with patriarchal inheritance, nation building, sexual conflict, judgment, and the matter of intertextuality itself” (Wright 251). Furthermore, within the context of the poem, nature is in its waning moments suggesting an end of an era,

The Lower metres of the Year
When Nature’s laugh is done
The Revelations of the Book
Whose Genesis was June (Franklin 1142)

The coinciding of the end of “Nature’s Laugh” and the ending of the biblical narrative can hardly be accidental. Into the void left by the absence of sound, Dickinson’s “Typic Mother” sends “Appropriate Creatures to her change”. Strangely, this altered nature mother is free from the dictates of male role definition and the historically patriarchal directives toward women in the Bible, yet still retains its identification as mother. This post history nature mother is free to redefine herself outside of the context of those constrictions and keep the intrinsically feminine motherhood. Dickinson ends the poem with another forward reaching look to this change and indicates the almost secretiveness of that desire,

With Separating Friends
Till what we speculate, has been
And thoughts we will not show
More intimate with us become
Than persons, that we know. (Franklin 1142)

This ultimately leads to a nearly post-biological understanding of motherhood wherein women are free to express those most intimate feelings that in the mid-nineteenth century Dickinson wouldn’t have felt free to show.
The cumulative effect of Dickinson’s challenge to the image of nature as a representation of traditional motherhood appears in the short poem “She could not live upon the Past”.

She could not live upon the Past
The Present did not know her
And so she sought this sweet at last
And nature gently owned her
The mother that has not a Knell
For either Duke or Robin (Franklin 1535)

Echoing the restrictiveness of the past and present found in “The Murmuring of bees has ceased”, Dickinson’s narrator has “sought this sweet” to a point where she is finally fully embraced by nature. In a move that foreshadows feminist texts in the twentieth century, the mother image that Dickinson presents here has a unity of nature and mother that is not only beyond the constructs of external articulation, but independent of its relationship to the “Duke” or “Robin”. Therefore motherhood is removed from the subservient position implied by the use of the hierarchical figure of the duke as well as the representational role personified by the robin. In the latter two poems Dickinson is particularly attentive to the use of sound, or in these instances the absence of sound. This silence, when contrasted against the famous celebration of the connectedness of man in John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, appears to become a declaration of separateness. Donne illuminates this connection through sound,

No man is an island, entire of itself; Everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Donne)

Dickinson’s knell and the final quiet behind the silencing of the bees is a manner of emancipation from that unequal connectedness which allows the narrator to reacquaint herself with nature without those preconstructed notions. By these means, Dickinson’s narrator is isolated in the unifying knell and nature of which she is possessed. Kate Peterson describes Dickinson as, “Engaged in a dramatic relationship with Silence as its listener and its active interlocutor, she doubles herself even as she’s reduced her- self to pure perceptual receptivity” (Peterson 76), and it’s this solitude and silence that the narrator aspires to in order to discover the natural motherhood that is free of exterior social or historical identifiers.
In these three poems Emily Dickinson has chosen to challenge the traditional nature imagery used to explore the relationship between motherhood and the preconceived understanding of the roles of women. At first that subversion is more subtle presenting itself more as an attempt to conform to those strictures, but progresses to a search for a motherhood identity that moves beyond that which limits it to a biological association or a list of societally approved attributes.
The second facet of Emily Dickinson’s use of nature is a lens through which to examine sexuality. Dickinson uses two predominant images to express her views, contrasting the receptive stationary with the aggressive mobile, and that of bees and their role in the reproduction of flowers. A prime example of the use of these image structures can be found in “Like Trains of Cars on Tracks of Plush”. From the outset there is a violence here that appears foreign to much of Dickinson’s other work, and like her exploration of nature as a mother figure she remains focused on sound, “Like Trains of Cars on Tracks of Plush/ I hear the level Bee” (Franklin 1213). Like the taboo nature of sexuality as a topic, especially for women writers, the interaction between the grating metal of the train cars across the immobile and soft plush of the tracks is heard and felt rather than seen. This auditory interaction persists throughout the remainder of the poem and establishes a sense of distance from the narrator and the promiscuous bee that she hears. It would be enticing to read this distance as a reflection of Dickinson’s uncertainty and inexperience as a sexual being, however that reduction is dangerous in light of how little is known of that portion of the author’s life. The narrator listens as the bee, “A Jar across the Flowers goes/ Their Velvet Masonry” (Franklin 1213). The bee’s motion, echoing the reference to the train cars, is described with a discordant tone as it passes over the combination of delicacy and defense presented in the flower’s “Velvet Masonry”. This defense,

Withstands until the sweet Assault
Their Chivalry consumes-
While He, victorious tilts away
To vanquish other Blooms (Franklin 1213)

With the aid of an expertly used oxymoron, Dickinson here deftly exposes the opaque boundaries and complex nature of sexuality. While much of the bee’s act is sheathed in marshal language such as assault, victorious, and vanquish, Dickinson tempers any reading as pure violation with the subtlest of gestures by the inclusion of the word sweet to qualify the bee’s assault. This assault however is initially challenged by chivalry which invokes the societal reticence with which nineteenth century Americans were well acquainted, but that restriction has little ability to curb the bee’s natural drives and crumbles quickly before the insect’s wandering sexuality consumes him. The flower in turn is left to watch as the victorious bee flies on to other conquests. Using the image of the rooted flower as the feminine relegation to a stationary role while the masculine bee is free to “tilt away” to “other blooms” recreates the social iniquity of expectations on women and men that in some respect persists to this day. Looking at this poem as an isolated work, it actually appears to prophesize the coming feminist movement and its attempt to change the subservient nature of women in sexual relationships as well as the inherent double standard of the social repercussions of promiscuity.
Challenging this type of straightforward reading of male conqueror and female conquered is “The Bumble of a Bee”. Herein Dickinson appears to move beyond the acoustics of socially defined sexual roles and moves into the complicated emotionality that inevitably accompanies the physical act.

The Bumble of a Bee-
A Witchcraft, yieldeth me.
If any ask me “Why”-
‘Twere easier to die
Than Tell!

The Red opon the Hill
Taketh away my will-
If anybody sneer,
Take care- for God is near-
That’s all!

The Breaking of the Day-
Addeth to my Degree-
If any ask me “how”-
Artist who drew me so-
Must tell! (Franklin 217)

Again choosing to open her poem with the enticing power of sound, Dickinson’s narrator admits to her complicity in the bee’s act however bewitched she appears to be. The explanation for the narrator’s enchantment is beyond her ability to comprehend, though she does assume the impulse is divinely inspired. This raises the discussion from the previous poem, which found women’s sexuality as being a matter of fact consequence of biological and sociological directives, to one where the actions of the participants are ordained by God. “The Red opon the Hill” to which the narrator refers could be as much a symbol of the inevitable or nature as it is of God, and the fact that it “taketh away” her will suggests that there may be some underlying truth to the human institutions that have arisen around sexuality. Expanding on the connection of the masculine mobile and the stationary feminine is the image of the Sun and the Earth itself. While a strictly feminist reading would be quick to point out that the female narrator is denied free will and therefore the necessary criteria for consent, that manner of reading would have to ignore that the impulse driving her participation is an internal if mysterious one. It appears that Dickinson is allowing herself to wonder if the social edifices that have been built around human society are entirely artificial or actually an outcropping of the natural progression of human sexuality. By allowing herself to entertain the notion that the mobile aggressive male and stationary passive female are not constructs but simply expressions of the natural sexual behaviors of two vastly different genders, Dickinson bolsters her authority in challenging that very position.
This challenge is forcefully put forward in an 1865 poem that again focuses heavily on the wayward promiscuity of the bee.

Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe
A Traitor is the Bee
His service to the newest Grace
Present Continually

His Suit a chance
His Troth a Term
Protracted as the Breeze
Continual Ban propoundeth He
Continual Divorce. (Franklin 1078)

Within this poem the biological drives of the bee are no longer a shield from the emotional turmoil his actions incite. Here the bee is not simply obeying the dictates of his nature, but is in fact a “traitor” that constantly seeks out the “newest Grace” or fairer flowers. Dickinson pulls no punches in her condemnation of the bees, and by proxy the societally endorsed behavior of men, as she points out the fickleness with which they approach the objects of their sexual desire. What could be interpreted as an indictment of men actually turns out to be something much different. To this point the bee’s actions are simply manifestation of his nature and therefore without moral implication. However, as soon as Dickinson associates the bee’s “Continual Divorce” to its consequences she elevates men above the limits of biologically determined sexual behavior to the realm of conscious choice and emotional repercussions. While it is unclear if there is a biographical event that serves as a source for this condemnation of the bee’s frivolous sexuality, Dickinson is clearly addressing the callousness with which men were encouraged to approach sex.
All three of the facets with which Dickinson chooses to engage with nature as imagery retain the inherent separateness that would have been personally present in her life. Her natural reclusiveness and the prescribed behavioral expectations of women during her creative years are often personified through nature in the division of things. Even on its most fundamental level using bees, oceans, and the sun as representative male images and pairing them with flower, continents, and the earth as female images highlights how great the gulf is between the genders.
This gulf is no less broad than the difference between the poetics, experiences, and images of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Where Dickinson has chosen to depict an inherent separation between mankind and nature described through images of association, Whitman seeks an immersiveness that reaches toward assimilation. The foundation of this difference can be summarized simply as the contrast between observation and participation. Dickinson, being socially predisposed to the position of observer both by personality and the historical expectations of women, is less likely to adopt the collaborative images found in Whitman. Much like Dickinson, Whitman relies heavily on nature imagery in his explorations of men’s gender role expectations and sexuality. However, these uses come in two distinctly contrary forms. The first of these is nature as a primal and instinctual force from which men have parted to their own detriment. This force must be recaptured in order for man to progress away from the failing forms of the past. In their supreme valuation of the “peaceful and studious”, men have forgotten the formative power of conflict, courage, and the curiousness of spirit. Whitman personifies the frontier as the unique province of bold and adventurous men who are tasked with taming that wilderness, or an echo of manifest destiny that presents assimilation by annexation.
This appeal to masculinity as annexation and westward facing courageousness can be found in many of Whitman’s poems not the least of which is “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”. Among the several calls to action one that is particularly telling is to the, “Western youths, So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship” (Whitman 192). These members of the “youthful sinewy races” are armed with pistols and axes, but not to defeat a waiting army. The foe is in actuality their own nature.

We primeval forest felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the
Mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers! (Whitman 192)

Clearly antagonistic to most levels of environmental reading there is room here for a reading that sees this conquered nature less as a physical space and more of a representation of the fertile ground of Whitman’s new manhood if its settlers can free themselves from the restrictive powers of the old guard and put the dormant wilderness within themselves to productive use. Whitman seeks a rejuvenating force that will counteract that which has caused his European forbearers to “droop and end their lesson”. His, “celebration of a large democratic self that corresponds with the vastness of the American continent”(Gerhardt 59) is predicated on its evolution from, “those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter, Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging” (Whitman 193). Whitman’s new man is implored to reconnect with his “primal needed work” that champions the instinctual and the physical that is so scorned by the old intellectuals and “corpulent sleepers” who look down upon these elements. Neither does Whitman shy away from the violence implied in the rediscovery of that ancestral energy as he points out that his pioneers must “bear the brunt of danger” in abandoning the “cushion and the slipper”.
The reclamation of nature as catalyst for the forging of Whitman’s new masculine is further explored in “Song of the Broad-Axe”. Again the opening motion of the poem refers to the weapons and the violence that will come into the interaction with man’s nature, but is careful to note that this weapon is itself forged from nature,

Head from the mother’s bowels drawn,
Wooded flesh and metal bone, limb only one and lip only one,
Gray-blue leaf by read-heat grown, helve produced from a little
Seed sown (Whitman 155)

This alludes to the conflict between the virtuous parts of man’s nature and its evils. This axe, which is an amalgamation of the industry of modern man and the material of his nature, is the tool with which the “strong shapes” and “masculine trades” will be forged. Armed with his axe, which has been tempered in civilization, Whitman exhorts his new man to reach out into the virgin and mysterious lands of the uncharted west and enrich himself therein. This nature, which has been uncorrupted by the dying ideals of the old world, is a chance for men to carve a new independent definition of themselves. Whitman also encourages the new man to embrace all the elements of his nature from the “pine and oak” to the “mines, lands of the manly and rugged ores”(Whitman 156). This includes the aggressiveness, the ambition, and violence that so often lead to man’s most contemptible behaviors. However, Whitman’s narrator urges his new man to realize that,

Craft and thievery of camp-followers, men running,
Old persons despairing,
The hell of war, the cruelties of creeds,
The list of all executive deeds and words just or unjust
The power of personality just or unjust(Whitman 156)

Are all part of man’s instincts and it is this “muscle and pluck” that “invigorates life”. In the immortal words of Mr. Spock it is man’s, “negative side which makes him strong, that his “evil” side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength”(Star Trek). By conquering those uncharted regions of his nature and bringing them to bear, the new man can unite the physical and the intellectual into one balanced identity.
An evolution of this attempt to describe mans nature as his wildness given boundaries can be found in “The Ox-Tamer”. The oxen here are both a representation of nature and industry. Within the context of the poem, it is the man with this connection to nature and his ability to tame it that is sought after by others.

There they bring him the three-year-olds and the four-year-olds
To break them,
He will take the wildest steer in the world and break him and
Tame him,
He will go fearless without any whip where the young bullock
Chafes up and down the yard,
The bullock’s head tosses restless high in the air with raging
Yet see you! How soon his rage subsides- how soon this tamer
Tames him (Whitman 334)

In this sense it is Whitman’s new man that is the leader of others removing that social control from the intellectual elites and investing it rather in the farmer whose labors are “pastoral” instead of urban. It is the harnessed nature that allows man to accomplish all of the great feats that have allowed for civilization. “Without any whip” the tamer is able to bring this natural force and direct it in such a manner as to make it productive, progressive, and empowering.
In contrast to the images of annexation that Whitman uses to express the masculine need to interact wholly with his nature, is the tactile immersiveness and submission with which he presents his explorations of male sexuality. Contrary to the tamed and directed aggression and violence, sexuality is treated as something that needs to be unbridled and borderless. Not to be confused with the mechanical or traitorous bee of Emily Dickinson, Whitman clarifies that this connection is not solely a physical one,

It is for my mouth forever…. I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and
I am mad for it to be in contact with me. (Whitman 662)

This surrender is a departure from the stereotypically conquest oriented sexuality men are generally portrayed as having. Whitman’s narrator becomes defenseless, in his nakedness, and submits himself to being engulfed. As much as is possible the narrator seeks to disappear within nature’s embrace even so far as the penetrative image of breathing it in,

My respiration and inspiration…. The beating of my heart
….the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
the sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and
darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn (Whitman 662)

The amount of vulnerability that this act demands is uncommon in readings of male sexuality that are normally characterized with either an emotional standoffishness or with images of control or power.
Furthermore, in “Two Rivulets” Whitman removes priority altogether by extracting the notion of the male seeking out the female. For Dickinson the differences couldn’t be more jarring, the stationary flower that is relegated to waiting on the whims and desires of the mobile bee. Whitman however gives the reader a touching post-gender pair of “Rivulets side by side”. These, “Two blended, parallel, strolling tides/ Companions, travelers, gossiping as they journey/ For the Eternal Ocean bound” (Whitman 539) are equal and indistinguishable on a parallel path to a single destination. Here neither male nor female is in the position of having to approach the other and the intersection of this parallelism sees the elimination of all boundaries in which both rivulets disappear within one another, a complete unification of “The Real and Ideal”.
Within this amalgam personality Whitman describes this supreme level of connectedness,

In You, whoe’er you are, my book perusing,
In I myself- in all the World- these ripples flow,
All, all, toward the mystic Ocean tending.
(O yearnful waves! The kisses of your lips!
Your breast so broad, with open arms, O firm, expanded shore!) (Whitman 540)

Whitman even goes beyond gender pairing expectations of his time by purposefully not differentiating between the sexes in this image. This sends all of the rivulets in to the same “mystic ocean” where the participants are left in a connectedness beyond identity.
Both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman approached the images and constructs of nature from vastly different perspectives. For Emily Dickinson, writing in an era that, though enduring the early tremors of change, largely relegated women to the position of observers. This separation along with her self imposed isolation contributed to those aspects appearing in her poetry. In both her exploration of the gender expectations of motherhood and female sexuality Dickinson’s images of nature seem to come from an extremely empathic, but still removed, observer. This observer would peer out through the window and see there the static gender tropes that have been adopted by humanity in its stumbling and sporadic evolution. The Earth, acting as mother, hostess, and watchful protector, and the flower, ceaselessly rooted and forever waiting for an amorous passerby, each dutifully expectant of the fertilizing power of the orbiting Sun or wayfaring bee. However, Dickinson doesn’t concede the truth of either of these socially constructed and traditionalist readings and proceeds to use these very images to subvert the gender expectations of women. In this manner Dickinson’s effort “… seems to assert the power, completeness, and sufficiency of self also questions, exposes, and subverts such assertions.” (Wolosky 134). Contrariwise, Whitman’s restrictions are much more subtle and far less constricting. Though his task is no less daunting as, instead of having to deconstruct an oppressive gender image, he must create a new one to accommodate the new and vital man. Sending his “pioneers” armed into the wilderness, Whitman encourages men to recapture all of the vital, physical, and courageous parts of their spirit that have been sacrificed to a neutered intellectualism. The untamed west and its virgin forests and mountains are just the nature with which mankind can reignite the fire of his industry and bring equilibrium to his being. With no less boldness Whitman totally upends the stereotypical constructs surrounding male sexuality. Rather than a shallow wandering lust ever in search of a brighter bloom, Whitman illuminates a sexual being vulnerable yet confident enough to bear himself naked into the arms of that which he would gratefully be embraced by. Nature is a vital source of information on human behavior. At a time when, “Darwin’s theories were bringing the human family closer to the animals”(Killingsworth 49), each of these writers took the nature around them to illuminate the inner workings of the human condition.

Works Cited

Donne, John. “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2016.

“Emily Dickinson’s Love Life | Emily Dickinson Museum.” Emily Dickinson’s Love Life | Emily Dickinson Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2016.

Dickinson, Emily. “The Bumble of a Bee.” Franklin 217 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.
-“Like Train Cars on Tracks of Plush.” Franklin 1213
-“The Murmuring of Bees, has ceased.” Franklin 1142
-“Nature- the gentlest mother is.” Franklin 741
-“Of Silken Speech.” Franklin1078
-“She could not live upon the past.” Franklin 1535

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Walt Whitman and the Earth. University of Iowa Press. Iowa City, Iowa. 2004. Print

Peterson, Katie. “Surround Sound: Dickinson’s Self And The Hearable.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005): 76-88. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 July 2016.

Star Trek. Dir. Leo Penn. Perf. William. Shatner and Leonard. Nimoy. 1966. The Enemy Within. Web. 25 July 2016.

Stonum, G. L. “Emily’s Heathcliff: Metaphysical Love in Dickinson and Brontë.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 20.1 (2011): 22-33. Project MUSE. Web. 18 Jul. 2016. .

Whitman, Walt. “The Ox-Tamer.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print
-“Pioneers! O Pioneers”
-“Song of the Broad axe”
-“Two Rivulets”

Wolosky, Shira. “Dickinson’s Emerson: A Critique Of American Identity.” Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (2000): 134-141. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 June 2016.

Wright, Jane. “The Princess and The Bee.” The Cambridge Quarterly 44 (2015): 251-273 Web. 24 Jul. 2016

A young boy, running in the yard with an index finger extended and a thumb upraised, shouts “Bang!” and in that instant a short audible burst defines an image. Then, in the infinitesimal distance between silence and sound the gun is gone having reverted into the oddly misshapen hand that existed before his outburst. This moment of auditory narrative, not performed for an audience or with any expectation of exterior understanding, is uttered for the sole purpose of giving life to an image in the speaker’s mind and for its own sake. Steve Tomasula explores this construct, as well as the impact of perspective, several times throughout his work, but it is particularly prevalent in his novels In & Oz, and VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Two scenes especially, which will be in part the province of this analysis, are the “Essence of Music” concert and “The Strange Voyage of Imagining Chatter” Opera.
Almost immediately within the novel In & Oz Tomasula unites the notion that the auditory is a constituent part of something’s reality, “The dogs of IN are snarling again”(Tomasula 11). These dogs are real largely because of their primal unaltered state and their use having been tailored to their natural instincts. It is their snarling that gives life to their use, in this instance their instinct to protect. This reality is diametrically opposed to the non-dogs of OZ whose behavior has been mutated to suit a use. Before his epiphany, Mechanic is almost numb to the existence of the dogs which is caused by the normalization of their presence,

They [dogs] go berserk whenever they catch sight of him…Not long ago he had been deaf to all of this. Though he had passed them so often he had worn a rut in the yard between the house and the garage he never so much as glanced at the dogs and their terrific noise (Tomasula 16)

This introduction of the notion that being cognizant of a thing’s auditory elements as crucial to actualizing it foreshadows Mechanic’s recognition of the essence of Auto. Prior to this realization the dogs are only real in the context of their function. Mechanic doesn’t notice the dogs, only that his tools are no longer being stolen. Much in the way that the force of gravity, which constantly affects every aspect of physical life, can immediately be brought into the forefront of consciousness with the simple decrescendo of a cartoonish slide whistle.
In reasserting the essence of Auto’s reality Mechanic makes decidedly auditory alterations. By removing the rubber tires that allow his car to move swiftly and silently from point to point and replacing them with metal sheets that act as skis, Mechanic introduces an element of sound to its movement. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to conjure the grating squeals and sparking stutters of Mechanic pushing his car over the biting surface of the street. Auditors of this movement would ultimately be forced, by being confronted by what a car isn’t, to remember what a car is. Tomasula likens this illumination to the experience of a fish, “Mechanic couldn’t have been more agape had he been the fish that spends its life completely ignorant of the “sea” until it found itself pitched gasping onto the beach” (Tomasula 22). Unfortunately this alteration of form brings Mechanic into conflict with his customers. What he claims should be a simple exchange of money for keys inevitably devolves into anger and sometimes even violence. This shows the initial weakness of Mechanic’s understanding of art, particularly his own. While he has fully embraced the epiphany that he hopes to share with his audience(customers), he hasn’t developed the empathy to realize his art from someone else’s perspective. Because of this failure of empathy Mechanic is barred from the communication that he seeks. His goal is to reassert the essence of Auto and reacquaint the owners of these machines with their reality. This underdeveloped empathy is also in part of what draws Mechanic to Designer originally and blinds him to the presence of Poet(Sculptor) and her feelings.
As opposed to reasserting the essence of auto by removing its ability to go unnoticed, Composer, owing to the fact that music has become so all-encompassing, is not left with the same artistic outlet to simply “break” music to clear the haze of its constant presence. Like his home the Essence of IN hole, which is the negative space created by the Essence of OZ building, Composer’s music is the inverse of all other music. Music composed of silence is the only way to upend the near omnipresence of the mass-produced elevator music that dominates the conscious hours of the days for the citizens of OZ. This is particularly true for Designer who is constantly surrounded by hyper-commercialized music.

She felt her motions slow to the dignified pace of a curator, or librarian, influenced as they were by the leisurely pace of music that played on a loop- beautiful, egghead music that she would never listen to at home but enjoyed here because it had been mastered somehow to include only the bright tones (Tomasula 13)

The presence of music for designer is anything but art, and hardly even rises to the level of entertainment. For her, the sound is just a defense against the uncomfortable and boring quiet that guides the rhythms of her unconscious waking mind. The only way for Composer to differentiate from the monotonous drone of this encompassing Mussikal Inc. is to introduce the jarring sound of silence. This forces listeners out of the passive distraction with which non-music is heard into a position where they must actively engage with the composition. However, to the utter devastation of Composer, “someone in OZ had figured out a way to use computers and other electronics to play his inaudible music” (Tomasula 44). This is a reflection of the modern advance of technology and the double-edged sword of making the creation of art more universally accessible while simultaneously adding to the diluting presence of the overpopulation of mass-produced art forms.
This leads in turn to the second criteria with which the audible can be associated with the real, and that is the need for uniqueness. No matter how similar one dog’s bark may seem to the one that follows it, there is always going to be miniscule difference between the tone, pitch, duration, and intent that makes the sound precious in its mortality and beyond the possibility of recreating. Contrariwise, the increasing consumerism for this content and the laziness with which it is viewed makes music a prime target for infinite repeatability that technology offers. This allows a listener to become complacent and comfortable with the simplest and most superficial interpretation while industry is free to become predatory in producing the indistinguishable strains of soulless art.

Art and all forms of entertainment were sold in exactly this way, culture had become like time in OZ- always the same, though no customer could ever dip his or her toe into the same river twice. And without anyone even noticing, dogs, real dogs, somehow vanished (Tomasula 15)

All of these precursor events lead to the Essence of Art concert that Photographer and Mechanic help to perform for the dejected Composer so that he, “could hear it [his music] the way it was meant to be heard, that is, in silence” (Tomasula 46) In this scene there are several vital elements that solidify the auditory reality of Composer’s silent music. As the opening bars of the unheard music blink to life on the projector there is a cacophony of sound, “Throttle open. The diesel engine roared deafeningly. The projector flickered to life, bringing up the first bars of the projected music”(Tomasula 49). This concert is beautiful in that its audience, at least in the case of Mechanic and Photographer, are willing non-consumer participants. They aren’t present at the performance looking for what they can take away from the music, but rather what they can add to it. To the jubilance of Composer, who is enraptured by being able to see his art realized, what these two companions end up giving to this art is its reality, its sound. This revelation hits very close to the heart of artistic expression as whole. When looked at honestly, art expresses no objective truth and its highest aspirations must ultimately be threefold, to illuminate the author to himself, to illuminate the author to his audience, and lastly illuminate the audience to each other. The concert itself proceeds for over seven hours, a figure that coincides with much of the hyperbolic imagery of Tomasula’s writing, and the party disbands to the shouts of “va—Room!” which recall again the actuality of Auto.
This scene is complicated by the presence of Designer who promptly falls asleep during the performance. Designer represents that part of a general audience who becomes conscious of the shallowness of mass produced art, but after venturing into the uncomfortable space of art that is not easily accessible and cannot be unpacked passively proceeds to extract only those parts of the performance that are fit for replication. Designer entered the concert with the intent of taking something out of the performance without offering anything of her self up in exchange. She attempts to recreate the artistic atmosphere, which she continually professes to have no understanding of, by purchasing a piece of art for her apartment. However, her decision is made based solely on her belief that something is art simply because it is so abstract as to be beyond understanding. Immediately she realizes that the art she has chosen doesn’t match with any of her catalogue-purchased décor and covers up elements of it until it does. Ultimately the bittersweet revelation is that having that one moment of perfect communication between artist and audience was not enough for Composer as he decides to settle for being heard even at the expense of being understood.
The counter position to this anticlimax is the artistic expression and revelation of the previously mute Poet(Sculptor). Throughout the course of the novel she is revealed to have been building the little piles of earth that caused Mechanic to daily trip on his way back and forth over the threshold to his home, “When he stubbed his toe on the mound of dirt that had reappeared before his door, he stomped it flat, and stomped it flat, and stomped, and kept stomping until he wore himself out with stomping (Tomasula 140). Despite the inconvenience and frustration, just like the metal skis of his car, the difference is what caused the transition to be noticed.
The theme of auditory as contributing to the reality of art, as well as the impact that perspective has on its connective power, is further explored in VAS: An Opera in Flatland. The limits of the reach of artistic expression, in this narrative, are those of perspective. Square and Circle are examples of this limitation and their two-dimensionality hinders their ability to connect. In the concluding moments of the novel the couple are encouraged to go to the opera, as Circle’s mother believes they might be able to find something that can fix the problems in their marriage. What Mother hopes is that by connecting with the music and production they might be able to find the common ground their inherently incongruent perspectives has condemned them too. As they sat in their boxed seats they heard,

The symphony oddly musicless until their random beats begin to coagulate into zygotes of two notes, a harmony of water and mud. Mitosis into four notes, then eight, then sixteen. Then a sour discord—a mutation—that causes the sound to rearrange itself into a new complexity, music becoming itself, playing itself, its musicains only being the medium it lives in…(Tomasula330)

Predictably, even as the descriptive imagery of the opera urges a coagulation of perspective as the notes draw nearer and nearer, neither Square nor Circle has made a move toward any common understanding. Circle gets bored halfway through and takes a moment to balance her checkbook while Square attempts to wholly assimilate the performance treating the chattering audience as part of the experience. This extreme difference of perspective is a reverberation of a movement made earlier in the novel,

From the mountains he had once seen canyons. From the canyons mountains. But now, living in Flatland, the Y mountains (he once looked up to) or the X canyons (he once looked down into) were so distant that they seemed to be no more than distant fictions (Tomasula 71)

Square and Circle have come to a place where their point of view has shrunk to a two dimensional image and the gulf between them so vast that they are not even listening to the same song. From the outset of the novel both characters are struggling to understand one another but the subtle implications and gestures, such as Circle’s repeated “your turn”, are not as clear as either of them believe they are.
Throughout the opera the comic book style panels are constantly interrupted by classic word bubbles of the interjecting chatter of the audience. In conjunction with, “the shatter of busting glass”, and the “rows of saxophones…trilling through faster than human muscles can trill” (Tomasula 336-7). The audience, who will continue to show its disinterest throughout, will stand and darkly echo Designer’s claim that the defining characteristic of art is that it is beyond comprehension. This is almost a cynical contraversion of the elation Composer, Mechanic, and Photographer achieved at the close of the Essence of Music Concert. The cowed mass, having offered and attained nothing, submit to the societally approved praiseworthiness of the Opera and proceed back to their lives having communicated nothing but ideas that are not their own.
In both of these works Steve Tomasula subtly introduces elements of sound that stretch his narratives beyond the visual and into the auditory. Even going to far as to almost subliminally add notation designs and tempo jargon to his opera in flatland that can, should the reader choose to take the offered cues, alter altogether the pace at which the audience experiences the story. He encourages his audience to be observant, to appreciate the things that have become invisible through overuse, and to realize the limits of our empathy. All of these moves are made in pursuit of the two constituent parts of artistic endeavor, creation and observation toward the ultimate goal of connection. Marshal McLuhan wrote that, “indeed, it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium”(McLuhan 9) and in both IN & OZ and VAS: An Opera in Flatland that proves to be all too true. In both cases it appears that Tomasula’s main call is for his audience to try. To put forth the effort, despite the fact that it has been made so difficult by the extreme convenience of modern society, is a goal worth attempting. If nothing else one can always benefit from learning to appreciate the value of something before it breaks beneath the weight of indifference.

Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT, 1994.

Tomasula, Steve. IN & OZ. University of Chicago Press. Chicago IL, 2003. Print

Tomasula, Steve. VAS: An Opera in Flatland. University of Chicago Press. Chicago IL, 2002. Print

When first looking at the works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman there are often drastic differences in their respective representations of love. The former in many cases choosing an elusive, skeptical, and sometimes solitary understanding while the latter is normally found preferring a universal, boundaryless, and all-inclusive view. This essay will include an analysis of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “The Soul Selects”(Fr 409), “I Cannot Live”(Fr 706), and “Love reckons by itself alone”(Fr 812) as they relate to the authors representations of love. This in turn will be followed by a close reading of Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”, “To You”, “Sometimes with one I love”, and “The love that is Hereafter” to the same end. Having addressed both writers on an individual level the concluding lines will highlight their similarities and differences on this theme and illuminate a less disparate nature than may initially be apparent.
One of the main elements of love in Emily Dickinson’s poems is the idea of elusiveness. The notion that love is less temporal and more transcendent can often build an aura of unattainability and distance between Dickinson’s speaker from that unreachable ideal. This elusiveness is immediately displayed in “I cannot live”,

I cannot live with You-
It would be Life-
And Life is over there-
Behind the Shelf (Fr 706)

The assertion that the true connection between the narrator and the object of her desires is prohibited echoes Gary Lee Stonum’s description of Dickinson’s speaker who, “imagines several rejected, barred or impossible futures with the beloved” (Stonum 23). When the love ideal does descend enough to be realized there appear to be strict limitations on it. Rather than the widespread and engirthing love of Whitman, Dickinson presents an exclusionary association, “The Soul selects her own Society-/ Then – shuts the Door” (Fr 409). In this context Dickinson seems to admit to loves temporal attainability only by the narrowest of margins. The extreme limit of that connectedness being, “You there- I- here-/ With just the Door ajar” (Fr 706). This is the reflexive skepticism that often colors the surety with which many of her poems longingly peer upwards and outwards toward transcendental love. However, even this binary description of love is subverted when she shows doubt on the ideal itself as she does in “Love reckons by itself alone” when the speaker laments the inevitable failure of that search when she admits, “Itself is all the/ like it has” (Fr 812). This poem evokes a solitude and the speakers admission that love will always exceed the reach of simile leaving the reader to wonder if love can ever be truly felt if it can never be accurately expressed. Richard Brantley, offering up a contradiction to the despair of this manner of reading, comments, “Her despair out-hopes hope, since, in isolation, or as a half-binary, simple hope bestows only chaste satisfaction. Dickinson’s very despair entertains un-cloistered, sturdy, and engaged, though muted, or subtle, hope as happiness” (Bratley 28). In this way it is the hope that is inherent in the search for that ideal that becomes the virtue rather than its attainment. It would perhaps be convenient to read this introspection solely as a byproduct of the gender roles and expectations of women at the time these poems were written, particularly in their relation to the Whitman poems that follow, however it is precisely the solitary incarnation of love that Dickinson explores which in fact sets it apart from dependent and reactionary love expected of her contemporaries.
Unlike the skeptical and often introspective presentation of love that Dickinson offers, Walt Whitman presents the universal love that suffers no boundary or exemption. Here, with certainty that can be interpreted as egotism, Whitman often claims to encapsulate in its entirety the width and breadth of the human capacity to love. There is a possessiveness that usurps the identity of the other and makes the speaker prime in the expression of love,

None has understood you, but I understand you,
None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to
None but has found you imperfect, I only find no imperfection
In you (Whitman 196)

Like the previous temptation to view the author’s attitude as a descendant of gender roles, it is inviting to relegate this description of love to a stereotypically masculine bravado. However, in doing so one would have to overlook Whitman’s own transcendental representations of love. Unlike Dickinson’s ideal, which exists beyond the physical, Whitman follows a much more Emersonian mode by uniting temporal experience to transcendental connectedness. Whitman shows a real, physical love being a reflection of the boundary-defying unity of all people and things. In this respect the previously egotistical “I” becomes a universal pronoun which includes not only speaker and object, but all speakers and all objects. Whitman explores how the universal love compensates and completes interpersonal love,

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I
Effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain
One way or another (Whitman 114)

Here love is not in doubt but inevitable and the only variable is the form in which the returned love expresses itself. Whitman’s expansiveness allows him the freedom to shed the body of the narrator and swim in that universally requited love without concern for gender, sexuality, dimension, or age exposing communication of that love to the full scope of metaphor in the library of human expression. However, Whitman’s faith in the transcendent connectedness of things does not go unchallenged throughout his work. One problematic reading comes from “The Love That Is Hereafter” wherein Whitman shows what may be called a Dickinsonian level of doubt about humanity’s ability to connect through nature to “a bounteous God”,

But man- weak, proud, and erring man,
Of truth ashamed, of folly vain-
Seems singled out to know no rest
And of all things that move, feels least
The sweets of happiness (Whitman)

For Whitman though these moments are few and far between and are often lost in the expansive catalogued inclusiveness of his other works. In a slightly counterintuitive way it is these momentary doubtful moments that lend an honesty to the brash and sometimes presumptuous moves that Whitman makes as it shows them not to be adopted off-handedly, but with thoughtfulness well measured.
It is this thoughtfulness which sheds the first light on the common ground of these two poets with regard to their depictions of love. At first glance it is difficult to see any commonality in the elusive, introspective, and skeptical love of Emily Dickinson and the universal, inevitable, and boisterous love of Walt Whitman. Where Dickinson looks forward to a love that is beyond the physical reach of human experience “Behind the Shelf” (Fr 706), Whitman is singing, “The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them” (Whitman 81). Where Dickinson is reticent, Whitman is unreserved. However, while their forms and attitudes contrast starkly, the connective tissue of transcendental thought can be found throughout both. Dickinson’s speaker admits that connection when she says of the Soul that is the selector of Society, “I’ve known her- from an ample nation-/Choose one” (Fr 409). Just as Whitman does not allow his universal and inevitable description of love to be his only word on the subject, neither is the solitary or reclusive love the only voice Dickinson gives to it. In this way the greatest commonality between these two authors and their vastly different depictions of love is the tacit acknowledgement that love is not one thing. In both instances poetry is the process by which each writer explores the notions that define love for them rather than an explicit statement of what love is.

Works Cited

Brantley, R. E. “Dickinson’s Signature Conundrum.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 16.1 (2007): 27-52. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Jul. 2016. .

Dickinson, Emily. “I Cannot Live.” Franklin 706 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “Love reckons by itself alone.” Franklin 812 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “The Soul Selects.” Franklin 409 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Stonum, G. L. “Emily’s Heathcliff: Metaphysical Love in Dickinson and Brontë.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 20.1 (2011): 22-33. Project MUSE. Web. 6 Jul. 2016. .
Whitman, Walt. “I Sing the Body Electric.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “The Love that is Hereafter.” 19 May 1840. Ed. Susan Belasco, assisted by Elizabeth Lorang. The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 5 July 2016. .

Whitman, Walt. “Sometimes with One I Love.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “To You.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Walt Whitman establishes in his work a unique understanding of the relationship between the poet, the physical, and the metaphysical. Rather than the strictly hierarchical vision that Emerson describes, “Words are signs of natural facts. The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history” (Emerson 20), Whitman has a decidedly more lateral understanding of humanity’s connection to the Universe. Using the poems, “Song of the Answerer”, “The Sleeper”, and “When the Full-grown Poet Came”, the following will attempt to analyze the role of the poet, the importance of the physical connectedness of man and the Universe, and finally how art can supplant established religion as the means by which humanity converses with the Universal.
For Whitman, the role of the poet may never be more clearly stated than in the opening lines of “Song of the Answerer”. Herein, the poet takes on a prophetic voice that is reminiscent of the first chapter of the book of Mark and it’s description of the roll of John the Baptist.

A young man comes to me bearing a message from his brother,
How shall the young man know the whether and when of his
Tell him to send me the signs. (Whitman 141)

In these lines Whitman establishes the poet as not only the teller of the Answerer’s signs, but the conduit through which the young man can come to a true understanding of his brother’s message. Similarly, in “When the Full-grown Poet Came” the narrator controls the prophetic tone by expressing the poet, claimed by both Nature and man, as having mediated the interchange, “The full-grown poet stood between the two, and took each by the hand”. Here Nature looks upon the poet, in whom She is well pleased, saying, “He is mine,” while the “proud, jealous and unreconciled,” Soul of man says, “Nay, he is mine alone” (Whitman 461). Whitman invests the poet with the task of blending Nature and that “unreconciled” soul. This is not to suggest that Whitman uses Christian overtones in support of religion as an institution, but neither is it the explicit promotion of the liberal utopia of a purely civic religion proposed by Richard Rorty. Rather, Whitman’s prophetic voice is perhaps as much a reflection of his upbringing in a society that is culturally Christian as it is a conscious decision to use the most efficacious language available. The relationship between the poet prophet and those to whom are given the Answerer’s signs is more tangibly explored in “The Sleepers”. In the previous poems the metaphysical has been represented as the Answerer then as Nature, but here the more encompassing image of Darkness is used. The wandering narrator hovers over the sleepers and observes, eventually merging with, their dreams. The poet as intermediary and guide is perhaps challenged here, “I reckon I am their boss and they make me a pet besides, And surround me and lead me and run ahead when I walk” (Whitman 358), however, the poet is conjoined with his “gang of blackguards” in the engulfing grip of Darkness which devolves the constructs of leader and led into the formlessness wherein the speaker fades away. Here, in a much more fluid way, the task of the poet is to be the lover of both man and the universe, and it is through that congress that all will be blended into a higher level of connectedness.
This amalgam of poet, audience, and darkness-personified universe is a prime example of the importance of the physical connection between man and nature. In these poems the natural is not simply a means by which to observe the metaphysical Universe, but very much a part of that Universe. As the narrator begins to explore the dreams of the Sleepers the poet’s own distinctiveness begins to fade away. Furthermore, there is a special emphasis on the tactile connection of holding hands in both “When the Full-grown Poet Came” and “Song of the Answerer”. In the latter, the scene depicted is in many ways reminiscent of a wedding ceremony being presided over by the poem’s “Answerer”.

And I stand before the young man face to face, and take his
right hand in my left hand and his left hand in my right
And I answer for his brother and for men, and I answer for
Him that answers for all, and send these signs (Whitman 141)

Again the Christian paradigm is echoed in this construction as the poem illustrates how the poet, the young man, and the Answerer are immersed in the Universal by means of a physical connection. Whitman does not appear to wish this connection to be a purely philosophical or symbolic one, but an integral and tangible part of the experience of the Universal Soul. Though the narrator of the above remains vague, it could very well be the connected hands that are being established as an example and sent out as “signs”. John Irwin explores the lateral nature of this relationship as, rather than a one-way street leading from nature to the metaphysical, he writes that, “the metaphysical is a radically different way of experiencing the physical” (Irwin 865). This in turn illuminates a symbiotic relationship between the physical and metaphysical where both are needed in equal parts to be truly connected to the Universal Soul. If the previous poems are matrimonial in their physicality, “The Sleepers” represents a consummation of that relationship. Therein the narrator urges the Darkness to, “Double yourself and receive me Receive me and my lover too, he will not let me go without him” (Whitman 358). Here again however the reading becomes problematic as the poet prophet seems to become disconnected from the lover he had sought to unite with the Darkness. The following lines seem to distance the narrator from his lover in favor of his relationship with the Universal supporting what Christopher Loots has described as Whitman’s penchant for being the, “poet of oneness” (Loot).

He whom I call answers me and takes the place of my lover,
He rises with me silently from the bed.
Darkness, you are gentler than my lover,

This would suggest an abandonment of humanity and its connection to the Universal in favor of the narrator’s private individual connection were it not for the poem’s concluding lines,

I thought my lover had gone, else darkness and he are one,
I hear the heart-beat, I follow, I fade away(Whitman 358)

Instead of being alone in the dark Universal the poet finds that the visual distinction between his lover and the Darkness is gone and they have become physically one entity, and it is the poet prophet’s turn to follow the “heart-beat” into that borderless collective.
Ultimately, this collective suggests that the poet and his art will introduce new forms of religion to replace the institutions that have thus far defined the means by which humanity has communicated with the Universal. Whitman, like Emerson, puts forward the poet as the prophet of the new understanding who will give voice to the new forms. The Poet, “announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor” (Emerson 450). This messianic language is not unique to Emerson as in “To Him That Was Crucified” Whitman annexes Christian language to present an innovative theology, “We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers nor anything that is asserted” (Whitman 323). Whitman abandons the notion that the Earth is a temporal prison to which original sin doomed humanity and elevates it to a co-equal part of the Universal whole. This elevation, poet to messiah and poem to scripture, is a means by which Whitman could couch a foreign ideology in a familiar framework, as was the habit of many religions before it. Whitman even goes so far as to suggest that each person will eventually become a prophet unto themselves and be lead by the artist to the Whole, “You shall not look through my eyes either, not take things from me, you shall listen to all sides and filter them for your self” (Whitman 27). In this way the poet and the poem become the Answerer’s “sign”, Nature’s “blender”, and the Darkness’ “lover”.
The poems, “Song of the Answerer”, “The Sleepers”, and “When the Full-grown Poet Came”, are an illuminating lens when examining the role of the poet, the importance of a physical connection with nature, and succession of art as religion. First, they construct the poet prophet image wherein the poet is the intermediary between humanity and the Universal self. Secondly, they demonstrate that the physical is not merely a symbolic tool with which one can contemplate the metaphysical, but an intrinsically valuable part of the Whole. Lastly, they establish a framework through which the individual religious experience can be freed from the antique modes and allowed to adopt the fluidity and individuality that will lead to an undreamt of interconnectedness between all people and things. While, “Whitman’s confidence in his own poetic capacity to supersense and thereafter translate such sublimity into language is indefatigable”(Loot), it’s his versatility of phrase that allows for the infinite paths that are required for the individual exploration of the Universal whole.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Joel Porte. Essays & Lectures. New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1983. Print.

Irwin, John. “Whitman: Hieroglyphic Bibles and Phallic Songs.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print.

Loots, Christopher ““That Inscrutable Thing”: Holography, Nonlocality, and Identity in American Romanticism.” Configurations 24.1 (2016): 71-108. Project MUSE. Web. 28 Jun. 2016.

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.

Whitman, Walt. “The Sleepers.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Answerer.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “To Him That Was Crucified.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

Whitman, Walt. “When the Full-grown Poet Came.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 2002. Print

It is difficult to disassociate the sense of self in the works of Emily Dickinson from the biographical and sociological elements that would have been present during their composition. Neither can it be wholly divorced from the idea of American exceptionalism, thought of as a particular byproduct of American individualism, or the transcendental and autonomous selfhood of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. The latter of these influences could not but have had an impact as, however obliquely, Dickinson was a literary descendant of transcendental thought. Ultimately though, it is perhaps this very disassociation that Dickinson seeks through the opaqueness of her lyric, the experimentation of her form, and the repetition of her theme. Her work veers away from the Emersonian self in its purest form by introducing the limitations of human experience. As Shira Wolosky puts it, Dickinson’s work, “…that seems to assert the power, completeness, and sufficiency of self also questions, exposes, and subverts such assertions.” (Wolosky 134) Dickinson searches through the construct of individuality by means of two of its more oppressive implications, those of loneliness and doubt. What follows is a close reading of three poems, without consideration for their composition date, as essays in Emily Dickinson’s understanding of her own individuality and that of individuality as a concept. While she appears to walk the path laid down by the transcendentalists, she is less willing to adopt the idealized self-reliant self and finds problems with the construct throughout her explorations. Being unable to bar the biographical from the gates even to the length of an introductory paragraph, it is hard to overlook the freedom Dickinson’s search is afforded by her reclusive habits. The humility that led her to ask Thomas Wentworth Higginson if her poems were worth publication and her lifelong distaste for attention will be mirrored in her honest doubt which is, and must be, the first step in the search for self.
Wolosky shows that “On a Cloumnar Self” is a valuable place to start any investigation of Dickinson’s views on self-reliance, and, hazarding a slight retreading of ground, there will be no exception found here. However, where Wolosky focuses on the cost of selfhood as a, “…downward metamorphosis…into inorganic stone.”(Wolosky 135) there is also an implied contradiction in the column as a symbol for the individual self. Dickinson’s column is at least as important in the elements that go unmentioned as they are in those that are voiced. It is perhaps easier to look at the word, and conjure the image, of “columnar” then it is to pair it with its siblings, society and use. A column rarely stands alone and is never built by a single person. Armed in this manner a reader might find the inherent contradiction in the idea of being truly self-reliant in that one’s individuality would necessarily be a construct of people rather than person. This in turn implies that the individual, as a product of a collective, is also intended for some end that justifies or inspires its construction. Columns are used commonly in concert and in the effort of bearing a load no structure could on its own. However, this form of identification comes with its own problems, particularly those of the need for some form of exterior affirmation. At first subtlety in, “Though none be on our side” and more explicitly with, “Suffice Us”(Fr740) Dickinson invites the condemnation or validation of an unseen third party as a constituent part of that individuality’s construction. Herein lies the first doubtful and lonely steps that will sound out Dickinson’s problematic individuality in the upcoming poems. If, rather than a consciously engineered and self-determined identity, one is the construction of elements beyond that identity’s control, how isolated would it feel when it inevitably wonders what it’s meant to be holding up?
It is this questioning that would eventually lead to the attempt to disassociate with the idea of a community of individuals holding up a single structure in which that very individuality has now become suspect. A natural response for this train of thought is Dickinson’s poem, “I tried to think a lonelier Thing.” Upon the realization that the column of individuality is only indestructible and commandable once it has been completed, the recourse of this discourse is to seek out that “lonelier Thing” and find that construct which is devoid of community influence in its genesis. Dickinson’s first effort is the thought of being alone in the polar wilderness followed closely by the contemplation of the nearness of death. The second stanza,

I probed Retrieveless things
My Duplicate- to borrow –
A Haggard comfort springs (Fr 570)

is interesting in that not only is it truncated, but it also hints that being alone is the individual broken down to its absolute smallest part. In essence to be truly individual one must be truly alone. Even here the narrator finds his or her “Haggard comfort” in the person of their “Duplicate”. This extreme limit to even the thought of loneliness belies the boundaries of human perception and by proxy individuality. Not only is the speaker not alone in that loneliest of places, but finds in fact her doppelganger. In this context, that mirrored self could be another “columnar” self expressing how limited the narrator’s individuality is even when it comes to the processes of the mind, or a mental barrier conjured by the narrator’s physical inability to comprehend loneliness to its furthest degree. The small comfort that is felt in this discovery seems to be in the narrator’s inability to find that atomic particle of self, but therein also lies the frustration for the questioner. Unfortunately, this leaves the once certain and columnar self incapable of even accurately fathoming loneliness much less able to see it realized. In the absence of that ideal individuality which loneliness personifies, comes the second axiom of that construct undiscovered, doubt.
Katie Peterson argues that, “Dickinson constructs poetic authority by focusing on her own anonymity and invisibility…” (Peterson 76), and though not specifically addressing the auditory in “The Loneliness One dare not sound” it is that anonymity to which she strives in contemplating that which is perhaps beyond the borders of human understanding. By refraining from using a personal pronoun for as long as is tenable, the narrator chooses to use the more general term “One” that they might strip away all vestiges of self. However, there is a clear warning to this mode of exploration in the poem’s second stanza,

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
is lest itself should see-
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny-(Fr877)

In this warning there is an eerie echo of the narrator’s previous failure to grasp onto that loneliness which in turn would see itself and be gone. The episode of the “Duplicate” revisited. Despite the speaker’s supreme effort to hold on to that amorphous and truly independent thought he or she submits on the brink and returns to the dialogue of the poem, “I fear me this- is Loneliness” and, as though it were a thing just on the verge of comprehension, humbly leaves it there and fearfully wonders if it is the “Maker of the soul.”
In the end the search for the individual can be paradoxical. Which parts of self contribute most to oneness? Is the intrinsic worth more than the inherited? Are we only capable of defining our identity though being conscious of being observed? In this humblest of readings, Emily Dickinson was followed from her “Columnar Self” on a path she may have shared for a few steps with Ralph Waldo Emerson. But, having shared those first few steps, his road went upward, and hers went inward. Seeking the solitude of pure individuality, Dickinson conjures the limit of that individuality, or perhaps merely the perception thereof. Where Emerson’s self-reliance and autonomy are vessels for congress with the transcendental and interconnected Soul, here Dickinson seems to seek solitude from a connectedness it cannot escape. If limitation is the only sin, is doubt the only certainty? Where Emerson might see a veil, the natural world in which a person needs be enmeshed to see through to the great Self beyond, Dickinson portrays a curtain that can be felt giving shape to something that is otherwise beyond comprehension. Ultimately the paradox returns and this self, which Dickinson attempts to shed in “The Loneliness” as the last barrier to understanding, is it not only indivisible, but indispensable? And is there enough humility to allow for there being no answer? Perhaps, as an individual it depends on whether what is seen is the curtain or the veil.

Dickinson, Emily. “I tried to think a lonelier Thing.” Franklin 570 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “The Loneliness One dare not sound.” Franklin 877 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “On a Clumnar Self.” Franklin 740 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Peterson, Katie. “Surround Sound: Dickinson’s Self And The Hearable.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005): 76-88. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 June 2016.

Wolosky, Shira. “Dickinson’s Emerson: A Critique Of American Identity.” Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (2000): 134-141. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 June 2016.

A wink toward the pin-prick lights
Hanging in the dark
A self convincing nearness
A finger’s breadth apart

The silver light that paints the grass
Is shadowed by my hand
A comforting delusion
This galaxy of span

But when winking turns to blinking
That nearness then retreats
And from the flares of midnight
I can feel no heat

(Included in a letter to L.W. 5 July 2016)