An Issue of Scope: Love and Connectedness in Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman (Grade A-)

on July 14, 2016 in Essays, Masters Degree

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

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