Association and Assimilation: Nature and Humanity’s role in Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman

on July 31, 2016 in Essays, Masters Degree

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

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