Contrasting Voices of Death – Whitman and Dickinson
My Key to Whitman: Death, As Oceanic Seducer, is Not To Be Feared
My Key to Dickinson: Death as Insistent Horseman
Two 19th century poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, each attended many sick and dying people during their lifetimes, and both frequently addressed and confronted death in their poetry. Whitman’s long, unmetered Biblical cadences and Dickinson’s metered, formal diction with compact syntax were very different, but they both used symbolism and voice to convey ideas about death. This post will compare and contrast the “voices of death” in each poet’s work that reflect their experiences, imaginings, philosophies and acceptance of death.Whitman made it a part of his personal mission to visit and bestow comfort and help to wounded Civil War soldiers, and many of his poetic voices reflect both his empathy with, and love for the soldiers. The voice of “Song of Myself” describes the dissolution of his own identity and actually becoming the wounded soldier and experiencing the pain of his wounds:
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
(Whitman, Song of Myself, 2238)
The speaker’s voice reflects Whitman’s own extreme empathy for wounded soldiers. Another voice reflects the desire for death to deliver the soldier relief from horrific wounds:
The neck of the calvary-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! Be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.) (Whitman, The Wound Dresser, 2280)
In this poem, the speaker seeks to persuade death to come for the soldier. In another poem, the voice of love for a soldier:
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death, I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again). (Whitman, Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night, 2277)
Whitman’s poetic voices of empathy, mercy and love are likely to be reflections of his own experiences and feelings tending the injured and dying in war hospitals.
Whitman personified death as a nurturing female presence with lovely, delicate qualities. Sometimes the imagery of death was maternal and nurturing, for example, a “Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet/…praise! praise! praise /for the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death. (Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, 2287) Whitman also portrays death as a seducer, in the form of the ocean:
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
(Whitman, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, 2271)
The oceanic seducer appears in this poem, too:
The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
(Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, 2287)
Notice that when the seduction of both body and soul are complete, the dead are portrayed as grateful. The poetic voice even celebrates the process:
When it is so – when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.
(Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, 2287)
The loving, floating ocean imagery is frequently used to represent death in Whitman’s poetry, and may have been chosen because floating in water and listening to the sound of waves in the ocean are anxiety-reducing for most people. Whitman wanted to persuade readers not to fear death, and so this imagery was deliberately chosen for the psychological comfort that it offers.
Whitman’s poetic voices convey the philosophy that the life you may experience after death will be in another form. “To be in any form, what is that?/ (Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,) (Whitman, Song of Myself, 2230). This eternal cycle of renewal, life from death, is symbolized in “Song of Myself” as leaves of grass. “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death.” (Whitman, “Song of Myself,” 2214). He continues this imagery in the poem to reflect his acceptance of his own mortality and to further convey this philosophy:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
(Whitman, “Song of Myself, 2254).
Whitman used the symbolism of grass, sprouting each spring as new life, to encapsulate his own philosophy of death as natural and part of a divine plan. His poetic voices seem to earnestly desire to convince readers to accept death as a natural part of the cycle, an expression of divinity, and something that should not be feared:
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array or terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
(Whitman, Song of Myself, 2252)
Whitman as poet recognizes that death, in time, will claim each one of us, and believed it natural and good. His poetic voices continually seek to calm and soothe the anxiety readers might have about death. In his pastoral elegy for President Lincoln, he wrote:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
(Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, 2286)
Whitman’s soothing characterization of death contrasts with the characterization of death by fellow 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, as we will explore in the rest of this paper.
Emily Dickinson’s voices of death in her poetry were prolific, but the subject of death was one she confronted frequently in her life, so it is natural that she explored death so often in her art. According to Dickinson biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Dickinson witnessed the sickness and death of many family members and friends, and eventually attended the death of her own father and mother. These witnessing/watching experiences started at the age of two and continued throughout her life:
Women bore the babies and nursed them and often watched them die. Whenever there was sickness in the house, the womenfolk (even if they were very young) were expected to be in attendance…Few adult women had escaped hearing the greedy rasp of a “death rattle.” Herman Melville learned of bloody death and bloodier birth by shipping out to sea. Emily Dickinson was constrained to consider such issues merely by having been born female. (Wolff 50)
As Whitman’s civil war hospital experiences were reflected in his poetic voices, Dickinson’s experience attending the sick and dying and her experiences with grief are explored in her poetic voices, too. One voice drawing on this experience, “The Bustle in a House/The Morning After Death/Is solemnest of industries/Enacted opon Earth –“ (Dickinson, 1108. “The Bustle in a House…” 2589). Another voice of grief, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes -/The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – “ (Dickinson, “372. After great pain, a formal feeling comes”,2572). Dickinson had many intense experiences with grief that are reflected in these poetic voices.
While Whitman typically personified death as a maternal, female figure, Dickinson personified death in this poem as a polite, yet insistent male suitor.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
(Dickinson, 479. Because I could not stop for Death -” 2578)
The speaker in these first two stanzas is not ready to die, but has nonetheless put away her labor and her leisure for this civil suitor. The personification of death as a horseman was first used in the Bible (the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations was named Death). The use of a horseman driving a carriage also reinforces the idea of death as suitor or bridegroom, along with the imagery that Dickinson uses of the “gossamer gown” – (Dickinson, 479. Because I could not stop for Death -” 2578) worn by the speaker, a fabric often used for wedding dresses. While Dickinson personifies death as a civil suitor, Whitman’s oceanic, caressing figure of death was more seductive.
Whitman in his poetry described the death experience metaphorically as an “embrace,” a sensory experience, and his voices showed no fear about the process of dying; by contrast Dickinson’s poetic voices often expressed fear about the loss of sensory experience and the loss of self during the dying process. In Dickinson’s “I died for Beauty – but was scarce” poem, the dead speaker of the poem is buried next to another dead person, with which she is able to find kinship and conversation, until “the Moss had reached our lips – And covered up – Our names –“ (Dickinson, 448. “I died for Beauty” 2576). This voice describes the silencing power of death and the loss of identity it causes. Moss symbolizes decay. The dead speaker becomes just another gravestone, with moss covering her name and erasing her. In this poem, the sensory loss was the loss of speech. In other Dickinson poems, the sensory loss is vision. The speaker in “I’ve seen a Dying Eye” watches that eye search the room, become cloudy, obscured, “And then – be soldered down/Without disclosing what it be/’Twere blessed to have seen –“ (Dickinson, 648. “I’ve seen a Dying Eye,” 2582). This poem offers a hopeful glimpse that the dying person sees a lovely vision of what their future immortal existence might hold, but it also portrays the horror that the eye is “soldered down,” a permanent loss of vision and the mortal self. In “I heard a Fly buzz when I died –,” the speaker’s sensory experience is occupied with the buzzing of a fly within the silence of her deathbed, with the fly symbolizing impending mortal decay. The last stanza describes the terrifying loss of vision at death:
With Blue – uncertain- stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
(Dickinson, 591. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –“ 2580)
The confusion of a dying mind is indicated by “then the Windows failed,” and the final, sensory dissolution of death is portrayed in the last line, “I could not see to see –“ . Dickinson uses poetic voices to explore the idea that as the physical body disintegrates during death, the loss of sensory power is the most frightening aspect of the unalterable process.
Whitman’s voices convey a philosophy that death is part of an eternal cycle that involves rebirth and renewal. Dickinson’s poetic voices often describe the existence of a heaven and/or immortality, even if they wrestle with the idea of the physical decay of the mortal body. In this poem, the speaker accepts the pain of death and the inevitability of decay, and looks forward to a heaven that is impossible to understand until you experience it:
I reason, earth is short,
And anguish absolute.
And many hurt;
But what of that?
I reason, we could die:
The best vitality
Cannot excel decay;
But what of that?
I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even,
Some new equation given;
But what of that?
(Dickinson, XXIII. I reason, earth is short, 372)
The repetition of the line “But what of that?” is a refrain of acceptance. In the third stanza, the speaker’s phrase that “some new equation given” indicates that after death, people learn of some new conception of heaven, and that it is different than what could be conceived in life (or by traditional church teachings). This voice is using reason to explore the ideas of death and immortality, something that often occupied Dickinson herself, as indicated by the sheer number of death voices in her poetry.
Dickinson’s poetic voices sometimes conveyed anxiety about the dying process, and Whitman’s voices generally did not (“Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I know it” (Whitman, Song of Myself, 2215)). Both Dickinson and Whitman seemed to accept death and believe in some resulting form of immortality or renewal. Not only did the two poets use very different rhetorical styles, but each personified and symbolized death in very different ways. Whether Death comes in Dickinson’s carriage or washes Whitman-like over your feet on the beach, it will inevitably come to each of us. In the varied voices of death that speak to us in poems by Whitman and Dickinson, we may hear a voice or two that helps us grapple with our own mortality.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2210 – 2254.
Whitman, Walt: “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2267 – 2272.
Whitman, Walt, “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2276 – 2277.
Whitman, Walt. “The Wound Dresser,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2279 – 2281.
Whitman, Walt. “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2282 – 2288.
Dickinson, Emily. “372. After great pain, a formal feeling comes”, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2572.
Dickinson, Emily. “448. I died for Beauty – but was scarce”, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2572.
Dickinson, Emily. “479. Because I could not stop for Death -”, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2578.
Dickinson, Emily. “591. I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – ”, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2579 – 2580.
Dickinson, Emily. “648. I’ve seen a Dying Eye ”, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2582..
Dickinson, Emily. “1108. The Bustle in a House ”, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B”: 2007 Pages 2589..
Dickinson, Emily, “XXIII. I reason, Earth is short,” Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1995 Barnes and Noble Nook Edition.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1986.