Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson breathed life into poetry by providing an alternative view of reading the poems – not as self-confessions or as ego statements, but rather as the song of every individual who wants to be free, every human – whether man, woman, child, whatever race, whatever sex and gender. Both poets desired a breaking free from the social norms and prejudices of their time, and to move towards an acceptance of the individual in all its glory and celebrate its uniqueness.
Whitman wrote his Leaves of Grass more than just a celebration of the self – it was also about the celebration of democracy. He believed that democracy upheld the liberties and rights of the citizens whoever they may be, whatever race and color and gender they are attributed with. Thus, Whitman crosses the border of his own self by embracing the Other as part of himself and the universe at the same recognizing the uniqueness in all.
Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, drew from the personal experience to show the uniqueness of the individual and to draw attention to the travails that are human trappings, like death, loneliness, regret, isolation. Dickinson preferred to write in the privacy of her room, unlike Whitman who went around and immersed himself in society. But this is not to say that Dickinson’s poetry is far removed from human experience. On the contrary, Dickinson’s poems dealt with internal conflict, with questions on death, on isolation, on nature and the temporal life. Both writers yearned for a world that goes beyond the material.
The only salvation possible from the degrading, repetitive and alienating modern world is the acceptance of the individual and the embracing of our inherent sameness and difference. While Whitman portrayed a world that was full of promise by recognizing himself in each and everyone, Dickinson looked within and although confined in her reclusion offered an alternative view of the world. She crossed the limitations of the mind through her famous and at the time innovative use of the dash, and by her mere choice of subject matter – death and life at a time when people were writing love poems.
Whitman using free verse demonstrated his dedication to democracy, to a society not bound by rigid rules and uniformity but upheld individuality and freedom. Dickinson’s preference for lyric poetry should not be construed that she was more traditional than Whitman – her choice of medium did not prevent her from re-inventing poetry. Whitman and Dickinson had to cross the borders of what was generally accepted as poetry, and through their own unique ways have regaled the dawn of modern American poetry.