‘The drama of consciousness [in Dickinson] moved to no resolving design. Consequently, where the critic can take a major Whitman poem as symptomatic of the whole work, he must select contradictory fragments from here and there to pose the tensions which are the coherence of Dickinson’s work. ‘ Discuss Albert Gelpi’s account of the crucial difference between the work of Whitman and Dickinson, and say if you find it valid. (You may, if you wish, concentrate more on one poet than the other. ) Both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are regarded as great American poets of the Nineteenth Century, yet they could not be so different.
They are both unique poets in the sense that the sense that their writing styles varied immensely from any other style before them. The assessment of the poets by Albert Gelpi is one that is usually assumed with the comparison between Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman’s poems in comparison to Dickinson’s were huge and only by selecting certain fragments from poems could the tensions be found. Whereas Dickinson’s short, abrupt poems tensions make the poems what they are. Gelpi states that the ‘consciousness moved to no resolving design’ in Dickinson’s work.
This is an undisputed fact. Dickinson invented her own form for her poetry, which was quite unlike any before her, Dickinson constructed her own poetic meter, which broke free from standard form. The syntax of her poems were also very unconventional, she would place dashes in the middle of her poems to produce breaks, this was usually used as a replacement for a full stop and had the effect of making her reader learn where to take the break in the poem to ‘collect sense before moving onto the next stanza’.
Also Dickinson’s poems were also very short with thirty-five lines being the longest of her poems, whilst the average length being fifteen lines. Whitman in comparison, is completely different. His epic poem ‘Song of Myself’ is thirteen-hundred and forty-five lines in length. This is not the only difference, Whitman used a very prosaic language in his poems, and due to their form, his poems were more like prose than poetry. This is because Whitman, like Dickinson, invented his own form which is now know as free verse.
The major thing that unites these vastly different poets is that they both not too popular with publishers; Whitman kept getting trouble over the erotic nature of some of his poems, and Dickinson only had a handful of poems published (and in an altered form) in her lifetime. The reader becomes very aware of the ‘drama of consciousness’ when reading Dickinson’s, I have selected her poem ‘No. 754’ to highlight the tensions of Dickinson’s work which Gelpi states gives her it’s coherence: My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified – And carried Me away -[… ] To foe of His – I’m deadly foe – None stir the second time – On whom I lay a Yellow Eye – Or an emphatic Thumb – Though I than He – may longer live He longer must – than I – For I have but the power to kill, Without – the power to die – This is one of Dickinson’s most famous poems, and as the reader can see it is full of the tensions which Gelpi mentions. To start with the very first line introduces us to the tension, the very idea of ‘a Loaded Gun’, gives us the image of something ready to spring into action. a Loaded Gun’ is a metaphor for tension, the gun is literally stood waiting to go off, Dickinson is waiting for something to happen in her life. The final line of the first stanza also pushes tension and expectation to the fore, the gun (Dickinson) is carried away, what will happen, is the poem describing a major change in Dickinson’s life. In the fifth stanza of the poem (third in the above quotation), further tension is displayed by Dickinson writing ‘I’m deadly foe’, we want to know who she is deadly foe to.
The final two lines of this stanza reveal much though, Dickinson lays a ‘Yellow Eye’, which I assume to mean death – a dead person has yellow eyes. The final line of this stanza reintroduces drama as tension as the ’emphatic Thumb’ is referring the cocking of the rifle – is this going to be the dramatic end to the poem which has been building up. The final stanza, relieves all this tension, from it I believe that Dickinson is still waiting for this big momentous occasion in her life still to happen. the power to kill,’ is this great ultimate act/event (presumably to Dickinson being fulfilled and finding happiness in love) is still to came, and ‘Without – the power to die -‘ is the endless wait as Dickinson believes it will not happen and she will just grow older watching the world pass her by. This example clearly validates part of Gelpi’s statement about Dickinson’s work. Gelpi’s also states that any of Whitman’s poems is symptomatic of the whole work, this is unarguably true.
Whitman’s work is linked together as Whitman has often been described as an ‘organic whole’, Whitman’s poems aren’t just his words they are him. Furthermore to this theory is that fact that Whitman never published any other books after the Leaves of Grass in 1855, he just kept revising and updating the original edition, adding new poems and sometimes amending the originals. Leaves of Grass is representative of the whole, any extract from it is symptomatic. A good example which qualifies Gelpi’s assessment of Whitman’s work is the poem An Evening Lull:
After a week of physical anguish, Unrest and pain, and feverish heat, Toward the ending day a calm and lull comes on, Three hours of peace and soothing rest of brain. This indeed is one of the ‘contradictory fragments’ Whitman’s work. In Whitman’s work this poem sticks out, unlike some of his other poems, An Evening Lull, is abrupt and to the point; whereas in contrast Song of Myself is rambling and long winded. Therefore it is obvious that one must select these fragments from Whitman’s poems to create the tensions.
Tensions can only be maintain over a small selection of words, it would be nigh on impossible for any poet to create an epic (one thousand line plus) poem and be completely tension filled without being rubbish. Indeed in Song of Myself, Whitman does have parts of his work that do have real tension, for example ‘Urge and urge and urge/Always the procreant urge of the world’ [lines 44-45]. The styles of both Whitman and Dickinson are completely different, the style of the poet can also define how much tension a poem contains. Dickinson’s own idiosyncratic style simply lends itself to tensions.
Her lines are almost always short and she uses syntax in a very specific way which helps to build up the tensions in her work, which does often prove as Gelpi points out to be the coherence of it. Whereas Whitman’s style is free verse and his lines are often as long as her wants them to be, they don’t have the same tensions as Dickinson’s simply down to the way they were written. In conclusion, I believe that Gelpi’s account of Dickinson’s and Whitman’s work to be valid, the two are very different poets, but one does have select the ‘contradictory fragments’ to pose the tensions in Whitman’s work.