Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and the War That Changed Poetry, Forever

The two titans of American poetry chronicled the death and destruction of the Civil War in their poems

Part of Emily Dickinson’s traditional mystique derives from her supposed isolation from the world. The image persists of her as a reclusive genius, living in her big house in the sleepy little western Massachusetts town of tending to her garden, and writing out her hundreds of enigmatic little poems on scraps of paper.

Her writing seems to have come from nowhere and her verse was like nothing else both in her own time and in American literature. Yet despite her apparent physical and cultural isolation, careful study has found the tracings of the wider society threaded through her mysterious and elliptical poems. Questions of faith and salvation predominate, but current events pop up as well, none more than the Civil War.

Dickinson started writing in the late 1850s and there is a sense of a hush in many of her poems as the impending crisis turned into a full-blown war; studies have linked her writing to the effects achieved in landscape painting by the “luminists” and their sense of a foreboding, American sublime. Later her verse would reflect the battle being joined—she saw the dead and casualties being returned to her town; she may have seen illustrations of the battlefield—and then the awful aftermath. In the first stanza of one poem, she laid bare how the reality of war exposed the hollowness of the rhetoric that was used to instigate and justify it:

My Triumph lasted till the Drums

Had left the Dead alone

And then I dropped my Victory

And chastened stole along

To where the finished Faces

Conclusion turned on me

And then I hated Glory

And wished myself were They.

Emily Dickinson
Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848. (Restored version.) From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Dickinson may have intended her poem to quietly turn upside down the emotional tone of Walt Whitman’s frenetic “Beat! beat! drums! –Blow! bugles! blow!/Through the windows–through doors–burst like a ruthless force.” Whitman concludes with the dead as well, but only to point out how they are ignored when the ferocious war music sweeps us along, out of ourselves.

Dickinson shows us the aftermath and the regret not only for the loss of life but of what war does to the living. Dickinson and Whitman show us two ways of working through the problem of how to mourn and how to gauge the effect that the war was having on Americans. Their point of view—Dickinson distant, Whitman near the front in Washington—inflected their writing, as did other factors such as gender: Dickinson’s is a more private grief; Whitman’s is a poem about propaganda. But both small poems reflect how, to adapt Lincoln’s words, “the war came” to American poetry.

Literary historian Edmund Wilson's influential 1962 book, Patriotic Gore, shows how the war shaped American literature. He writes, in particular, about how the war, in the need for orders to be terse, concise and clear, had an impact on the writing style that would characterize American modernism. To stretch a point, you can trace Ernest Hemingway’s famously terse, descriptive style back to the orders written by generals like Grant or Sherman. But things were still in balance during the war itself as new ways of thinking and writing—the “modern,” if you will—contested with older styles and habits of feeling—the Victorian and sentimental. Yet the boundaries were not clearly drawn at the time. Dickinson inhabited a world of Victorian sentimentality, but infused its musty conventions with the vigor of her idiosyncratic point of view and elliptical style. “My triumph. . .” in lesser hands could have been overwrought and bathetic instead of the carefully calibrated gauge of morality with which Dickinson infused it. Similarly, Whitman, supposedly the preeminent harbinger of modern sensibilities, oscillated between the old and newer cultures. Famously, he wrote two mourning poems for his hero, Abraham Lincoln and they are very different. “O Captain, My Captain” is a fine piece of Victorian melodrama and sentimentality, much anthologized and recited on patriotic public occasions, but read the lines of This Dust was Once the Man:

This dust was once the Man,

Gentle, plain, just and resolute—under whose cautious hand,

Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,

Was saved the Union of These States.

Whitman would recite the poem at the conclusion of his public lecture “The Death of Lincoln,” and he grew weary of it. If “O Captain, My Captain” was rooted in the poetic vocabulary of mid-19th-century conventionality, Whitman’s second Lincoln poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” vaulted American poetry toward the future, creating a decisive break, both linguistically and in its cast of mind, with the time in which he wrote. It is a hallucinatory work that is as close as an American poet has ever gotten to Dante’s journey into the Underworld:

Passing the visions, passing the night;

Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;

Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul

Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,

As low and wailing yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night . . .

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman by Richard Shugg after Frank H. T. Bellew, 1872. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Dickinson and Whitman were two of the most sensitive intelligences in the making of American poetry. That they were conflicted and pulled between the past and the future, only indicates the complexities that were in flux due to the war. Among other writers, from established authors to Americans who turned to poetry as a form of solace in a time of need, older patterns of expression continued to predominate. The over-stuffed furnishings of Victorian literature was a recourse and a comfort to people in great need. Later, Mark Twain, among others, would lampoon that culture and kill it dead in the 1884 "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." (The wreck of the steamboat Sir Walter Scott in the novel is Twain's pointed comment on the end of the sugar-spun world of the romance.)

The violence of the war sloughed off all the over wrought, emotionally dramatic Victorian proprieties that evaded the immediate impact of the thing itself. As Americans recoiled from the reality of war, there was a sense of taking stock that in our literature and poetry would result in a more chastened and realistic language, one better suited to assess and describe the world that the War had created.

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