Bailey’s conversation starter

Dickinson is more known for writing about issues of mental health than Whitman is. To oversimplify, she is seen as the more emotional, dramatic, and distressed of the two, and Whitman as the more concrete, nature-focused, and positive of the two.

I began wondering how much truth there is to these impressions. (Do the genders of the poets contribute to the ways readers see them?) I know Whitman faced trauma in the war and loneliness and difficulty in his romantic life, so it seems likely that he too was quite familiar with mental health difficulties. Nonetheless, I do think it’s true that Whitman tends to have a more hopeful and awestruck tone in his poetry and places less of an explicit focus on the topic of mental illness than Dickinson. However, he does also offer advice to readers more explicitly as well. Here is a poem by Whitman that appears to be about depression, “O Me! O Life!”:

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?



That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.




“O Me! O Life!”  reminded me of Dickinson’s “One need not be a chamber to be haunted”:

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior confronting—
That Cooler Host—

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O’erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—



I find it interesting how both poems include the idea of multiple selves. In Dickinson: “Ourself behind ourself, concealed” (13). In Whitman: “Of myself forever reproaching myself” (3).How are the statements the poets make on this topic similar or different?

I also noticed that Dickinson presents the brain as antagonist to the individual, while Whitman sums up sadness and stress in terms of the outside world. Is it odd or surprising that Whitman does not mention the brain, given his emphasis on the body and its connection to the soul?

Whitman’s poem is also very different from Dickinson’s because it includes an “Answer” to the problem of depression, while Dickinson simply described problems without suggesting solutions. (Could this be because Dickinson wrote largely for herself, while Whitman wrote deliberately for a large audience?) I found a little slideshow of life advice quotes from Whitman here, which emphasizes his drive to positively influence his readers:

Do you think Whitman’s advice at the end of the poem was helpful to readers with depression? Could the “Answer” section possibly be read as belittling those who are suffering? Is it problematic to imply that depression has an answer that can be summed up in two lines?

Which poem do you think describes depression most effectively? Which poem do you think is more helpful for readers with depression?


7 Replies to “Bailey’s conversation starter”

  1. This is an interesting comparison of both writers and the means by which they approach their own mental health. In some ways, I feel that because Whitman believes himself to me a medium for humanity through his poetry, he may be more greatly affected by the actions of the masses. Thus, in this pensive mood it appears he looks upon them and finds himself greatly discouraged. In some ways he experiences a symbiotic relationship with his public. Due to this perceived mutual need, he is able to find encouragement in the continuity of life and his ability to contribute with poetry. In contrast, Dickinson expresses that her greatest fear is herself. She acknowledges that she, herself, is her own jailor. Due to limited contact, I feel much of her depression and anxiety stems from her personal struggle with mental illness versus Whitman’s pensive depression from being disappointed by external reasons, such as people.

  2. I really enjoyed this exploration of the poets’ representations of mental illness, so thanks for bringing this up in your conversation starter. What really stuck out to me was that Dickinson’s poem did, in fact, share what some people struggling in the way that she has described might consider to be a “solution” with the mention of the “Revolver.” It seems to me that Dickinson is trying to truly represent the depths of despair or illness that the speaker in the poem is experiencing.

    On the other hand, Whitman’s “Answer” does not acknowledge this despair, but rather the responsibility an individual ought to feel toward “the powerful play,” and that it is a privilege that an individual may “contribute a verse”; I found this to be very belittling to the emotions of a struggling individual. That being said, mental health was very misunderstood at this time, so perhaps this was the best solution Whitman could offer at the time.

  3. The reason why Whitman has an “Answer” might be because he wrote deliberately for a large audience, while Dickinson wrote largely for herself. Though it is, for sure, problematic to imply that depression has an answer that can be described in two lines, I think that Whitman’s advice at the end of poem could be helpful to readers with depression. From my understanding, Whitman seems to tell us that existence itself is the reason for being and that therefore, we have identity in this life. In other words, in whatever direction our lives go, we are the only one who have identity for our own lives; no one else can change our lives. To Whitman, the fact that we play all of our parts and contribute our lines is enough. When Whitman’s answer is interpreted this way, I think that it could be served as a helpful and encouraging message for Whitman’s readers with depression. However, as Dickinson suggests, depression is not something that can be solved with a single answer. Illness should never be defined with a single answer, or a single word.

  4. Whitman’s “Answer” neither acknowledges misery and was written to be published and read by large audience. This means he wouldn’t write something that would make him seem vulnerable, it wasn’t his style. While the ending of the poem does have advice for those who are suffering from depression, the message can easily be lost.

    Dickinson’s poem was way more vulnerable, most likely due to the fact that she was never going to publish them. Her poem suggests that depression cannot be cured through a simple answer, which I definitely agree with. Unlike Whitman, she knows that illnesses of the mental variety cannot be summed up by one word or one symptom. nor can the way to fix it can be summed up by one answer.

  5. Although I agree with you Bailey, that in Dickinson’s poem, the brain is viewed as the antagonist, or the speaker’s own personal worst enemy that they cannot escape from no matter how hard they try, which is evident in this following lines from Dickinson’s poem that you have mentioned, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted” : “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
    One need not be a House—The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
    Material Place—”, and “Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
    Should startle most— Assassin hid in our Apartment Be Horror’s least. The Body—borrows a Revolver— He bolts the Door—
    O’erlooking a superior spectre— Or More—”. Especially for me, the ending of Dickinson’s poem is both eerie and ambiguous because it leads me to wonder that the speaker is under attack from their own mind, both literally and metaphorically and is scared that perhaps the speaker has no control over their mental faculties. I would also have to agree with Rhonda that the speaker is her own worst enemy, and her “jailor”, because she was reclusive, as we have learned from her biography, and had very limited contact except with a select family and friends, and thus perhaps she was battling and struggling with mental illness.

  6. Interestingly enough, I actually view Whitman as the emotional one, especially when it comes to the topic of death. I guess it’s just how I read the tone and word usage of their poems. I feel like Whitman usually uses emotional words (whether positive or negative) more often than Dickinson. If anything I would at least say that Whitman comes across as more dramatic at times. Especially in his use of “O” like the poem you provided for us here.

  7. Of the two poems presented here, I would have to say that “One need not be a chamber to be haunted” describes depression the most effectively. This is because I read it as implying that depression affects people on a subconscious level, adding a subtle layer of honesty to the overall piece: “The Brain has Corridors–surpassing Material Place–”

    “O Me! O Life!” was the more uplifting response to depression out of the two, as its “Answer” lets people with depression know there is still time for them to turn their lives around for the better. They can recover from whatever it is that drove them to this state, by remembering the sources of good in their life that are still there, and will continue to be: “That you are here – that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

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