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
Far safer, of a midnight meeting
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—
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?