Rhonda’s Conversation Starter

Immortality: Where Do Whitman & Dickinson Stand?

I am perplexed. Throughout this very short period of time in which we have crammed Whitman and Dickinson into our minds and out our pores, I have concluded that they are very spiritual individuals. However, their spirituality is not of Dickinson’s Holyoke Seminary nor Wordsworth’s nature. As a novice reader of both artists, I have decided that both believe in the sanctity of humanity.

Whitman’s “Salut Au Monde” is a song about humanity to humanity. In this song he writes,

Each of us inevitable,

Each of us limitless-each of with his or her right upon the


Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,

Each of us here as divinely as any is here. (11.33-36)

I believe Whitman is implying that mankind, in of itself, is god-like.  Additionally, it appears in this poem and many of the others that mankind is eternal, immortal, if you will. He alludes to a version of  immortality as he describes the graves in which our bodies return to grass.  He appears to be describing the cycle of life. What do you think? Do you believe that Whitman thinks because of our interconnectedness with one another that we are truly immortal? Do you think that Whitman believes mankind is divine or is he just trying to emphasize our equality? Does his immortality exist as a global consciousness? How is Whitman’s vision of immortality like Dickinson’s?

Dickinson seems to question her belief in immortality. Furthermore, her poems seem to contradict themselves.  On the surface, her poem “Going to Heaven,” reads as a contradiction of itself.

“ Going to Heaven!

I don’t know when-

Pray do not ask me how! (F128B, 1-3)

I’m glad I don’t believe it

For it w’d stop my breath- (F128 B19-20)

Within this poem she seems to believe in immortality for others, but, perhaps, not for herself.  Does she believe this immortality does not exist for her because she was not able to make the confession of faith required by her religion? If she believes this,  does she in fact believe in Christianity? Another poem that seems to address Dickinson’s thoughts on immortality is “ Because I could not stop for death.” Personally,  I think this poem expresses a very dreary immortality. I don’t know about you, but the thought of being in a half-submerged tomb does not seem like an ideal eternity, even if millennia do seem like minutes.  Do you think Dickinson believes in immortality? How are Whitman and Dickinson’s opinions different on the matter?  Are there opinions of immortality directly related to their individual and varying beliefs in the  sanctity of mankind? Or,  does Dickinson believe immortality is not available for her because she does not believe in her sanctity due to an actual belief in the Christianity which she at times says to have denounced? My fellow muses, let us know your thoughts on the matter.




8 Replies to “Rhonda’s Conversation Starter”

  1. Putting together evidence for my essay due tonight and wanting to do the essay on Dickinson and religion just because this topic is so fascinating and there is no certain answer. F1761A “That it will Never Come Again” is one poem I am looking at now to answer your questions, because ED writes “that it will never come again/is what makes life so sweet”. BUT heaven is not a place for growth, it is a place of everlasting happiness, so is that considered life as we have come to understand it? I see life as a time when we grow and learn and make mistakes, and that is not how “life” in heaven is depicted. This interpretation brings me to believe that ED is not closed off from the idea of the Christian God.

  2. I feel as though both Whitman and Dickinson did not know 100% what they believed in, but they believed there was something greater than themselves. As you mentioned, Whitman believed in a sort of cycle of life, and Dickinson felt as though there was probably a God, even if she would never meet him. They were both explorers of thought, and religion plays a big part in that.

  3. This is a very interesting topic to consider. There is no specific answer to what Whitman and Dickinson believed in. However, it seems that both believed that there was something superior than human beings. A significant difference I noticed between the two poets is that Whitman had an emphasis on humanity (the capability of human beings), while Dickinson had an emphasis on the idea of the Christian God (the way she describes heaven explains this). As Christianity sees heaven as a place of everlasting happiness, Dickinson describes heaven as a paradise. Whether everyone, including herself, can reach there is a question that Dickinson leaves for her readers.

  4. Honestly, they both had their doubts on religion, but they knew the future held something great. Whitman believed life was a cycle, that people would continue to live on in some shape or form. Dickinson on the other hand, felt as though heaven were real. However, she never thought she was important enough to meet God or any other religious figure.

  5. I feel like both poets questions the idea of religious and religious belief. What I personally felt with Dickinson is that she felt like religion was a comforting belief that people used, almost like a crutch, but also was something that could be abused. In her poem about the fly, I felt like all the people watching the speaker were using the physical body as a way to get closer to God, they did not care that the speaker was dying, they just wanted to see their God. And with that, I see doubt. I see a questioning on if this “King” is real or just a figment of the imagination. There was another poem, the one about human’s brains and how they are given to us by God, and I felt like this was also questioning where God came from. It felt to me that she was wondering if since the human mind can learn so much and understand so many things, is it powerful enough to create God, to create something divine?

    Now the question of heaven and the afterlife. I think Dickinson mainly believed that there could be something after death, that there was peace maybe afterwards. I’m not sure if it was a religious view of what Heaven would be, or if it was just no struggle and peace for her.

  6. I do believe that both Dickinson and Whitman believed that souls have immortality. I think Whitman was so fond of the human form that he did portray them as godlike within some of his poems. Interestingly enough, I wrote my essay 2 about Dickinson and religion and my essay 3 about both of their views on death and immortality, so your thinking seems to be very aligned with mine! I believe that Dickinson’s trouble with immortality is absolutely rooted in her struggle with Christianity. She was very concerned about making the decision to live for heaven while on earth only to find out too late whether or not it is real. She writes often in believing in immortality, it is the details that she isn’t sure about.

  7. I would have to agree with you Rhonda and Christine, that Dickinson and Whitman placed a significant emphasis and importance on the soul , but perhaps were uncertain as to what the Afterlife, had in store for them. I also would have to argue that I believe Walt Whitman, like in his poem, “Salut Au Monde! believed strongly in the great cosmic “circle of life,” and that the death of our mortal bodies was not the end of our immortal souls, as you have described it Rhonda the ‘cycle of life’ , and that humans are connected to each other, with nature, and with the universe. Furthermore, in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Going to Heaven! Is indeed a poem about the speaker’s contradiction with death, and her desire between wanting to enter the Afterlife, but is uncertain as to weather she is worthy of entering the gates of heaven, but because she was not considered ‘saved’ as we had learned in her biography, this could have lead to Dickinson feeling riddled with guilt, in fearing that she was not one of God’s children. But I strongly believe that like Whitman, Dickinson valuing the sanctity of human life.

  8. I agree, they placed an emphasis on knowing that there was more, but they did not have absolute faith in a concrete philosophy that specified how and why people would die and go to the afterlife. Dickinson reads like she has a bemused relationship with what she thinks about death. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is one where it feels like there is a hint of something serious and ironic when death stopped for her and they rode off into eternity. At least, the horses seemed to be going that way. Whitman mentioned death as part of the rites of passage in his war poems. There wasn’t humor in it, but more of an understanding that life would continue in a cycle.

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