The Window and the Valve

Literatura estadounidense, S.XIX. La crème de la crème: Trabajo sobre Emily Dickinson y Walt Whitman.

The representation of passions is one of the vital functions of literature. Love and power are omnipresent throughout Western literature. They both have something in common, namely the will of possession. I argue that possession is an obsession both in Whitman and in Dickinson; however, Whitman’s modus operandi is inclusive while Dickinson’s poetic possession is rooted in exclusion. In the title of my paper, the window is symbol of Whitman’s openness while the valve represents Dickinson’s closeness. I will argue that this difference is due to different theories of love and, thus, dissimilar concepts of possession. I would like to analyze this phenomenon through three elements regarding the action of love: scope, discrimination, and intensity.

Whitman’s all-embracing love attempts to expand to the whole of humankind. Its scope knows no limits. “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Whitman 85), he says. Possession in Whitman’s poetry is not unilateral and instrumental, but somewhat based on a cyclical conception with its roots in nature and with reminiscences of Eastern philosophy. “The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife; / And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them, / And such as it is to be of these more or less I am.” (Whitman 40). Reciprocity is based on question and answer; transmission and reception; action and passivity. All humans tend inward to Whitman; he tends outward to them. Although poetry is still inevitably an individual experience, Whitman desires to collectivize his feelings beyond all boundaries.

Whitman is the violator of limits. “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (Whitman 48). The common pattern in his lines is excessiveness. He does not understand passion as a tension between licentiousness and restriction but as a simple explosion of sentiment. His love attempts to expand even to the realm of inanimate objects. The consequence of this phenomenon is what I would like to label as “innocent sacrilege”. He deliberately and without malice trespasses forbidden boundaries. The Bible teaches us that a sacred and magic space exists, as opposed to a profane territory: “And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Whitman infringes these laws, and that is why I argue that he commits a sacrilege. Besides, he attempts, consciously or unconsciously, to homogenize space and replace limits with global sexuality.

Walt Whitman makes no discriminations. “They young fellow drives the express-wagon …. I love him though I do not know him” (Whitman 37). Here love comes before experience, thus loosing its value for the receptor. His message is universal and the beloved shares his condition with everyone. He is no more and no less than anyone is. This is the effect of homogenization. His poetry is a roller, for it reduces humankind to a compact, auto referential, self-loving mass.

Critics and scholars think of Whitman as a democratic poet. However, he is the central figure in the decision-making of his conception of love. In other words, he does not take into consideration the will of people. “The farmboy ploughing in the field feels good at the sound of my voice,” (Whitman 82). Not only does he love the farmboy, but also he assumes the farmboy loves him back. He arrogates the boy’s right of decision. “The young mother and old mother shall comprehend me,” (Whitman 82). In this case, he steals the other’s comprehension. However, the extreme manifestation of this pattern is the following lines, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels …. I myself become the wounded person,” (Whitman 63). He delocalizes pain from its natural space and relocates it in his own body. Real individual pain is unable to reproduce itself; its duplication contradicts the very principles of human feelings. It is one of our ultimate rights, one that no one can take out from us; namely, the right to suffer, Dickinson’s “Right of Frost” (Poem 640).

The scope of Whitman’s potential possession, as I argued before, is immense. This should result in a weakening of its intensity, but it does not. His voice remains in the center of lyrical creation. “A call in the midst of the crowd, / My own voice, orotund sweeping and final.” (Whitman 73) He is not invisible; he is the origin and ending of human flow, the center of his own sexual mystification, the unintended God of a particular metaphysics of love.

The issue of possession in Dickinson is radically different. Her area of poetic action is smaller but more intense. “The Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door—” (Dickinson, Poem 303). She closes the doors that Whitman tries to open; she regulates the flow of emotions through inclusion and exclusion. She uses a metaphor particularly pertinent for my argument: “Then—close the Valves of her attention— / Like Stone—” (Dickinson, Poem 303). Whitman does not know about valves. Dickinson’s opacity is often due to her tendency to obstruct passageways of interpretation. She hides behind the stone.

This creates an altogether obsessive atmosphere, a tension that produces the real poetry where the unutterable finally ends written on the paper. “It has no Future—but itself— / Its Infinite contain / Its past—enlightened to perceive / New Periods—of Pain” (Dickinson, Poem 650). Here pain feedbacks itself; it contains itself. The mere use of the pronoun “itself” demonstrates it. Pain is a convulsed snake trying to bite its own tail. This endogamy results in a concentration of sentiment, power, and self-possession.

Dickinson even conceptualized her views of the artistic activity: “This was a Poet—It is That / Distills amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings—” (Dickinson, Poem 448). Writing is a distillation. Intensity derives from conceptual and intellectual compression. Words are jails each one with an enormous power inside. This might be another reason for the use of capital letters in some of Dickinson’s words.

Although we hardly ever know whom Dickinson is referring to by “You”, we find in her poetry a will to discriminate and isolate her from the rest. The fact that she differentiates several identities is demonstrated by her use of comparatives, even when it is not grammatically correct: “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—” (Dickinson, Poem 754). Another example of isolationism: “So we must meet apart— / You there—I—here— / With just the Door ajar / That Oceans are —and Prayer— / And that White Sustenance— / Despair—” (Dickinson, Poem 640). It is a paradox to see how her coldness, distance and loneliness produce a high level of intimacy and intensity in her lines. What links the writer to the reader is the common experience of pain, the “Right of Frost” (Dickinson, Poem 640), the ocean of solitude that all of us experience in a higher or lower degree.

Although Dickinson epitomizes herself and her relationship with a religious “You”, she is not, like Whitman, the center and origin of possession: “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun— / In Corners—till a Day / The Owner passed—identified— / And carried Me away—” (Dickinson, Poem 754). Who is the owner? Dickinson accepts without remorse that somebody owns her. Sometimes this acceptance even becomes resignation, maybe even a Christian one. However, she is also an active character in her poetry, as one can observe in this anaphor, “Mine—by the Right of the White Election! / Mine—by the Royal Seal! / Mine—by the Sign in the Scarlet prison—” (Dickinson, Poem 528). Here possession is an obsession, but the object of desire is only one, a huge and unbearable one, as opposed to Whitman’s disseminating concept of possession.

In sum, I have reviewed both writers’ conception of possession through their theories of love. I have analyzed how each writer attempts to destroy and preserve the walls of their egos. “I anchor my ship for a little while only,” (Whitman 61), says the democratic poet. He wants no rest. As opposed to that, the use of dash in Dickinson puts possession into brackets, and opens an intellectual forum for reflection and pain. Whitman’s strife for inclusion opens hearts to the grass; Dickinson’s dashes and reclusion close hearts in the sea of their own blood.

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