American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Worthy to be forgot / Is my renown

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Whitman read his contemporaries with intermittent enthusiasm, granting them their virtues while insisting on his difference. He had no doubt that his work, not theirs, would belong to the forward drift of time, and this belief, as much as any content, marks Leaves of Grass as an avant-garde project (the very first in American poetry). He conceived of his posterity as a confirmation, and since we do confirm him, it is easy to share in his literary judgments, to read his contemporaries with intermittent enthusiasm, feeling ourselves broad-minded when we grant them their virtues.

Dickinson’s futurity was of another order. Though she had an imagination of posthumous fame, it was not a matter of confirmation for her, of being on the right side of history. Time passed for Dickinson, it did not progress. She was no avant-gardist; she conceived of posterity as a kind of memory, as liable to be forgot as remembered.  Her future was a figure for alterity, not a sequence of triumphs (of “glories strung like beads,” as Whitman had it), and her only anticipation of its actions was a willingness to meet them.

There are many Dickinson texts that take up posterity directly, but the most pertinent from my point of view is about futurity as such. The poem includes two wonderful symmetries. The first stanza incorporates a kind of epanalepsis (a cluster of words that begin and end the same way), “To Come” being a translation of the Latin futuris. The first and last words of the poem as a whole present a more curious reiteration, perhaps closer to inversion than symmetry, at least if I am reading correctly. I believe that the “Him” of the last line is not the one whose fate is being told, but fate’s deliverer, the Future, which, in Dickinson’s account, receives Fate’s telegram and then acts on it (for Dickinson, there can be no unmediated experience, not even of one’s own fate: even here, language intervenes). If I am right, then the poem begins with the Future knowing but silent, yet ends with the Future reading in order to know. Is this a contradiction? Not necessarily. The second knowledge may not be the same as the first; may not be what will happen but when. It is profound, however, at least from the vantage point of poetry, that what remains unspoken becomes act only when written. The unread fate hangs in suspension forever. The ultimate oblivion? Fated to be unread. Dickinson was prepared for this. She tells us so many times:

The Future — never spoke —
Nor will He — like the Dumb —
Reveal by sign — a syllable
Of His Profound To Come —

But when the News be ripe —
Presents it — in the Act —
Forestalling Preparation —
Escape — or Substitute —

Indifference to Him —
The Dower — as the Doom —
His Office — but to execute
Fate’s — Telegram — to Him —

When writing about this poem before, I’ve emphasized the word “Substitute” (for its Civil War connotations: the poem was written in 1863). But in thinking about Dickinson vis- à-vis futurity, the more revealing word, I think, is “Telegram.” The modernism of that word is acute, as acute as anything in Whitman, and yet, for all that it contributes to the poem, incidental. Yes, the Future has new tools at its disposal. But do these alter the nature of its “Office” even one bit? The future executes! Does it really make a difference how the verdict is delivered?

Photo by Farahad Dastoor

Photo by Farahad Dastoor

Dickinson’s indifference to avant-garde self-justification — which is not at all the same thing as indifference to the future — makes her ambitions more opaque to us than those of Whitman, though this has not kept us from fitting her into avant-garde narratives. But even more opaque to us than Dickinson’s futurity is her relationship to her contemporaries. Whitman’s taste is easy for us to share. With Dickinson, we find ourselves disconcerted. We feel so attuned to her, how could she be so attuned to what repels us?

I will have more to say about Dickinson’s taste at another time. What these loosely knotted thoughts mean to hold together are a series of inferences: that “the age of Whitman and Dickinson” means one thing from a Whitmanian perspective and another from a Dickinsonian; that linking these two names together, however natural it may seem today,  is liable to obscure as much as it reveals; that every act of historical imagination implies a particular relationship to the future. —


Written by Ben Friedlander

January 13, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Dickinson, poetics, Whitman

Tagged with ,

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