Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are widely acknowledged as two of America’s foremost nature poets, primarily due to their explorations of natural phenomena as evocative symbols for cultural developments, individual experiences, and poetry itself. Yet for all their metaphorical suggestiveness, Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poems about the natural world neither preclude nor erase nature’s relevance as an actual living environment. In their respective poetic projects, the earth matters both figuratively, as a realm of the imagination, and also as the physical ground that is profoundly affected by human action. This double perspective, and the ways in which it intersects with their formal innovations, points beyond their traditional status as curiously disparate icons of American nature poetry. That both of them not only approach nature as an important subject in its own right, but also address human-nature relationships in ethical terms, invests their work with important environmental overtones.
Dickinson and Whitman developed their environmentally suggestive poetics at roughly the same historical moment, at a time when a major shift was occurring in American culture’s view and understanding of the natural world. Just as they were achieving poetic maturity, the dominant view of wilderness was beginning to shift from obstacle or exploitable resource to an endangered treasure in need of conservation and preservation.
A Place for Humility examines Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poetry in conjunction with this important change in American environmental perception, exploring the links between their poetic projects within the context of developing nineteenth-century environmental thought. Christine Gerhardt argues that each author's poetry participates in this shift in different but related ways, and that their involvement with their culture’s growing environmental sensibilities constitutes an important connection between their disparate poetic projects. There may be few direct links between Dickinson’s “letter to the World” and Whitman’s “language experiment,” but via a web of environmentally-oriented discourses, their poetry engages in a cultural conversation about the natural world and the possibilities and limitations of writing about ita conversation in which their thematic and formal choices meet on a surprising number of levels.
About the Author
Christine Gerhardt is a professor of American Studies at the University of Bamberg. She has published essays on Whitman, Dickinson, and ecocriticism in Profession, The Forum for Modern Language Studies, The Mississippi Quarterly, and The Emily Dickinson Journal. Her research and teaching interests include 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century American literature, environmental literature and literary criticism, American migration poetry, African American literature, and the literature and culture of the American South. She lives in Bamberg, Germany.
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A Place for Humility
Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World
By Christine Gerhardt
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2014 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
"Turns unperceived beneath – our feet"
Dickinson's Frequent Acts of Noticing Small Nature
From her earliest poems about America's most familiar flora and fauna to later philosophical and epistemological meditations that seem to leave all earthly concerns behind, Dickinson's poetic language emerges from an interest in flowers and birds, grasses and insects, and many of her imaginary journeys to the mind's circumference remain grounded in the "Minuter landscape[s]" (Fr964) by which they were inspired. The poet who described herself as "Daisy" and "small, like the Wren," who habitually sent single blooms to friends and relatives and whose letters gave vivid accounts of so many birds, was seldom more passionately involved with the world than when noticing the singularity and immediacy of nature's smallest incarnations.
Dickinson's fascination with the small is among the best-known features of her work, yet one that has been eyed with skepticism. Alfred Habegger, for instance, expressed relief that after 1862, the poet "dropp[ed] her too frequent bees and birds" for "a sublime perspective that utterly changed the scale" (439). While it is true that "bees and birds" figure less prominently in Dickinson's later work, they never vanish completely, as poems such as "Quite Empty, quite at rest" (Fr1632), "Upon his Saddle sprung a Bird" (Fr1663), and "The Jay his Castanet has struck" (Fr1670) inform us. Moreover, Habegger's comment shows what happens when Dickinson's poems are measured against Romanticism's interest in sublime experiences evoked by larger phenomena, a preference many critics share. Several feminist critics, however, have stressed the autonomy and power of Dickinson's small creatures (see Eberwein, Strategies of Limitation 169, 170), thus providing an important foundation for environmental revaluations of her small-nature poetics. In this chapter I argue that placing Dickinson's poems about small organisms in the context of her culture's growing interest in these phenomena further challenges notions about their comparative insignificance. Specifically, I hope to show that her repeated acts of noticing America's supposedly minor flora and fauna resonate as complex eco-ethical gestures whose green implications have much to do with how they talk back to the environmental publications of her time—in their thematic focus, formal and stylistic features, and, especially, through a speaking position that recasts Victorian sentimental conventions as gestures of environmental humility.
Noticing the Small
The following little-discussed poem from 1865, in which the speaker anthropomorphizes worms and a bird to formulate a seemingly simple analogy, exemplifies the ways in which Dickinson responds to her era's emerging concern for nature's small creatures:
Our little Kinsmen – after Rain
In plenty may be seen,
A Pink and Pulpy multitude
The tepid Ground upon.
A needless life, it seemed to me
Until a little Bird
As to a Hospitality
Advanced and breakfasted –
As I of He, so God of Me
I pondered, may have judged,
And left the little Angle Worm
With Modesties enlarged. (Fr932)
In three short stanzas, the spectacle of an unspecified "Pink and Pulpy multitude" becomes recognizable as a particular kind of earthworm, whose name "Angle Worm" not only strengthens the poem's perhaps predictable religious connotations but also denotes a particular species. Considering that zoologists (most notably Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a forerunner of Häckel and Darwin) were only beginning to sort out Linnaeus's initial subdivisions of invertebrates, and classification was slow since many did not regard insects and worms worthy of study, Dickinson's reference to a specific worm without overburdening the poem with scientific terminology echoes this interest in the intricacies of supposedly inferior natural phenomena while keeping a distance from the controlling gestures of biological classification. Moreover, the speaker understands an apparently "tepid," dull spot as teeming with vitality, and what "seemed" to be "a needless life" turns out to have its place in a larger ecological scheme that would now be called a food chain, all of which can be linked to the time's novel interest in the interconnectedness of vegetation, birds, and insects. Marsh's first edition of Man and Nature, for instance, emphasizes that most birds live on insects and worms rather than human crops, and in a short section on the "Utility of Insects and Worms" suggests that these underestimated creatures might be significant and even worth protecting:
Some enthusiastic entomologist will, perhaps, by and by discover that insects and worms are as essential as the larger organisms to the proper working of the great terraqueous machine, and we shall have as eloquent pleas in defence [sic] of the mosquito, and perhaps even of the tzetze-fly, as Toussenel and Michelet have framed in behalf of the bird. (88)
In the 1870 edition of his study, he was more definite on this subject:
But the action of the creeping and swarming things of the earth, though often passed unnoticed, is not without important effects in the general economy of nature. The geographical importance of insects proper, as well as of worms, depends principally on their connection with vegetable life as agents of its fecundation, and of its destruction. (128; emphasis added)
Dickinson's innocuous poem indirectly participates in shifting her culture's attention to "nature's economy" toward the most undervalued species, probing their environmental significance when it was still widely ignored even among naturalists. In this context, some of her stylistic choices—the dash in the first line that links the worm's appearance to rainy weather, and the perplexing first lines of the last stanza, whose reduced syntax and parallel structures result in ambiguous relationships between subject and object and between clauses—also become environmentally meaningful as they highlight nature's multiple and dynamic interrelatedness that may be difficult to discern.
As such, the poem not only talks about but also performs the act of noticing undervalued creatures and emphasizes the change of mind involved in such a shift of perspective, investing conventional concepts of religious revelation and Victorian virtues with fresh ecological meaning. How the speaker considers wriggling worms as her "Kinsmen," how she combines sentimental views of "little" creatures with a quasi-scientific interest in small species whose physiognomy is less cute than stark, and how she implies that inattentive humans are a potentially destructive factor for what lives precariously at their feet, all push the limits of Victorian sensibilities and those of the time's proto-ecological science alike. The poem's apparently plain moral, then (human existence is no more relevant than that of worms, but part of larger webs of significance; the poet depends on seemingly minor elements of her environment for nourishment as the bird does on worms), expressed in a deceptively small format and three seemingly straightforward sentences, involves a number of provocative insights, and culminates in humility as an eco-ethical perspective. The ironic recognition of the empowerment that comes with realized modesty ("with Modesties enlarged") makes the poem ecologically even more intriguing because it addresses the inherently paradoxical character of such an ethical stance. Again, the cultural context highlights such implications. In his late prose piece "Huckleberries" (1862), Thoreau warned precisely of the condescending attitude that may be part of such attention to nature's minutiae: "Many public speakers are accustomed, as I think foolishly, to talk about what they call little things in a patronizing way sometimes, advising, perhaps, that they be not wholly neglected [...] but Pliny said, In minimis Natura praestat—Nature excels in the least things" (468). Where Thoreau's extended essays and public lectures, personal in tone but also learned and often didactic, always struggled with this downside of the new fascination with nature's "little things," Dickinson expresses a similar concern in a short, innocuous poem that itself poses as a "little thing," and whose speaker performs the humble gesture of noticing a minor natural phenomenon with an ironic distance that mocks the grand tone of the enlightened nature lover, thus sidestepping the hubris that always lurks on the other side of humility.
In a number of other poems, Dickinson's speakers similarly perform acts of noticing what is habitually disregarded, combining sentimental and religious perspectives with scientific ways of seeing in ways that talk back to the evolving environmental discourses of the day while also keeping their distance. For instance, her famous "The Spider as an Artist" (Fr1373) is about a defiant act of paying respectful attention to the "Neglected Son of Genius" that is habitually destroyed, charging religious morals ("in a Christian Land"), especially the notion of being the guardian of the weak ("I take thee by the Hand –"), with green overtones without claiming an exhaustive knowledge of the species. Also, the observant speaker in "The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings–" (Fr1408) stresses that this songless, "fallow" animal is worthy of "praise" and that his "Eccentricities" are actually "Beneficent," indirectly alluding to the evolving understanding of the complex relationships in nature's living systems. And in "The Jay his Castanet has struck" (Fr1670), the speaker warns that whoever "ignores" the voice of the bird that signals the coming of Fall "Is impudent to nature," again investing conventional moral considerations with environmental meaning. Other poems, in which the call to notice nature's minutiae is less explicit, include poem Fr1395, which evokes "The Butterfly's Numidian Gown / With spots of Burnish roasted on" as aptly functional "proof against the Sun," so that the exotic butterfly on a clover not only resonates as a symbol of the soul but comes alive as a migrating species. Similarly, the well-known "A Bird came down the Walk" (Fr359) takes minute account of the robin's characteristic movement and physiognomy in a local situation before releasing it by way of a beautifully condensed image of its flight into the sky—not so much dangerously distorting natural truths, as E. Miller Budick claimed (61), but exploring them through a combination of sentimental conventions and natural history information that increases the poem's symbolic and environmental correspondences. And her famous twin hummingbird poems, "Within my Garden, Rides a Bird" (Fr370) and "A Route of Evanescence" (Fr1489), sketch this tiny, elusive bird's physiognomy, movement, and color through its effect not only on the human soul but also on the natural environment. As specific life-forms in their characteristic environments, all of these creatures attain the status of subjects that are worthy of ethical consideration. In such poems, a quasi-scientific interest and formulaic Victorian modesty yield a complex position of environmental humility that starts from the sheer willingness to notice small, even miniscule creatures and culminates in the realization that their life is as inherently valuable as our own. Dickinson's fine eye for relationships among small natural phenomena, and between them and people, echoes her time's evolving scientific, proto-ecological interests, while the poems' shortness and their reliance on just a few physical features and scientific terms also revise the script of contemporaneous science writing that displayed a wealth of details and reveled in the resulting classifications. As such, they point the way toward a stance that today, in the face of a global environmental crisis largely caused by human hubris, is at the heart of many green arguments—the respectful recognition of nature's often overlooked phenomena that is informed by but not limited to the scientific understanding of their complex position in the world and the appreciation of their use value, and that includes the humble awareness of our own limited knowledge. As Edward O. Wilson suggests in his ecological manifesto The Future of Life: "The creature at your feet dismissed as a bug or a weed is a creation in and of itself. It has a name, a million-year history, and a place in the world. [...] The ethical value substantiated by close examination of its biology is that the life forms around us are too old, too complex, and potentially too useful to be carelessly discarded" (131).
* * *
Dickinson's more or less explicit calls to notice the small in nature are reinforced by two characteristics of her oeuvre as a whole: the sheer number of poems that make small natural phenomena their primary subject, and her way of presenting natural history detail—two poetic strategies I discuss in general here before showing how they play out in Dickinson's flower and riddle poems. First, her poetry is so thickly lined with small life-forms that quantity itself becomes a forceful statement. Her four hundred poems on flowers and flower parts—unusual "even for her flower-obsessed period," as Paula Bennett puts it ("Flowers" 116)—together with her many poems about birds, insects, and other creatures that were often not part of the genteel imagination, comprise a passionate gesture of noticing small natural beings that undermines standard notions of their insignificance. In these many poems together, Dickinson urges attention to and indeed childlike astonishment at what received "adult" knowledge degrades to a place of insignificance. Such attentiveness promulgates not only the comprehension of basic ecological processes, but the humbling insight that nothing is too small to merit poetic recognition.
Considering the cultural context helps to see the degree to which the sheer mass of Dickinson's poems about flowers, birds, and bees constitutes an environmentally relevant gesture. Back then, professionals and amateurs became increasingly interested in the vast numbers of small life-forms, amassing data in huge quantities. Thoreau, for example, studied plants by the hundreds, even thousands: "He began collecting, drying, labeling, and classifying botanical specimens until in a period of ten years he was able to locate more than eight hundred of the twelve hundred known species of Middlesex County"; his herbarium contained more than one thousand specimens (Harding, qtd. in Walls, Seeing New Worlds 136). The publications of the time generally stressed that understanding the multitude and diversity of nature's undervalued phenomena was requisite for grasping the complex web of life—a cultural climate to which Dickinson's countless small nature poems seem to respond. While some of these poems are certainly related to a Romantic interest in the ugly or abject, overall they echo and amplify the time's attention to nature's minutiae as valuable in their own right. This also sheds fresh light on their role in Dickinson's work as a whole. Rather than "too frequent," these hundreds of poems can be read as a numerically appropriate response to the unfathomable quantities of small natural phenomena; rather than embarrassing moments in which the poet of the mind's "circumference" lapses back to naïve and limited perspectives, they constitute critical elements of her oeuvre that keep grounding the imagination in the humbling attention to the smallest natural phenomena and insist on their significance as objects worthy of poetic scrutiny.
Second, Dickinson's approach to physiological detail also contributes to the environmental impetus of her poems about flowers, birds, and similar phenomena. It has often been noted that these poems are particularly rich in detail and that this eye for detail is grounded in her familiarity with Victorian painting and the time's decorative arts (Farr, "Dickinson and the Visual Arts"), but critics have so far said little about the proto-ecological literacy such poems are grounded in and convey. In Dickinson's poems, detail matters environmentally because it gives prominence to nature's physical existence as noteworthy in itself, in its actuality and material presence, not just as a route to transcendence.
Excerpted from A Place for Humility by Christine Gerhardt. Copyright © 2014 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I. Noticing Small Worlds,
1. "Turns unperceived beneath – our Feet" Dickinson's Frequent Acts of Noticing Small Nature,
2. "What is the Grass?" Whitman's Originating Moment of Noticing Small Nature,
Part II. Describing Local Lands,
3. "The Acre gives them – Place – / They – Him – Attention" Dickinson's Sparse Description,
4. "With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning" Whitman's Narrative Description,
Part III. Narrating the Regions,
5. "A Field of Stubble, lying sere" Dickinson's Reluctant New England Narratives,
6. "Clearing the ground for broad humanity" Whitman's Affirmative Regional Narratives,
Part IV. Envisioning the Earth,
7. "The Earth and I and One" Dickinson's Vision of Global Dwelling,
8. "What is this earth to our affections?" Whitman's Vision of Cosmic Companionship,