A short response paper for English 358, Modern Poetry, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Hope Howell Hodgkins, written on 26 June 2007 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
The Shrinking God of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson
by Matt Wallace
Walt Whitman in Song of Myself #48 and Emily Dickinson in “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” (632) both challenge traditional conceptions of the Christian God. In the Christian sense, God, as the Creator of all, is the ultimate source and meaning of existence. Accordingly, everything that exists is subordinate to God. Similarly, the soul is a human being’s transcendent essence destined to spend eternity either in the presence of God or separated from Him. Thus, the soul is the true self which is superior to the body which temporarily contains it.
In Song of Myself #48, Whitman challenges traditional Christian views of “God” and “soul” and substitutes a quasi-Hindu view. In Hinduism, the ultimate reality is the Atman, the universal Self. The Atman is not an individual being, but rather the totality of all being; everything that exists, including humans and gods, is a manifestation of the Atman. Through knowledge of one’s true Self, one gains knowledge of the universal Self.
In the first two lines, Whitman creates an equivalence between the soul and the body, and vice versa: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, / And I have said that the body is not more than the soul” (lines 1269-1270). He then dethrones God: “And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is” (line 1271). He emphasizes the ultimate importance of the individual Self: “And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes” (line 1277). In the third stanza, he continues his celebration of the individual Self in the context of a pantheistic notion of God in which God is both all and merely part: “I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least, / Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself” (lines 1281-1282). Thus Whitman undermines traditional Christian religious beliefs about God and the soul by creating equalities between body and soul, Man and God.
Whitman also challenges traditional Christianity by writing in a style which imitates the King James Version of the Bible. Each stanza, regardless of length, is a single sentence, and each line within the stanzas is a self-contained thought similar to a Bible verse. His language also sounds biblical. In the first two lines (lines 1269-1270), he uses parallelism and transposition to emphasize his point. He anaphorically uses “And” to create parallels within the first stanza and uses it to transition to the second stanza much as the Bible would.
In “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” (632), Emily Dickinson challenges the traditional Christian view of “God” by asserting that human consciousness is comparable to God. “The Brain” is not simply the physical organ but a metaphor for human consciousness and understanding. In the first stanza, she declares, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” (line 1) and “The one the other will contain” (line 3). In the second stanza, she declares, “The Brain is deeper than the sea—” (line 5) and “The one the other will absorb” (line 7). The human mind is capable of these things by its ability to comprehend itself, life, the world, and the universe. Given this ability, she concludes, “The Brain is just the weight of God—” (line 9). Notably, she isn’t claiming the superiority of “The Brain” and the thing contrasted, but rather the equality of human consciousness and God. Even so, making this equivalency diminishes the status of God by undermining traditional Christian religious beliefs about God.
Dickinson, like Whitman, also challenges traditional Christianity by writing in a style which imitates a religious form. Her poem has a rhythm similar to a hymn sung from the pews. In their own ways, both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson retain some belief in a God and thus can’t be charged with atheism. Even so, both are religious nonconformists whose view of God is decidedly smaller than the Christian God of their childhoods.