In a 3-page essay, consider two poems on a similar subject. Compare and contrast Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as locomotive enthusiasts (pp. 760-761)....

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, though they lived and wrote in the same era, were two very different types of eccentrics, and these poems, though they both celibrate locomotives, reflect the widely-divergent basic viewpoints and styles each brought to most of their poetry. These differences not only made these poems fine and unique on their own merits, but, in their implications, give the readers clues about the personalities of the poets themselves.

Whitman's expansive ode, addressed directly to the train, is written in the extreme style of an epic love poem, wherein he assigns to the machine, qualities that may reflect his own sexual preoccupations. (Folsom & Price.) Thus, he describes his locomotive as having a wild masculine beauty: "Thy black cylindric body... / Thy ponderous sidebars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides... /Thy great, protruding head-light fix'd in front". He suggests that this locomotive is an extension of the adventurous men who built and have used it: "Type of the modern--- emblem of motion and power--- pulse of the continent", which resists "storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow." This train, perhaps also, like its vigorous builders and engineers, is noisy and "lawless": "Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like and earthquake, rousing all."

Yet, this train also has touches of femininity: "Thy long pale, floating vapor pennnants, tinged with delicate purple.... Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremendous twinkle of thy wheels..." With this softness, there is also stridency, and a hint of harlotry. The sturdy black body is decorated with "golden brass and silvery steel." When the warning bell sounds or rounds a curve surrounded by rocks and curves, the train becomes a "fierce-throated beauty", "trilling and shrieking" its echoes between rocks and mountains. The train's movements even recall those of a hootchie-kootchie dancer of Whitman's era: "Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night."

The cars that are attached to this legendary locomotive are like children of the ambiguous engine: "obedient, merrily following" their "parent." Even so, there is no true domestication of this overwhelming, turbulent, powerful, audacious, rapacious, almost god-like "beast" which could cut through the worst weather: "Launch'd o'er the prairies wide, across the lakes, /To the free skies unpent and strong." In short, Whitman describes the train in the poem as freely, dangerously sexy.

Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, who, unlike Whitman, traveled seldom in her youth, and later became a house-bound recluse, (Kennedy/Gioia) is, seemingly, less emotional about HER train. Yet, in some ways, her poem is more intimate than Whitman's typically sprawling vision. For, while Whitman is marveled at a "conquering behemoth" of sorts, which seems to him to have a mind and spirit of its own, Dickinson, in her spare but vivid phrases (Shackleford), compared the railway train, with which she is familiar, to something else she WAS familiar with until she felt compelled to live as a recluse--- a horse. Indeed, without actually using the phrase that later became popular, Dickinson's train is, for all intents and purposes, an "iron horse." (Oldpoetry.com)

Like horses she had seen, Dickinson, before her seclusion, must also have watched trains from some vantage point near her home, or even outside her window--- indeed, Amherst, in the Berkshires of western Massachussets, is largely hilly terrain. (Amherst.mass.com) The railways were first built near her home in 1853, about 7 years before the great change in her already fairly-isolated life (Oldpoetry.com) Being only in her 20's then, though she was already noted for staying close to home, some waning spirit of adventure and travel might still have tugged at her. Trains, in those days, lacked many safety and comfort features of modern trains, even the kind Whitman wrote of 20 years later; thus a train ride was risky and could certainly be exciting, especially to someone from a rural or suburban area, like Dickinson.

It's obvious that Dickinson WAS familiar with the train's usual route, at least locally. Her iron horse "laps the miles and licks the Valleys up", like a throughbred in a steeplechase. Like a horse, spent with its dash, the train stops to "feed itself"--- a mechanical conveyance ingested fresh coal and other fuel from a tank, without visible human assistance. The train makes a seemingly daring circuit around "a Pile" of local hills--- a descriptive phrase that may suggest how Dickinson actually observed the local topography. An often interesting feature of railways is the fact that they usually cut through back-yards, especially in poorer sections of towns and cities--- "the wrong side of the tracks"; like a proud but curious animal, the light on Dickinson's train "peers" in a "supercilious" manner, into Amherst's slummier section--- the "shanties"--- a haughty invasion of privacy (which SHE would not have endured.).

She is amazed how the train squeezes through a tunnel, pared narrowly "to fit its ribs", though a horse would not make all the noise a train does--- blowing "horrid, hooting stanza" (mainly to warn any possible oncoming train on the same track, or pedestrians heedless enough to use the tunnel as a shortcut.) Then, with a thunderous "neigh", the train on its return hurries down the hill to the "finish line." The locomotive then settles into its "stable", "docile", yet "omnipotent" --- one gets the sense that the train is, and, perhaps like Dickinson herself after her infrequent trips, GRATEFUL to be "home." Of course, one could ALSO also infer pre-Freudian sexual eupehemisms, of a remembered, observed, or IMAGINED sexual experience--- the "hills and valleys" representing the female form, "lapping the miles" of which may be a code for lovemaking, implications of voyeurism, the animalistic noises, the train fitting through the small tunnel (nowadays, considered a sexual image), then rushing to a sudden, triumphant halt.

Thus, it appears that, besides admiring different aspects of the trains, Whitman and Dickinson IDENTIFIED with them to a certain extent. Whitman was, in his prime, a gregarious, popular, well-informed, humane, attractive, alternately famous and infamous figure, who also happened to be homosexual, though, due to the era in which he lived, attempted to make his more passionate poetry gender-neutral (with mixed results that led to the censorship of some of his work.) His magnificent train reflects his own sense of adventure, self-image, sexuality, and wishful thinking.

For, though handsome and vigorous in youth, and living to age 73--- a decent lifespan for his time--- at the time Whitman wrote this poem, he had finally recovered from a stroke, and the balance of his life was spent in declining health. Though he came from a modest background, Walt Whitman made himself, not only "America's Greatest Male Poet", but one of the premier celebrity poets of all time. He was well-traveled, had met many fellow literary lights of his century, was a lover of opera, and had varied careers in teaching, journalism, and even nursing during the Civil War, PLUS supported the growing rights of women--- all of which contributed to his often grandiose, openly emotional, and extroverted verse. (Folsom and Price, Mallis)

Dickinson, on the other hand, was a shy, modestly pretty spinster, raised in a secure but very Puritanical atmosphere, only caught up with current events, especially the Civil War, when they directly affected her family and friends. (Kennedy & Gioia, Am. Poems.com) Otherwise, she was quite immersed in her immediate environment, which grew smaller and smaller, especially as some of her loved ones pre-deceased her or became embroiled in personal scandals (Lewis, Am. Poems.com), and she herself became terminally ill in her early 50's. She was probably still a physical virgin when she died.

However, like Whitman (whose "immoral" work, though contemporary of hers, she was discouraged from reading, even in middle-age), she had a few mostly secret, forbidden romances with unattainable partners. The infatuation considered most influential was with a married minister who encouraged her writing, and her own suggestive love poems were, apparently, addressed to him. After this minister left town, Dickinson always wore white--- which was not only a symbol of purity, but, in some cultures, of mourning. She also became very attached to her sister-in-law, though the kind of florid prose in their correspondence was usually "acceptable" among women in the Victorian era. (Lewis)

Unlike Whitman in his difficult times, Dickinson's disappointments turned her further inward. The Transcendentalist movement had been the literary trend centered in Massachussetts during her youth. Dickinson was almost anti-Transcendentalist. While those like Emerson sought to go beyond the limits of the earthly and mundane in favor of a higher spiritual reality, Dickinson's poems record her efforts to find spirituality in these very elements. (Shackelford) And not even in the ordinary life, say, in the town of Amherst itself, or the lives of her family and friends, but alone, right in her own backyard, or looking out her window, or inside her mind. "I Like to See It Lap the Miles" IS almost extroverted, and kinetic, compared to some of her other poems (though it is not the only poem containing implied sexuality--- or violence.) However, it was written fairly early in her seclusion.

The fact that the "iron horse", whether it represents a vicarious desire for "virtuous" or sexual adventures, DOES come home from its well-defined route, and yet, remains the master or mistress of its domain, perhaps indicates Dickinson's own attitude toward her self-imposed hermitage. It may even express her repressed hopes that her secret lover would return from his own "race with the world", and come home, "Punctual as a Star", to HER "stable".

Having come from a well-off but strict family, Dickinson had the resources, and was permitted, to indulge in her "whims." (Shackelford) This, as some feminist writers point out, WAS somewhat in keeping with Victorian-era expectations of an unwed upper-middle-class woman's role, though, by her choice, this was carried to an extreme, even in the decade following her parents' deaths. (Essays-on-Dickinson.com)

She corresponded with a friendly, forward-thinking male editor, who admired her work, but discouraged her from publishing it, not only because of the subject matter, but because of her peculiar "punctuation". Consequently, she hid most of her poems in small, self-bound booklets, and only 7 were published in her lifetime--- against her wishes, at that. Yet, she still sent some poems to friends, and enjoyed DISCUSSING her writing in correspondence. (Lewis, Am. Poems.com) Ironically, after Dickinson's death, once the extent and richness of her poetry was revealed, this same editor who had "put the brakes" on her ambitions, or "reined her in"--- "iron horse" terminology ! --- joined forces with her family and friends to print and sell the verses once deemed "unpublishable"! (Lewis, Lit. Ch. 29)

Emily Dickinson, whatever religious beliefs and/or mental condition and/or trauma, and/or incredible obstinacy (Lit. Ch. 29) caused her flight from the world, was in as complete control of her circumstances as any woman of her time could have wished to be--- and then some. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, was heavily involved with the world around him, and was even the mainstay of his large, chaotic family--- unlike Dickinson, whom every misfortune seemed to wound too deeply. He worked hard to overcome the effects of his stroke, at about the same age Dickinson was struck with her ultimately fatal ailment, and lived to continue his work, enjoying his celebrity and friends for another 15 years. (Folsom & Price)

There was, of course, nothing Dickinson could have done in 1886 to recover from Bright's disease, but there will always be debate on the extent to which she enjoyed her lack, both of outward symbols of literary accomplishment, and of ordinary human companionship. Dickinson's mode of living was at once, a shield and punishment, while Whitman's APPEARED to be a wild ride that shielded him from nothing, yet only punished him minimally. The public was astonished when it was announced that Whitman did NOT die of any venereal disease, which, they were certain, MUST have afflicted a man of such scandalous reputation! Though Whitman (like Dickinson) never married, and died in the presence of beloved male attendants, his fatal ailment was tuberculosis. (Folsom & Price)

Two locomotives: One, a luxurious, yet powerful vehicle rushing out to meet a magnificent destiny, to visit amazing places, and perhaps, never to return--- Versus a more ordinary one making its lively, but circumscribed circuit, with occasional interesting, but uncomfortable sidetrips, and faithfully returning to its point of origin.... These were the parallel tracks of two nineteenth-century American poets, male and female, each an extreme character, each almost the polar opposite in education, attitude, and experience, each the greatest and best-known in their genres, in a time when poetry not only flourished, but was the firm ground upon which a writer's enduring fame could still stand alone.



References: (book):
Kennedy, X.J., and Gioia, Dana, compilers, authors---- Literature (Eighth Edition), Longman, New York, San Francisco, Boston, etc., 2002, which provided these references:

****Poems: "To a Locomotive in Winter" by Walt Whitman, and "I Like to See It Lap the Miles" by Emily Dickinson, pp. 760-761. All direct quotes from these poems are in italics.
****Also, Chapter 29, "Two CriticaL Casebooks: Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes", by various authors and critics, ED section, pp. 1117-1135.

Costello, Robert, editor, et.al.---- The American Heritage Dictionary (Third Edition) , Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York, 2000 (definitions of Transcendentalism)
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Internet sources (Emily Dickinson):
http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/bldickinson.htm --- "Emily Dickinson: Continuing Enigma" Long biographical article by Jone Johnson Lewis

http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/emilyd/shackfor.htm --- Transcription of 1913 article
about Emily Dickinson by Martha Hale Shackelford

http://essays-on-dickinson.com/about.html --- Unattributed feminist-themed essays on the life and times of Emily Dickinson

http://oldpoetry.com/poetry/4036 ---notes on "I Like to See It Lap the Miles"

http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/emilydickinson/index.shtml#bio --- Unattributed biography
of Emily Dickinson, and a complete roster of her poems

http://www.dickinsonhomestead.org/hist.html --- Official website for the Dickinson Homestead Museum in Amherst, Mass.

http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?45442B7C000C07000F --- Unattributed biography, which does mention a parallel between Dickinson and Whitman. Last updated on Jun 14, 2001.

http://www.amherst.mass info (no specific author or dates)
http://www.mapquest.com (Amherst area map)
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Internet sources (WaltWhitman):
http://www.iath.virginia.edu/whitman/biography/biographymainindex.html ---- Long biographical
article about Walt Whitman by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price (no date)

http://www.liglobal.com/walt/waltbio.html ---- short analysis-biography of Walt Whitman by
George Mallis, Whitman Birthplace association

http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/waltwhitman/ ---- Excerpt from "A Walt Whitman Primer - An Introduction to the Poetry and Word Music of America's Poet of
Hope" by Robert Strassburg.





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