Academia – Literature

Dickinson and Romantic Individualism

By Abby Pittman

March 2, 2015

An era following The Enlightenment, the Romantic Period lead to free thought and political liberty; artists and writers sought to break the bonds of 18th-century convention and giving way to a phase of intense individualism and creativity that still appears today; “The term romantic became synonymous with an admirable responsiveness to the promptings of imagination,” (Greenblatt, 11). An overwhelming facet of romanticism is the strong sense of individuality that drives this movement. “The romantic period, the epoch of free enterprise, imperial expansion, and boundless revolutionary hope, was also an epoch of individualism in which philosophers and poets alike put an extraordinarily high estimate on human potentialities,” (Greenblatt, 19). Romantic writers stressed not only their individualism, but also their personal relationship with nature and as well as a life or period of solitude.

With authors such as Emerson and Thoreau, it is easy to comprehend how individualism shaped our nation and this period. However, our singular female voice from this period, Emily Dickinson, exemplifies romantic individuality in the only way possible for a female; “Women in the romantic period were provided only limited schooling, were subjected to a rigid code of sexual behavior, and (especially after marriage) were bereft of legal rights,” (Greenblatt, 9). Her solution to that was to live as a recluse and never get married.

A rebellious and unconventional writer, Dickinson rejects most things that force her to conform and stifle herself, much like the other writers of this time. Her writing style itself is unique, as is her content; her poems question the gender roles that have been provided, and in her personal life she attempts to veer away from these gender roles to live her life on her own terms. Yet this can only be done passively; she chooses to do nothing in order to get her solitude instead of actively pursuing solitude such as Thoreau. It is easy for Thoreau to escape from society as a man, he can easily go out into the woods and build his own cabin, and take that individualistic journey. But Dickinson has to go about it in a completely different way. This style of individualism is impossible for a woman, and she knows it. But she manages to do it on her own. She passively resists the future that has been laid out for her, trading it instead for a life of solitude devoted to her poetry.

Dickinson leads an unconventional life of solitude; she explores individualism possibly in an even more thorough way than Thoreau did. For this is the only way she could keep any kind of power. Is it possible that women who wished to be more than decorations had just one option? To take on an individualistic and reclusive lifestyle that yielded more social power than marriage as Dickinson did? However, this lifestyle was only available to women who came from wealth, whose parents could sustain them. Dickinson is just as much apart of the Romantic Movement as any of the other writers from this period; she demonstrates extreme individualism, a love for natural imagery, and a writing style that broke tradition. However, because she experiences the Romantic Period is such a radically different way than the rest of the male writers, she is also resisting it, and it is reflected in her writing.

Within her writing, she recognizes the struggles that her sex goes through. In poem 347, she alludes to the inevitable burden that all women go through, in both a symbolic and literal way. “I dreaded that first Robin, so, / But He is mastered, now, / I’m some accustomed to Him grown, / He hurts a little, though” (Dickinson, 1200). She explores the burden of a menstruation cycle and what that means for females. She recognizes later in the poem, the consequences of becoming a woman; i.e., attracting male intention. “I dared not meet the Daffodils – / For fear their Yellow Gown / Would pierce me with a fashion / So foreign to my own” (Dickinson, 1200). She uses natural imagery to express fear of a natural aspect of life. These interpretations reflect the literal reading of the poem, however, there is also the symbolic interpretation of the poem. When a girl blossoms in this way, it means she is eligible to be married off, to fulfill her duty to her family and her purpose in life. With this poem Dickinson is not only mourning the loss of their innocence, but of their childhood, while expressing fear of the unknown future. With womanhood comes all of the sets of responsibilities and expectations that must be adhered to, though Dickinson chose not to. Because of this, her poems and writing reflect a different kind of individualism from the males of this movement.

Dickinson never married, though that is not to say she never had lovers, she is thought to have a number of male lovers and possibly even a female lover at one point; “Openly expressive of sexual and romantic longing, her personae reject conventional gender roles,” (1192).  Her lack of husband reinforces that she is partaking in the romantic notion of individualism. Her preference for solitude can be seen in poem number 409; “The Soul selects her own Society – / Then – shuts the Door – / To her divine Majority – / Present no more – ” (Dickinson, 1205). It appears that in her poem, she recognizes that alone, she is divine, and answerable to no one; “Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing – / At her low Gate – / Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling / Opon her Mat – ” (Dickinson, 1205). As a female her rights are limited, and if she stays unmarried, the little rights she does have stay intact.

However, it is not just Dickinson that recognizes the rights gap. Arguably one of America’s greatest poets was Walt Whitman whose poetry was infused with the spirit of democracy, fought for equal rights for all. He attempted to include all people within the sweep of his poetic vision, including women. His goal was to be the poet of the people, “I am of the old and young, of the foolish as much s the wise, / Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, / Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man” (Whitman, 1035). His and Dickinson’s poetry, though both pulling for a more equal world are essentially different; “Whitman generally seems intoxicated by his ability to appropriate nature for his own purposes; Dickinson’s nature is much more resistant to human schemes,” (1191). With the Romantic Period, not only came a sense of individualism, but also an awareness of social issues such as human rights both for women and slaves.

The Romantic Period is a period of great creativity that stresses solitude and individuality, which is demonstrated by some of the greatest American writers to date such as Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Whitman, and more. Emily Dickinson however, was both of this movement and not of it; as a woman, she was unable to experience individuality and solitude the same way the male writers were able to, since she was always forced to rely on a male, whether it be her father, a brother or a husband, she was never able to be independent. This gave her a unique perspective of the Romanticism Movement that greatly exemplifies the struggles of the women of her era while also giving her an even more individualistic perspective since there are very few other women poets during this time. This notion of individuality that started in the romantic period has stayed with the U.S. in modern times, and still effects society today. Though we are conscious of the outside world, we tend to live in our own secluded bubbles that revolve solely around us: pursuing our dreams, and our happiness. So really, the romanticism movement never truly left.

         I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

                        And what I assume you shall assume,

                        For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

                        -Whitman, 1024

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. “Emily Dickinson.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 1189-1219. Print.

Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. “Walt Whitman.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 1005-099. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Romantic Period.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 9th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 3-27. Print.


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