Emily Dickinson – Walt Wittman and Puritanism

Published 15 Feb 2017

Puritanism is a religious movement that was started in England in sixteenth century to initiate reforms in the doctrines and structure of the church. This essay will espouse the Principles of Puritanism and how it established its sway in the sixteenth century and how Walt Whitman in 18th to 19th century defied the conventions of Puritan ideals in his poems and emphasized on the Freedom of Man, physically, morally and spiritually and how Emily Dickinson’s poetry been interpreted as the last breath for New England Puritanism?

Reformation in the sixteenth century gave rise to various organizations in Christendom, emphasizing Protestantism and espousing evangelical principals. These principals lays stress on total depravity of human nature, justification of the sinner by faith alone, free offer of the Gospel to all and plenary inspiration and exclusive authority of the church. During the reign of Elizabeth I, some members of the Established Church of England and the Stuarts proposed that the State Church should get rid of certain ceremonial rituals. These members, comprising a group within the state church, were originally called the Puritans.

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During the revolution of 1640-60, Puritans opposed the theory of the divine rights of the kings and parliamentary authority became a puritan principle. The word Puritan is commonly used to denote strict morality in conduct and anyone that professes severe morality and advocates purity is known as Puritan. The doctrine of Puritanism was expressed in the Cambridge platform in 1646. It included the theological features of Calvinism and the Church polity of congregationalism, which became the major principles of Puritanism. “Puritanism showed that the man is by nature decadent and is not able to exercise free will, God never approves sin, but limits, restrains and overrules it for good. God’s anticipatory grace is available only to the elect, those who are elected and predetermined to be saved preserve in the path of holiness, Man’s hereditary corruption, partially atoned by the Christ leaves scope for the power to attempt to obey God’s will as revealed through the Bible” (Puritanism, Puritanism and Providence, Para. 1-4).

In other words, Universe is centered not on man but on God, and that all man’s energies must be devoted towards God service, and God’s will as reflected in the Bible can never be challenged.

Puritanism with these ideologies created a strong influence on social, political, ethical, and theological ideas of England and America. They were against the ornaments and ritual practices.” The Puritans believed in the hierarchical structure among men as the order from the divine which means mankind has to follow certain traits in the Society that follows certain pattern like first of Family, Secondly Church and Thirdly Common-wealth.” Later between 1819-1892, the Puritanism sunk into deep freeze when Walt Whitman, a poet of Freedom and Democracy shook the American senses and sensibilities towards more liberal approach towards God, life and nature. Walt Whitman brought into his verses the common people and the working class, greeted even the lowest and humblest. He was the poet of Democracy who held even trivial things as grass and a mean human being also in very high esteem. His “Leaves of Grass” is a Bible of democracy reflecting in his every verse and stanzas his immense and spontaneous love for democracy. In this poem the poet introduces himself as “an American; one of the rough cosmos”. The poet transcends his limited physical entity and embraces a multitudinous form and personality that is pervasive like humanity. He only says that, “What I shall assume you shall assume; for every atom belongs to me as Good belongs to you”. Whitman was a benevolent, independent and dauntless man-the true sense of the stars or strips. Emerson’s doctrine of the “infinitude of the private man” cast a profound influence on him. As contradictory to Puritan belief that it is around God alone that whole Universe revolves and Man is decadent, Whitman embarks upon the euphuistic celebration of every aspect of “Self”, when he says, in his poem,

“I celebrate myself and sing myself And what I assume, you shall assume For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.”

He believes that the human soul and the over soul or super soul are integral to each other. Since the over soul is the purest, the human soul also retains its inherent purity. It can steer us clear of all the difficulties, uncertainties, shams and imperfections of the worldly life in the same way as the God can. Man is therefore of an equal status and importance to God. “Self”, thus acquires the supremacy of importance. It is the irrevocable of fusion of the atoms or self that leads to the cosmic creation. Since the universe is the outcome of the coalescence of atoms, the fractions of the “Whole” all is well with it, that is why the poet is compelled to sing,

“Clear and Sweet is my soul” And clear and Sweet is all that is not my soul”.

The doctrine of the Puritans says that only the elected few are lucky enough to get the grace of God yet Whitman treats all the animate and inanimate aspects of the cosmos with equanimity. He believes in the religion of the worship of man as it is, and for this he makes an honest avowal and candid admission when he says; I hear and behold God in every object, Yet understands God not in the least. He defies the conception that human beings spend their life according to certain fixed doctrines or moral codes made by man. Whitman embraces everything that permeates the Universe and what ever is to happen exist or ensue in it. Whitman does not believe in just the physical aspects of the body but also has utter faith in soul. All the aspects of the “Leaves of Grass” itself reflects that poet patronizes the present world and its people, and accepts all the virtues and vices, frivolities and frailties, follies and failings of human kind. The essence of same feeling is felt in the Advaita Vedanta which propagates the idea that the men who apprehends the Brahman, (a Hindu Priest) looses the dualistic outlook of the world and attains a non dualistic outlook. This unified vision of Whitman impels the poet to sing in the praise of the physical as well as the spiritual world. So at one place he celebrates: “Objects gross and unseen soul are one. Whitman belongs to the sect of Quakers who believes that every person feels direct communication with God and it is the inner light that creates greater authority than Biblical scripture . This totally defies all the conventions of Puritanism.

His Contemporary Emily Dickinson is too one of the most quintessential American poet who with her religious tendencies and a new democratic trend too stirred the Puritanism beliefs and Ideologies. Dickinson also believes that the inner capabilities of human beings are much bigger than the role that the Puritan doctrines have allocated for them. Therefore, her poetry is an ardent sense of protest and rebellion.

Dickinson’s protest does not mean that she does not believe in God, but it is her quest for truth and questioning of divine concepts and a logical critique of their heretical doctrine that perpetuates in her writings that give an essence of rebellious feelings.

In her “It always felt to me a wrong / To that Old Moses Done (J 597) Dickinson rejects the divine concept of God itself and believes that God too commits mistakes. This was an open attack on Puritanism for whom God is everything and it is God only who saves man. In the poem Dickinson is very upset about the God’s injustice to Moses. She says:

“It always felt to me a wrong

To that Old Moses done

To let him see Canaan

Without the entering” (1-4)

Here Dickinson totally rejects the God’s wisdom, for she believes that he too commits mistakes. In this way she tries to renounce Puritans who have blind belief in God’s words and actions. It is this ideology of hers too that makes her different from Whitman.

In these stanzas also

“The fault was doubtless Israel s

Myself had banned the Tribes

And Ushered Grand Old Moses

In Pentateuchal Robes

Twas little but titled Him to see

Old Man on Nebo! Late as this

My justice bleed for Thee! (17-24)

Dickinson’s shows the mirror to the Society regarding their blind faith towards the will of God.

She despises the Puritan societal tendencies that make the human beings dependent, submissive, and non-self-reliant and purely believes in individuality and social non-conformity. In her poem, “Bible” she declares that the Bible does not lead a man towards salvation, in this way she straightforwardly declares Bible to be fragile and unsuitable.

“At the suggestion of Holy Spectres

Subjects Bethlehem

Eden the ancient Homestead

Satan the Brigadier

Judas the Great Defaulter

David the Troubadour

Sin a distinguished Precipice

Others must resist

Boys that believe are very lonesome”.

Dickinson with her sarcastic and passive tone goes into the all the details of Bible. She sees the Bible as an antique Volume that was written by faded Men at the suggestion of Holy Spectres. (Moqbel, Emily Dickinson s Textual Rebellion, Chapter 2 Para. 7)

With the help of symbolic and semiotic techniques, she defies the puritan ideologies on Death, eternity and immorality too.

Both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the great poets of their contemporary age. On one hand Emily’s poetry reflects the farthest range of American mind in the trackless regions of spirit and always remembered as the good interpreter of the soul’s relation with eternity, whereas on the other hand Walt Whitman was an American of rough cosmos encompassing self, yourself, myself and all-self.


  1. Answers.Com “Walt Whitman” Internet Available: http://www.answers.com/topic/walt-whitman, May 03, 2007
  2. Moqbel Y.A. Asem, “Emily Dickinson s Textual Rebellion” Internet (February 2005)
  3. “Puritanism” Internet (Last Revised: September 22, 2002)
  4. Sky Minds “The American Renaissance: Walt Whitman” Internet Available: http://www.skyminds.net/lit_us/04_american_renaissance.php, May 03, 2007
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