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Final Exam: Poetry, Emotion, and Personality


Poetry has long been taken to be a source for conveying the poet’s emotions. It is known that many people turn to poetry composition when they feel overwhelmed with emotion. In this regard, an interesting point is made by T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Artist” (1917) who states “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion: it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. . . . The emotion of art is impersonal.” In this paper, I will turn to the analysis of poems by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to prove the above statement.

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Dickinson’s poem “I CAN wade grief” illustrates this point better than many others. The poet in this work seems to be a remote, detached personality who contemplates her own emotion from a distant corner. Depicting her reaction to grief and joy, Emily Dickinson demonstrates superior skills of self-observation that allows her to escape from worries and upheavals of her personality and watch her emotional reactions with a detached, impersonal eye. In saying that she “CAN wade grief, whole pools of it,” she analyzes her emotions as a psychologist would do. She generalizes her reaction to different instances of grief, which makes it clear that right now she is not experiencing it – she merely talks about a range of her past experiences. The same generalization is obvious in her summarizing her reaction to joy when she says:

… But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,
And I tip–drunken.

The same keen, observant personality is demonstrated in Dickinson’s other work, “After great pain a formal feeling comes.” Once again, the speaker addresses the audience talking about her emotions, narrating the events after the fact when everything has been analyzed and thought about. Dickinson does not appear as person deranged by grief, tossing around in wild emotion, or sitting there with her feelings stupefied. Instead, she has lived through her grief and emerged with an improved understanding of it and human reaction to grief. It makes her conclusions full of deep psychological insight and allows one to generalize them to other people. It is what makes her poetry appealing to many hearts. Her description of grief and human reaction to it seem almost universal: “First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” Her portrayal of the “formal feeling” is also a novel look at what many people experience after their “great pain”:

The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?….
The feet, mechanical, go round….

This description can be considered impersonal in the sense that it does not fit one person, but rather a group of people who share the emotion. It represents a look from the aloof, analyzing one’s posture, movements and other behaviors when grief becomes something to stare at from a distance. The impersonality of the poem makes it a great help to people willing to analyze their responses to overcome grieving.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is also full of astute observations that cannot be taken as signs of immediate emotion. The glorification of the human being comes out as a result of careful analysis and observation, many thoughts that probably occurred to the author over the span of a lifetime.

Although Whitman on the surface sings the song to himself, as the title and reference in the poem suggest, one can hypothesize that he, in fact, embraces the whole of the human race in his descriptions. Thus, it is not only his personality that surfaces in his poem – he determines to demonstrate the brilliance of the human mind and grandeur of the human body. This dedication to the human race is expressed in the opening of the poem where Whitman states:

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

Thus, the reader has to assume that the epic of the human body and soul has as much relationship to him or her as to the author himself.

The analysis of the above poetic creations demonstrates that poets produce memorable work by analyzing and generalizing their experience. To do so, they have to some degree become detached from their own emotions; otherwise, these feelings will get in the way of observations. A poet willing to compose an impressive poem has to step aside from one’s own emotions and analyze them through rational thinking. Escaping from the limitations of one’s personality, a poet can then create a piece of work that will appeal to many people.
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