Paper topic: The problem of personification in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, and William Carlos William’s “Paterson”

For this paper I will be examining the use of personification in selected works from Whitman’s Leaves of grass, along with sections from William Carlos William’s Paterson. I will start by tracing the use of personification as a trope in environmental writing, in our understanding/description of the natural environment. This will lead me through Gerard’s Pastoral as well as some of his other chapters in Ecocriticism. I will also be using Emerson’s “nature” in linking depictions of nature with an Americanism, or novel american expression.

In both Whitman and Williams the use of personification to animate the natural environment, or otherwise imbue it with meaning, is centrally important. This can be connected with the importance of American identity for each author: what does it mean to be American? For William’s as well as Whitman, there is a clear reference to the body politic while at the same time an evaluation of the individual as specifically important. This can be connected with American individualism.

1) What tradition does Whitman’s and William’s use of personification come from, or is it a manifestation of an unconventional mode of expression?

2) How does transcendentalism play a part in each authors works? Where is each author going, and what are they leaving behind?

3) Where does gendering fit into personification, if nature is female is that still allowing it personhood?



11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Your intention of tracing “the use of personification as a trope in environmental writing” is interesting, although I’m not sure that personification itself comprises a trope as much as it is a rhetorical device. You might benefit from fleshing this idea out a little more in your thesis and providing evidence that personification is in fact a trope comparable with the American Pastoral, Ecofeminism etc.

    I also found the use of the word “problem” in your proposal to be interesting. I think you should work to define what the “problem” of personification is before you begin researching, as I didn’t really see it clearly defined in the post. Good luck!

  2. Problems of personification include: the fact that nature isn’t a person, whether or not anthropomorphizing extends moral considerability, if you use personification does it connect too much to conventional methods of expression i.e. classical romantic or otherwise antiquated greco-roman rooted language. I should have clarified.

    also, a trope is the use of figurative language or rhetorical figure of speech. It can be a device…. or it can be a theme. Thanks for the response though

  3. Posted by thelorist on October 27, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    I like that you’re tackling these writers, Whitman in particular. Like you, I was interested in the tradition driving the writing in “Leaves of Grass”, and how it interacted with a somewhat specific American tradition. However, if you’re going to explore the American tradition in “Leaves of Grass”, you could also analyze the traditions that could be at odds within Whitman’s work, for example:

    Q: “Considering Whitman’s poems such as A Song For the Rolling Earth, or These I Singing In Spring, which tend to exalt nature as the great source of symbols, the origin of our wisdom and the unifier / mother figure / etc…Are poems such as Pioneers! O Pioneers! which are heavy with American, pioneering pride, at odds with Whitman’s other, more universally-oriented writings? Or, does Whitman’s unique approach to the American writing tradition agree with his professed respect / awe / fascination toward nature? How does he describe American pioneers as they are interacting with or utilizing nature, such as in Song of the Redwood Tree? Is it proper? Respectful? Disrespectful? etc etc”

  4. Posted by brightgirl04 on October 27, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    For you third question by discussing gender and question through an ecofeminism perspective:
    5. How do Paterson and Whitman question or reject previously held patriarchal ways of thinking?

  5. I have never read William’s work, however, to go off of one of the other comments, Whitman does tend to represent a lot of interconnectedness between people and nature, how does that go against American individualism? Also how does his appreciation of nature work against the American idea of Manifest Destiny?

  6. I think this is going to make for a really interesting paper. I have not read Williams but i found Whitman’s use of personification useful and intriguing. I like your first question and i think it would really help you build on the topic for a really unique paper. You mentioned that animating nature was important for the American identity, so i think another question you could flesh out would be
    4) how exactly animating nature is tied to American identity? Is it because Americans are the only ones to use this technique or are they just more famous for it?

  7. Your focus on personfication is cool, but it might be too scattered in how you’re looking for many corrolaries in Garrard’s work – maybe just focus on one or two. I like question #3 having to do with gender.

    question: How is nature depicted as both male and female, and if so, what are the striking differences in portrayal and expression?

  8. Posted by lcmills on October 28, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Both of the poets you chose have a certain zeal for playful language, so I think examining the way they each symbolize nature will be both interesting and insightful. I would definitely try to limit the scope of what you include from Gerard–too many tropes could spell confusion.

    Two potential questions: How does personification function in the construction of an American identity in these authors’ works? Why is this device effective in Transcendental poetic expression?

  9. Great comments so far! I am really interested in the gender-related questions, but that’s because I’m a gender studies person!

    In tracing the personification of nature in environmental writing, you may also want to consider the usefulness of this rhetorical strategy for environmentalism. So forming that into a question….

    10. Is the personification of nature a useful or problematic rhetorical strategy for contemporary environmentalists looking back at this work? Why or why not?

  10. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Good choice with Whitman, I too am tackling his poetry and am excited to tear this prose up! In your proposal you briefly mentioned how individualism/body politic is treated. I think this would be a great aspect to consider.

    Q11 – What attitudes do the two writers express or prescribe concerning individualistic outlooks/action and societal outlooks/actions. The question is supposed to examine how individuals can/would/should act while seeing if applying this to society as a whole is viable or a terrible idea.

  11. This is an important question because it offers an explanation of why Whitman and William use personification in their discussion of nature?
    Another question: Does the personification of nature make it more real to Whitman’s and William’s readers?

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