• Read the surrounding parts of the excerpts given here about prisoners from the 1855 version of "Song of Myself." In what other ways does the speaker advocate liberation?  Compare the passages on prisoners to the passages about other "problematic" citizens of his United States-- drunkards, prostitutes, corrupt politicians-- and think about how he proposes to integrate them into his utopian vision of the Union. Or: compare the way he discusses liberating prisoners with the way he discusses freeing the runaway slave.
  • Read the whole of "The Sleepers" (in different editions, if you wish). Departing from the two excerpts from the beginning and end of the poem given here, think about what happens in the course of the poem to bring about the change in attitude. Do you read this poem as an internal monologue, or are there other voices and conflicting visions that must be resolved? Is the "resolution," in your reading, a successful one?
  • Read some reviews of Whitman's war poetry, and critique the critics. Refer back to some of the specific poems from Drum-Taps they mention, and establish your own interpretation.
  • Read the postwar poem, "The Singer in the Prison." What is its attitude toward imprisonment and prisoners? In what ways is that attitude more conventional than the ones demonstrated in the earlier poems, and what do you make of the change? Stylistically, how is the interpellated song (the hymn the female singer performs) "like" or "unlike" other Whitman poems? Given that he often referred to Leaves as his "song," do you sense any affinity between Whitman's poetic self and the singer here? What would that suggest about his relationship to his audience?


  • Read the various scholarly assessments provided of "They shut me up in Prose." On what points do these readings differ? Are there disagreements about the most significant meaning of each individual word, or does it seem that each critic is simply putting a different "spin" on it? Can you detect the vision of Dickinson-- the person and the poet-- that the critic is trying to create? Now turn your attention to the poem itself, and particularly to the most ambiguous and problematic parts: what does "still" mean; what roles to "they" and "himself" play; what does "easy as a Star" mean? After creating this reading, is "your Dickinson" different from the critics'?
  • Using the manuscript facsimiles provided, make your own "edition" of one of the poems here. Pay attention to punctuation, and to the stress on individual lines and words. How does Dickinson use the physical space of the page? Does her use of space suggest anything to you about the content of that particular poem?
  • Read the versions of "A prison gets to be a friend." Does the rest of the poem support the little homily with which it begins? What do you make of some of the cryptic references in the middle stanzas-- the "Planks," "plashing in the Pools," the "demurer Circuit," the "Cheek of Liberty"?
  • In "Dying! To be afraid of thee," Dickinson sets up an analogy between stricken soldiers together in a battle and the progress of love. Whitman, too, spoke of fighting and comradely love (Dickinson says "Friend," then "Love"-- an interesting move to discuss in itself) together in his war writings. How do the two treatments differ?


  • Research other, more conventional writers of the period who wrote about captivity (think of the religious aspect as well as concrete historical influences like slavery). How broadly do they encourage us to think about the meaning of liberty and human freedom? Compare to one of the Whitman or Dickinson poems here.
  • Using the bibliography and links provided here, research other poems from the Civil War period from lesser-known writers. Are there common images,  phrases, or stylistic "moves" among these poems? Is the voice of the speaker like or unlike that in a given Whitman or Dickinson poem? Does it claim direct contact with the experiences described, or does it render those experiences abstract-- and if so, why? You might look at the  site on Civil War elegy  for ideas about fitting some of these works into a longer generic tradition.


  • Follow one of the historiographical controversies about the War mentioned here: for instance, the debate over whether Grant was right to end the prisoner exchanges; whether Northern or Southern prison camps were maliciously administered; or the divisive Wirz trial. Think about the way that these events require interpretation as well as the dissemination of factual information, and what passions and values one might bring to such interpretation. How are the interpretive processes we bring to history similar to the process of analyzing the "story" of a writer's life, or the "meaning" of a poem? (You might want to refer to some of the competing critical statements about the Whitman and Dickinson poems provided above.)
  • Research the 20th-century poetry of testimony, which is often impelled by a traumatic experience of war or unjust imprisonment. Where do you "see" the trauma of such large historical events leaving its trace on these writings? In light of later poets, how "modern" do 19th-century texts about the traumas of the Civil War seem?
  • Research prison literature, from Boethius to Malcolm X, and think about how these writers weave the experience of incarceration into their work. Or look at some of the on-line 'zines and other productions of contemporary prisoners. Consider style as well as content: does language become as bare and stripped-down as a jail cell? Or does the imagination become florid, multiplying to fill up the empty space? How does prison concentrate (or break) the speaker or narrator's sense of self?