Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2017

Access Restrictions


Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Folsom, Ed

First Committee Member

Diffley, Kathleen

Second Committee Member

Gidal, Eric

Third Committee Member

Rigal, Laura

Fourth Committee Member

Sunstein, Bonnie


Taking a cue from the occasional reticence of the often-exuberant American Romantic poetics, this project tracks what I call “rhetorics of silence” in verse: those moments where words are declared to be inadequate, impertinent, unavailable, unintelligible or otherwise unsuitable for a task that the poet has proposed. In this respect, the term “silence” functions here as a broad metaphor encompassing a number of meta-linguistic or meta-poetic gestures aimed at highlighting the shortcomings of knowledge and representation.

Whereas earlier critics have noticed these silences in haphazard ways, this project looks toward a systematic account of why and when nineteenth-century poets rely on gestures to the space beyond language. This intervention is especially useful for reading the seminal American poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Because Whitman seems celebratory and Dickinson doleful, it has often been difficult to offer productive readings of the two in tandem. Where Whitman does resemble Dickinson, it is often thought to be in his poems that abandon or despair of his project for a democratic poetics. By contrast, working through the lyric and political verse of the lesser-known poetry of John Rollin Ridge, this project reads visionary and despairing silences as alike rhetorical gestures aimed at highlighting the common humanity of the poet and the reader. “Silence” is therefore an outgrowth of American ideology, albeit one that frequently allows poets to expand and query that ideology in ways that are not possible in the many corresponding but often blither deployments of rhetorical silence in the culture at large.


American poetry, Emily Dickinson, John Rollin Ridge, New Formalism, Silence in poetry, Walt Whitman


vii, 232 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 217-232).


Copyright © 2017 Nick Borchert