The poet's keen response to these scenes is another key instance of how Whitman binds deep empathy, reflective response, and language as components of his spiritual vision. By the time the Drum-Taps sequence reaches the central poem "The Wound Dresser," Whitman's role has shifted dramatically from recorder to participant. Now he is the old man-nurse, "thread [ing] my way through the hospitals," dressing wounds, comforting, or in the worst cases, asking death to "In mercy come quickly" 4.
Whitman East and West: New Contexts for Reading Walt Whitman
As Gardner has noted, when Whitman presents himself as healer, his mood is "avowedly religious" His focus is on providing support and spiritual comfort by whatever means possible. In "Come Up from the Fields Father" Whitman focuses on the mother's response to the letter bearing news of her son's war injury, her anguished grieving and desire to join her son in death. But just as Whitman has the reader attending to the mother's response, we are more attuned to his response to the mother, the scene, and death as subject.
Similarly, in "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" the reader feels deeply for the wounded "brave boy" whose eyes arrest Whitman before the poet has to move on amidst a battle Returning to find the boy at the end of day, the poet discovers him dead on the field and keeps an all night vigil of silence before carefully wrapping and burying the body. Again it is the remarkable response of the poet to death, in both language and action, that compels and involves the reader.
At the same time Whitman succeeds in connecting civilian readers with the reality of war, Drum-Taps never fully transcends the liminal state of questioning the meaning of suffering and loss. Again and again the poems present a speaker who pauses "in silence" to open himself to possible enlightenment on the entire process of life and death.
On the whole, what Drum-Taps presents is a sensibility learning to process and respond to loss while remaining open to ongoing uncertainties about that process. As he emphatically asserts in "To a Certain Civilian," any reader eager for facile representations of war or pat closure in his songs "will never understand me" For Whitman, there are no limits to the possible future relationship between his nation and his poetry. Drum-Taps is anything but a closed text, or a "lesson" of war.
It is a poetic sequence best read alongside other key Whitman texts dealing with public and personal loss and possible regeneration. The spiritual dimension of these poems is consistent with other moments in Whitman where the reader is invited to adopt the stance of the poet - seeking, questioning, and continuing. Whitman's increased interest in the process of representing loss is the focus of his major work in elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.
While the poem pays homage to the assassinated Lincoln and contains many of the conventional emblems and elements of elegy, within the context of Whitman's treatment of death and its aftermath, the poem's principal focus is on the process of mourning and the impact of death on those left behind, particularly the poet who would respond to the death of a national figure. We see this in the sections detailing the slow, steadyjourney of Lincoln's coffin across the states, the outpouring of response from "the mournful voices" of the populous, and the personal response of the poet 6.
From the outset of the poem, Whitman clearly sees his purpose as one of mourning more thatjust the deceased Lincoln. In the poem's opening section, he establishes that his major emblems of mourning - the lilac, the star, and the bird - are all recurring entities of nature, not finite emblems of loss alone. The cyclical appearance of the spring lilacs and the evening star are not just reminders of the dead, but figures of renewal and hope.
Similarly, the song of the bird, increasingly twined with the song of the poet, as in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," is "death's outlet song of life" 4. In sections 8 and 9, Whitman positions himself as a student of nature, absorbing instructions from the star and bird. The child poet-to-be of "Out of the Cradle" is now more certain of his voice and role, but he continues to seek guidance from the natural world. Lincoln, never mentioned by name in the poem, has now ceased to be the poem's object of focus, if he ever was. After the poet bestows his "sprig of lilac" on the coffin at the end of section 6, the central concern becomes the acts of mourning and recuperation, the nature of the song of loss and the "tally" of both the individual soul of the poet and the collective soul of the nation.
After communing with the star and bird, the poet-speaker shifts attention to his own search for terms of expression: "O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I love? Whereas at the end of Out of the Cradle" the young boy stands poised to begin poetic utterance, in "Lilacs," after the series of questions on how to acknowledge loss, "the breath of my chant" explodes into a catalogue of affirmation, a sweeping panorama of "body and soul - this land" Hence, by mid-way through the poem, the poet's voice has found emotional balance and rhetorical power and command.
Only after appropriately honoring the dead and affirming the power of song to stabilize both poet-speaker and reader, does the deeper probing of death in relation to life take place. At the core of the poem comes the visit of the poet-speaker and his "comrades," the thought of death and knowledge of death, to the bird in the swamp.
The result of the visit is a paean to death, a song of "praise! It is also worth noting that Whitman places the poet's hymn to death in the same italicized typescript as the bird's lesson-song in "Out of the Cradle. But the lines that follow are even more striking, as Whitman confronts the impact of death on the bereaved and strikes a profound note of mature empathy. Although a new way of thinking about life in relation to death, this focus on the response to death is in keeping with Whitman's earlier emphasis on how life and death are mysteriously connected in a cycle that can be better intuited than understood.
Death's "outletsong" spans arange of registers and, like the notes of the bird in both "Cradle" and "Lilacs," is a "varying ever-altering song" The poems comprising the eigh teen-poem cluster Whitman grouped under the tide "Whispers of Heavenly Death" were composed primarily in the late Os following the Civil War.
In many of the poems one gets the sense of the poet regaining his balance after the experience of the war, expressing an attitude toward death more speculative and hopeful, more philosophical but less "ecstatic" than the boy dancing on the shore in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Even in his late work, for Whitman to move toward any dimension lacking the press of fellow humanity, to ask his soul to leave its steadfast companion, the body, is to explore truly foreign terrain.
But as with his earlier epics of psychological struggle and breakthrough, "The Sleepers" and "Cradle," Whitman offers a sudden, almost spontaneous breakthrough into a dimension of freedom and possibility, not a specific locality or even destination, only a state without "ties" or "bounds" where "we burst forth, we float" Again, as in the earlier "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the liquid element represents both freedom and acceptance of the unknown, an ability to feel part of the vastness of time and space without fear of being absorbed or obliterated.
Here, and in the poem that follows, the title poem of the cluster, Whitman begins to lay the groundwork for movement into the realm of death by celebrating the possibilities of the unknown. In the third poem, "Chanting the Square Deific," Whitman addresses what William James termed "the varieties of religious experience" through an acknowledgment of the vastness of concepts of God.
Whitman had made several earlier attempts at this poem, suggesting both the difficulty of the subject and the poet's determination to fully engage it.
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It first appeared in Sequel to Drum-Taps , and Gregory Eiselein has suggested that in initially placing the poem in this collection Whitman sought "a postwar message of reconciliation and religious consolation" In four relatively concise sections, Whitman evokes versions of four types of divinity: the traditional, all-judging God; the compassionate, healing God; the defiant, exiled angel; and the universal, timeless spirit of God.
Each God pronounces his identity and names himself in his own voice, insisting on the various manifestations of his type through the history of religious beliefs. Hence, the God who speaks in section 1 identifies himself as "Jehovah," "Old Brahm," "Saturnius," "the Father," and "brown old Kronos ," old and modern at the same time, "executing righteous judgments" This elder, judging God is both beyond time and of time itself, unforgiving.
The most rhythmic of the four sections, the lines of section 2 are consistently long, swelling in movement, a catalogue of generosity following the actions of a God who, like the persona "Walt Whitman," absorbs and celebrates the world. But in section 3 Whitman strikes his most original concept of faith by including Satan as a necessary fourth "side" in his refashioning of a conventional trinity. Whitman's language in this part of the poem presents an aspect of the spiritual life that is proud and resolute, refusing to be "rule[d]" 3.
Within the context of Whitman's evolving spiritual vision, the notion of an "aloof," "defiant" deity is less revolutionary than it seems. This is the nonconforming, ever-questing spirit that has always been a necessary part of the poet's conception of faith, American democracy, and American character. Whitman's Satan is the vital, energetic, crafty, and creative God inherent in the most complete human soul, as well as the prideful and nonconforming spirit that he envisions as the new American spirit, the dynamic world citizens he posits in "Democratic Vistas" and in poems that celebrate the independent, free-thinking America.
Whitman brings the different sides of human concepts of the divine together in section 4 with "Santa Spirita" or the Holy Spirit, merging the previous Gods into a harmonious entity "beyond" both heaven and hell, "lighter than light" 4. Whitman deviates from the traditional masculine phrasing of the Italian Spirito Santo and Latin Spiritus Sanctus in his naming of the unifying spirit, thereby emphasizing the universality of his vision of deity. In closing the poem, Whitman again returns the focus to the connection between the divine and his own poetic endeavor, having Santa Spirita declare that it is her breath that gives life to "these songs" 4.
All along, language and poetry have been closely tied to the spiritual quest, and even in an attempt at an all-encompassing summation of spiritual conceptions, the poet is unable to disassociate divinity from his own enterprise. The "Whispers" cluster reaches its culmination in one of Whitman's greatest achievements in the short form, "A Noiseless Patient Spider. In the first five lines Whitman offers an observation of the spider's efforts as it launches "filament" after filament into the void, and then in the second half of the poem he turns to directly address his soul, similarly "detached" yet seeking connection.
Again, as with most of the poems in the "Whispers" sequence, it is striking that the poet who found so many connections - with other human beings, physical phenomena, and himself - in the poems of the Os and early Os should at this late stage present himself as solitary and still optimistically seeking connections amidst an unknown and mysterious universe. What has changed is the poet's stance, his attitude toward his endeavor.
More patient, more musing, he is in his late phase less urgent and more persistent in his questing and questioning than in his longer poems of the Os such as "The Sleepers" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. In what is widely considered one of his last major poems, Whitman in "Passage to India" returns to the endeavor undertaken in with "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the attempt to transcend spiritually the boundaries of time and space.
Ostensibly celebrating the scientific and technological achievements of the day, particularly the completion of the North American transcontinental railroad, opening of the Suez Canal, and laying of Atlantic cable, the poem's true concern is akin to that of the earlier poems, how to face confidently the omnipotence of the external universe. Whitman personifies the soul as a questing, journeying entity, carrying on the "questionings" and "feverish explorations" of Adam and Eve and "their myriad progeny after them" 5. Consistent with his earlier emphasis on the role of the poet as amalgamator and uniter, Whitman in "Passage to India" presents the poet as "the true son of God" whose songs can "soothe," "justify," "speak," and "bind" the disparate elements of the material world and the searching spirit 5.
The poem exemplifies Kuebrich's claim that in Whitman, "spiritual experience comes not from avoiding this world but rather through engaging it more fully" 4. David Reynolds has discussed Whitman's ambivalence toward the Gilded Age, his simultaneous wariness of the growth of capitalism and propensity to celebrate technological advance as "allied in its roaring freedom, he thought, to his own poetry" Perhaps this ambivalence is what accounts for the rhetorical and emotional unevenness of the poem.
Early in the poem, Whitman's catalogues of the new commerce of east and west, both in North America and "between Europe and Asia" seems rather forced, lacking the authenticity of the catalogues of workers in the , , and editions of Leaves 3. But when Whitman turns his attention to the journey and achievements of the soul, the poem picks up in intensity and feeling.
Both unifying and transcending time and history, the soul leads man back to "primal thought" and "innocent intuitions" 7. In the poem's seventh section, one of its briefest, Whitman's language suggests circularity, return, and completion, an "early paradise" of regenerative, imaginative fulfillment 7. As in "The Sleepers," it is the imaginative spirit and vision of the poet that brings exploration and seeking to its point of unification and overall well-being. Yet for all his naming of particulars in the poem, both of place and of human achievement, the end-point of the spiritual journey is once again a state afloat, a threshold of not just illumination but further, even "reckless," exploration.
The poem ends with the poet and his soul setting out for "the deep waters" where "mariner has notyet dared to go" 9. Amidstall the profound discoveries and pronouncements running through the major poems of the past two decades, the poet near the end of his life's work refuses to rest in certainty and assurance.
His position remains what it has essentially been from the outset, a lifelong exploration and embrace of uncertainty as the central component of spirituality. Aspiz, Harold. So Long! Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, Asselineau, Roger. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, Bauerlein, Mark. Chari, V.
Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, Eiselein, Gregory. Erkkila, Betsy.
Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, Erkkila, Betsy, and Jay Grossman, eds. Gardner, John F.