Virginia S. for October 6th

missvirginia on Oct 5th 2009

Whitman’s triumphant, mostly optimistic, and hopeful tone in his earlier work evokes a sort of nostalgic happiness. Celebrating nature, mother earth, and humanity was the “name of the game” with Whitman. He wasn’t all love and happiness, he mentions horrors of life (like the slave passing through his house and how he put salve on the wounds before the slave ran North) but always with a compatible positive note. Mostly, he combatted the mentioned distasteful situations with his positive effort to make whatever was negative better. He wrote with a tone that rang of human rights, that rang of tolerance and love, of trying to find a common denominator in everyone. The unity that he strove to find, and usually was successful in finding, became changed in Drum Taps.

The voice Whitman writes with in “First O Songs for a Prelude” is tearful, regretful, and the unifying thread for the people of which he writes about. Those people are the ones with losses that they face because of the war; the devastation, the absence of loved ones (whether dead, dying, or gone off to fight in the war), the indignation many people felt when thinking about the “enemy”. I think Whitman’s outlook of the Confederates compromised him. He and the “Angel of Marye’s Heights”, Richard Kirkland, had one thing in common; they felt in their heart of hearts that what they were doing was necessary in both aspects: war and helping humanity, humility, and love survive the cruel reality of battle. Despite the judgement they both faced, they both felt empathy for the “enemy”. While Kirkland brought water to Union soldiers on the battlefield, Whitman ,although conservatively, did mention bravery and courage when writing articles about the battles, soldiers, and sights he saw when with the regiments.

Whitman does not need to change his triumphant “songs”. In fact, that would part of his responsibility, since he was/is the self-proclaimed “Bard of America”. He needs to remain encouraging, however, the question that brings is, who should he encourage. If he encourages the South too much, Northerners might turn their back and call him a sympathizer–then his business would fail, and we all know that Whitman always had one eye on his career. If he coldly turned his shoulder on the Confederacy, I find it hard to believe he could live with himself acting that way. His triumphant tone would be for the nation BEFORE the civil war and to try and strive to gain that unification again. Thus, the triumphant tone mainly needs to shift from a triumphant “Life may be hard, but it is good” tone to a “Life is hard, only love and tolerance will get you through it” voice.

Drum Taps is a loving, vigorously working set of poetry that tugs at the heart strings and makes modern audiences question the modern day wars we are “sending our boys off to fight in”. Is there any national figure rooting for them, regardless of whether they support the war on terrorism or not? No, there is no modern day “angel” in Iraq writing home for soldiers who have their arms, hands, shoulders missing because of an IED. The nation(s) of the Civil War were lucky to have Whitman siding with any lonely boy, whether he was from Georgia, had slaves at home, or from Connecticut, and poor as dirt. The triumphant tone mainly needs to shift from a triumphant “Life may be hard, but it is good” tone to a “Life is hard, only love and tolerance will get you through it”.

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7 Responses to “Virginia S. for October 6th”

  1. Part of what it seems like you are getting at here, Virginia, is the fact that perhaps too much focus is being placed on deciding whether Whitman is either for or against war, and how that affects his poetry. I completely agree with that and think that Whitman is for war only in the sense that it displays the American people in action for a cause, that the glory of war is only glorious because it shows people being so devoted to what they believe in that they would give their lives attempting to achieve it. Though, I do not think that the war and Whitman’s stance on it should be the focus of so much of our thinking about his work.

    Your argument that Whitman need not change his “triumphant songs” is a good one as it calls to mind Whitman’s self-proclaimed role as prophet, and his needing to be consistent. As Whitman viewed the war as central to Leaves of Grass, it is interesting to examine “Drum-Taps”, Memoranda, and other writings about the war as being of the same voice though placing emphasis on different things in order to assess a violent and chaotic world. As so many people have pointed out, Whitman is forced to change as the world around him changes, but that does not mean he changes his message. His focus on unification, education, and the natural world remain clear throughout all of his work.

  2. Avatar of jpike1 jpike1 says:

    I agree with the statement that Whitman’s tone changed from a “Life may be hard, but it is good” tone to a “Life is hard, only love and tolerance will get you through it”. I feel that by Whitman witnessing the horrors of the Civil War both as an outsider who was not fighting the war, but as an emotional individual who felt the pain of each soldier as they died in front of him greatly affected his written work. So, the tone of his works was more reflective thoughts that readers could learn from in order to have a truly “united” nation. You also made a good point that Whitman did have a focus towards his readership and career, so if he tried to mention the Northern and Southern soldiers equally and without bias, that gives another aspect to the poetry that was for everyone in the nation. It makes me question if it is a genuine foreclosure of his experiences in Virginia during the Civil War.

  3. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    I appreciate your continued attempts to keep our current wars as a frame, Virginia– as well as your reference to Kirkland, the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

    A word I think we never use for Whitman is realist, and yet it struck me that you are getting at a realist Whitman: war is what it is– what will we do with it? That isn’t the W of early Drum-Taps to me, but the book takes that interesting turn into imagistic descriptive poems of what he sees: cavalry at a river, men bivouacing at night, etc.

  4. Avatar of bmzreece bmzreece says:

    The war clearly had a sobering impact on Whitman’s take on the world with the shift to a sort of realism in portraying every aspect of it [from the still, boring times of waiting and traveling to the bloody aftermath of men on beds with pails full of blood and limbs beside], particularly in his “Memoranda During the War.”

    It’s interesting to note how perfectly Whitman’s employment aligned with his general desire for a unified America: After nursing troops during the war in the hospitals, Whitman’s job for the Attorney General after the war was to interview Confederate soldiers for consideration for Presidential Pardons. Though he was on the side of the North, his job once the war was complete was to help with reunification of the people.

  5. Polprav says:

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  6. Avatar of missvirginia missvirginia says:

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