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Walt Whitman, Poet of a Contradictory America


Perhaps the physicians had by then had enough of the poetical gentleman handing out sweets and kissing their patients. (He would soon lose his government job for writing supposedly obscene poetry.) Or perhaps they feared that a man so adhesive — though by now he seemed more porous — might become another of their casualties. In any case, once sent back to Brooklyn, he started readying what he’d been writing during his hospital years for publication under the title “Drum-Taps”: 53 poems about war and sacrifice and death.

It is with “Drum-Taps,” published in May 1865, that Whitman becomes most recognizably Whitmanesque. His all-stretching vision at last feels fully fitting, congruent with the scope of the tragedy he recounts. He has seen something big enough to warrant his extravagance. That extravagance is kept in check by his technical control, evident even in the new work’s first stanza, in which long taut lines, pushing back from the frontier of prose, are relieved by percussive and alliterative effects that poke up from the horizon like mountaintops:

First O songs for a prelude,
Lightly strike on the stretch’d tympanum pride and joy in my city,
How she led the rest to arms, how she gave the cue,
How at once with lithe limbs unwaiting a moment she sprang,
(O superb! O Manhattan, my own, my peerless!
O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O truer than steel!)
How you sprang — how you threw off the costumes of peace with indifferent hand,
How your soft opera-music changed, and the drum and fife were heard in their stead,
How you led to the war, (that shall serve for our prelude, songs of soldiers,)
How Manhattan drum-taps led.

Here is the classic Whitman flamboyance: the clash of short words, the awed interjections, the tender and martial — opera and soldier-song — sung together. Here, too, is his distinctively modern way of opening poems to everyone, even grammatically, in just a few lines deploying first person (“my city”), second person (“you sprang”) and third person (“she led”) as if organizing a parade. How different he sounds from his contemporaries, even American ones, except for Emily Dickinson, whose similarly pioneering and proto-queer work would not become widely known until after her death in 1886. Gone in Whitman are the clomp of pentameter, the winking rhymes. Instead, he perfects what would later be called free verse, in which utterances find their natural shape, not the shape imposed by Europe, in just the way he supposes his country will.

But the bigger change is one of perspective: While owning that he is the recorder of the scenes being described, he embraces the rest of the world without fighting it for dominance. This is the characteristic note of empathy, which Whitman retains no matter how high he ascends. He seems to float above the landscape at just the right altitude to take in its overall contours while maintaining his connection to each person in it.

This, as well as grief, is what first invited Americans to see Whitman as their national poet, and what still catches our breath and stops our hearts today. The country, needing a way to understand its losses, found solace in his steady, long view. His love, too, had steadied, especially in comparison to the “Calamus” series. Though it is, if anything, more intense, his affection for comrades is less philosophical; it is humbler, concrete, sacrificial. In “The Wound-Dresser,” when he comes to soldiers to clean and bandage war’s marks upon them, it is with “hinged knees” and “steady hand” — an acceptance, in his mid-40s, of both maturity and mastery:

I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes — poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

This note is new. If he now consecrates himself to the care, not possession, of those he loves, it is because he has seen what hatred has done to their bodies.

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