The Civil War Poems of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman. Library of Congress description:...

Walt Whitman, circa 1860. Photo by Mathew Brady. Image via Wikipedia

As an adolescent, America‘s most original poet was best known as the local mall.

I grew up just a few miles from Walt Whitman‘s birthplace on Long Island, but his name was best known for gracing the shopping center across the street.  If that wasn’t grotesque enough, the Walt Whitman Mall has the words of his famous “Song of Myself” painted across the outer walls, as if shoppers would grace their day with fine poetry while they splurge with their Macy’s coupons.

It really was more as an adult that I could really appreciate the power and uniqueness of Whitman’s words, especially apart from the walls of a suburban mall.  Thus, the Neighborhood is celebrating our greatest poet at the anniversary of a pivotal conflict in Whitman’s life.

By 1861, three editions were published of Whitman’s seminal masterpiece Leaves of Grass.  Like the first two editions, the third did not sell well.  American readers were shocked at his unique meter and cadence, his raw, unflinching verse and his often overtly sexual emotions.

When his brother was wounded in 1863, Whitman went to Washington to help in the overcrowded Union military hospitals.  Though he had no military or medical training, the wounded troops were comforted by Whitman’s poems, stories, songs and chores he would dutifully fulfill well past his appointed shift.

Whitman’s experiences in the hospital stayed with him for the rest of his life.  Towards the end of the war, in 1865, Drum-Taps, a collection of wartime poems, was published.  When his “O’ Captain, My Captain!” appeared after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, it made Whitman a celebrity almost overnight.  Ironically, “O’ Captain” is a more traditional poem than Whitman’s other work–which probably helped readers ease into his more fiery verses.

Here is a link to Whitman’s Civil War poems, but attached below are a few of my favorites.

Beat! Beat! Drums!  ~ from Drum-Taps

BEAT! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows-through doors-burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet-no happiness must he have now with
his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering
his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums-so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities-over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers
must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day-no brokers or speculators-would
they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the
judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums-you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums!-blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley-stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid-mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the
hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums-so loud you bugles blow.

The Wound Dresser ~ from Drum-Taps
1.
AN old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge
relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d
myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these
chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally
brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest
remains?

2.

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking
recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and
dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the
rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works-yet lo, like a swift-running river they
fade,
Pass and are gone they fade-I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or
soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well-many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was
content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the
sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up
there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d
again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
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.

3.

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage
away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through
examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life
struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and
blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side
falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so
offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and
pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast
a fire, a burning flame.)

4.

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,

Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and
rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

Ethiopia Saluting the Colours ~ from Drum-Taps 

WHO are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?

(‘Tis while our army lines Carolina’s sands and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia comist to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)

Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought.

No further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban’d head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,
And courtesies to the regiments, the guidons moving by.

What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red and green?
Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?

Of course, we must include the poem that made Whitman an international icon, the poem written in tribute to Abraham Lincoln:

Oh Captain! My Captain!

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up- for you the flag is flung- for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths- for you the shores
a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

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