Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Drum-Taps" (1865)
Author:
Gutman, Huck
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Drum-Taps" is a sequence of 43 poems about the Civil War, and stands as the finest war poetry written by an American. In these poems Whitman presents, often in innovative ways, his emotional experience of the Civil War. The sequence as a whole traces Whitman's varying responses, from initial excitement (and doubt), to direct observation, to a deep compassionate involvement with the casualties of the armed conflict. The mood of the poems varies dramatically, from excitement to woe, from distant observation to engagement, from belief to resignation. Written ten years after "Song of Myself," these poems are more concerned with history than the self, more aware of the precariousness of America's present and future than of its expansive promise. In "Drum-Taps" Whitman projects himself as a mature poet, directly touched by human suffering, in clear distinction to the ecstatic, naive, electric voice which marked the original edition of Leaves of Grass.

First published as a separate book of 53 poems in 1865, the second edition of Drum-Taps included eighteen more poems (Sequel to Drum-Taps). Later the book was folded into Leaves of Grass as the sequence "Drum-Taps," though many individual poems were rearranged and placed in other sections. By the final version (1881), "Drum-Taps" contained only 43 poems, all but five from Drum-Taps and Sequel. Readers looking for a reliable guide to the diverse issues raised in the sequence would be advised to turn to the fine study by Betsy Erkkila. Interested readers will find the more ironic and contemplative poems of Herman Melville's Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) a remarkable counterpoint to Whitman's poems.

The first eight poems in the sequence express Whitman's exuberance, and his doubts, as America headed into a fratricidal war. Deeply threatened by a divided nation, Whitman insists that the American union should be maintained at all costs. His perspective on the war was very close to that of Abraham Lincoln, who likewise maintained that the central issue in the war was the preservation of the Union. (Most of their contemporaries saw slavery, not the Union, as the war's most pressing issue.) Since Whitman's earlier prose and poetry had explored a parallel between an American political union which was comprised of diverse states, and even more diverse peoples, and the coherence of the poet's own identity, formed of his large and diverse needs and interests, he felt the threat of the nation's dissolution keenly on personal as well as political grounds.

The opening poems of "Drum-Taps" represent a call to arms, a passionate cry to defend the imperiled nation. Most readers find these poems overly rhetorical, though M. Wynn Thomas argues cogently that the long colloquy "Song of the Banner at Daybreak" vividly presents a dialectical opposition between democratic brotherhood and democratic renewal (disturbingly, renewed through violence), an opposition deeply embedded in Whitman's own consciousness. A similar colloquy occurs in "The Centenarian's Story"; a veteran of Washington's campaign recalls for a Civil War volunteer the heroism of war, while simultaneously recollecting, "It sickens me yet, that slaughter!"

Following are four poems unique in Whitman's work, precise word-pictures of men at war which have been variously and oppositely described as imagist, naturalist, subjective, and objective. What is clear and unarguable is the manner in which these four poems exploit a mode of seeing associated with the discovery of photography. They possess the same visual clarity, the same precise focus, found in contemporary photographs of the war, such as those taken by Mathew Brady. Photography was in Whitman's time a novel technology, and the Civil War provided an important opportunity to explore the esthetic and communicative powers of the new medium of film. Whitman's vision is shaped in these four poems by this new art.

The poems describe an army either at march or at rest: at march in "Cavalry Crossing a Ford," at rest as day ends and night descends in "Bivouac on a Mountain Side," marching toward combat in "An Army Corps on the March," sleeping at night as seen by a sleepless soldier who sits beside his campfire in "By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame." Each reveals the lyric beauty of a collective body of men moving or resting. Whitman presents to the reader the immediacy of military experience, the sense of being part of an army and observing it from the midst of a military campaign. Informed by the many letters he received from his brother George during his four years of service in the Union army, by conversations he had with wounded soldiers, and by his own trips to the front lines, the four poems are recreations of the perceptions that would have been available to an ordinary soldier.

The following group of five poems confront, in measured but deeply moving fashion, the injury, death, and suffering occasioned by the Civil War. The first, "Come Up from the Fields Father," is a poem of sentiment, since it draws its emotional power from family tragedy. Recounting the experience of a mother inconsolable when she learns of the injury and death of her son in battle, Whitman uses maternal loss to convey the ineradicable pain occasioned by the violence of war. That the poem is held in critical disfavor by some critics today reveals more about changes in literary sensibility, from sentimentality to ironic distance, than it does about the poem itself.

"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" is an elegiac meditation on the comradeship felt on the battlefield. Whitman always sought the comradeship he celebrated so powerfully in the "Calamus" sequence. The Civil War, despite or perhaps because of its violence, disruption, and widespread suffering, paradoxically allowed him to experience that comradeship on the most profound level. The narrator in "Vigil Strange" reveals his intimate relation with the soldier who dies by his side in battle, and to whose corpse he returns at night. The imagery of the poem ("one touch of your hand to mine O boy . . . son of responding kisses . . . you dearest comrade . . . I faithfully loved you . . . boy of responding kisses") conveys physical love as well as intimacy. The biographer Paul Zweig sees in Whitman's ability to touch and comfort soldiers—Whitman nursed and nurtured over 80,000 injured men in Washington hospitals during the war—an acceptance of the human body and of the profound links between all men. He perceptively points out that prior to the cataclysm of the Civil War and Whitman's active involvement in nursing wounded soldiers, the poet had only been able to prophesy and not experience this comradeship. The critic Joseph Cady sees "Vigil Strange" as Whitman's attempt, in a culture that as yet had no word for "homosexual," to present to readers the physical and emotional tenderness that he recognized existed between men.

An essential companion to reading "Drum-Taps" is Whitman's autobiographical memoir, Specimen Days. The large central portion of that work recounts Whitman's daily experiences and meditations during the Civil War. Consonant with the middle section of "Drum-Taps," it reveals that for the poet the dominating metaphor for the war is a hospital, filled with injured men who must be nursed or, if dying, comforted. Whitman's early enthusiastic response to the war shifted dramatically when his brother George was injured in December 1862 and Whitman went to the front in Virginia to seek him out. From this time forward, Whitman would spend most of his days visiting military hospitals, primarily in the nation's capital, to comfort and nurture the wounded solders, Union and Confederate, who were convalescing there.

"A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown" describes a battlefield hospital. Its narrator takes on the role of nurse, attendant to the sufferings of injured soldiers. Entering a church converted into a hospital, he sees a young man dying of a stomach wound amid a crowd of wounded companions. This is the poetry of witness: although he at first finds the scene "a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made," Whitman proceeds to record this wartime scene and claim it for poetry. "Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o'er the scene fain to absorb it all, / Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead . . . These I resume as I chant, I see again the forms, I smell the odor." As happens in war, the soldiers must move on, and the poet-narrator must leave the hospital. Still, he is aware that, even in extremity, a human bond has been established: "But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile he gives me." Such intimacy is all the poet has to sustain him. Beyond it, in a world of pain and suffering and dying, there is only "darkness, / Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks, / The unknown road still marching." The imperative of life is to continue, even though moving onward must proceed through a darkness that is metaphorical as well as actual.

There is general agreement that "The Wound-Dresser," which Whitman placed at the center of every version of "Drum-Taps," is the thematic center towards which the sequence moves. Questioned by young people long after the war about what the war was like, the old veteran who narrates the poem summarizes not only Whitman's own experience, but the overall structure of the poems in the "Drum-Taps" sequence: "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." The first section of the poem ends with the demand of the young listeners, "what saw you to tell us? / What stays with you latest and deepest?"

In the second section, the old veteran recalls his experiences as a soldier, only to say that they are not what was most memorable. Adopting the pose of the worshiper—this is both humility before suffering, and reverence for the war which provided Whitman what he claimed was the most profound experience of his life—he returns "with hinged knees" to his deepest memory. "Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, / Straight and swift to my wounded I go." The section concludes with the old veteran once again bending his knees, "onward . . . [w]ith hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds."

In the third section, the veteran recalls soldiers, not in their totality but in their individuality, each defined by the specificity of his wound. "Such was the war," Whitman writes in Specimen Days. "It was not a quadrille in a ball-room" (Whitman 779). The veteran understands anewthe courage it took to face the devastation: the loss of limbs, the putrefaction of flesh, the suffering, the presence of death. "I am faithful, I do not give out," the veteran asserts. At the same moment he reveals that although he goes about his rounds with a professional manner, he is deeply moved, "a burning flame" flaring deep within his breast.

Returning through memory to the hospitals, in section 4 the veteran achieves an understanding that such comradeship, providing comfort to one's fellow human beings in need, is the deepest experience that life can offer. "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." The poem concludes with a remarkable parenthesis, one which lends emphasis to those who read the central portion of "Drum-Taps" as testimony to Whitman's discovery in his own life of that love and comradeship—and physical contact with his fellow men—which his poetry always celebrates: "(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested, / Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)." The best commentary on these two lines is Whitman's own description, in Specimen Days, of his experiences in military hospitals: "Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction . . . the most profound lesson of my life. . . . It arous'd and brought out and decided undream'd-of depths of emotion" (Whitman 776).

Little critical attention has been paid to the poems which follow the climactic "The Wound-Dresser," in large part because they eschew the deep conflicts addressed in early poems of "Drum-Taps" and the direct encounter with the war and its victims that the central poems in the sequence take for their subject. "Look Down Fair Moon" recalls the visual glimpses of earlier poems in the sequence, but without their photographic completeness. "The Artilleryman's Vision" is interesting for two opposing reasons. Its recollection of wartime experience as purely experiential, rather than ethical, prefigures modern concerns with the problematic relation between esthetics and warfare, and its nocturnal setting, in which a sleepless narrator is forced to recollect his war-time experience, reveals a recognition of what today is called post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Bibliography 

Cady, Joseph. " Drum-Taps and Male Homosexual Literature." Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Ed. Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Glicksberg, Charles I., ed. Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1933.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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