Wrestling a lost Whitman collection from Leaves of Grass
by Jack Hanson
AS 1864 BLED into 1865 and the inconceivably wounded United States stumbled toward the ultimately disastrous period of Reconstruction, a 46-year-old Walt Whitman was himself in a state of unprecedented crisis. Not surprisingly, family played a significant role in the trouble. In September 1864, Walt’s brother George was captured by the Confederacy. In December, another brother died of tuberculosis (a condition exacerbated by his alcoholism) while the oldest sibling, Jesse, had deteriorated to the point where Walt had him committed to a lunatic asylum. Combine these troubles with Whitman’s aversion to holding down a job, along with a harrowing, ongoing experience as a volunteer nurse in military hospitals, and the darkness that pervades 1865’s Drum-Taps and Sequel—which really ought to be considered a single document, considering their almost simultaneous publication and thematic interdependence—should be no surprise.
And dark these poems are. Even a glance at some of the lines reflecting Whitman’s service in the war reveals a man deeply distressed by what he has seen, not only in the sheer gruesomeness of battle wounds, but in the fracture of a nation to which he has devoted, as a poet and a citizen, his entire spiritual being. Such poems as “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” remind the reader that Whitman saw himself, in his capacity as a poet, as responsible for his nation as much as Virgil was for Rome in his Aeneid, detailing its exalted fate and giving it a unique identity. What pain he must have felt, then, in writing the lines:
Vigil final for you, brave boy, (I could not save you, swift
was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living—I think we
shall surely meet again;)
Till at latest linger of the night, indeed just as the dawn
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over his head,
and carefully under feet;
And there and then, and bathed by the rising sun, my son
in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited;
Ending my vigil strange with that—
Elsewhere the tone verges on anger (unfamiliar territory for the usually magnanimous Whitman), when he considers the politicians responsible for all the carnage:
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, death—what at last
He even anticipates the great WWI poetry of Graves, Owen, Sassoon, and others, in envisioning what we would now call an episode of PTSD in “The Veteran’s Vision”:
While my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars
are over long,
And my head on the pillow rests at home, and the mys-
tic midnight passes,
And through the stillness, through the dark, I hear, just
hear, the breath of my infant,
There in the room, as I wake from sleep, this vision
presses upon me:
The engagement opens there and then, in my busy brain
The skirmishers begin—they crawl cautiously ahead—
I hear the irregular snap! snap!
The poet famous for his optimistic egalitarianism immerses himself in the depths of the war experience, and the poems which result are of extraordinary, not to say devastating power.
THE GENERALLY ACCEPTED opinion of these works is that of a bard temporarily chastened by war, but whose dark inspiration is in some sense purged by a long, sublime elegy for Abraham Lincoln (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”) after which the poet returned to the exuberance of his early work, though wiser for the experience. This, to some, explains why Whitman rejected Drum-Taps as a stand-alone book and chopped up its contents, leaving a substantially condensed version as a section in later editions of the ever-expanding Leaves of Grass. The raison d’être for New York Review Books’ reissue of Drums Taps in its original version, edited and introduced by Lawrence Kramer, is to push back against Whitman’s own self-correction.
But was it really a self-correction that the Good Gray Poet undertook? Were these troubles really sufficient to temper, even momentarily, arguably the most high-spirited poet of nineteenth-century America? Whitman suffered transitory employment and family trouble for his entire life (suffering likely more from the latter than the former), yet he was nevertheless able to produce the first three editions of Leaves of Grass, a famously exuberant book of ground-breaking free verse poetry, which included the rhapsodic “Song of Myself,” his most famous piece. And while war certainly took its toll on Whitman, was he really so naïve in his earlier efforts?
Perhaps the cause for the new-found solemnity is not a deflation of the spirit, but rather the emergence of a more complex poetic landscape in Whitman’s oeuvre that is deeper, more coherent, and even more inclusive than many champions of his work realize.
In this scenario, Whitman’s rearrangement of Drum Taps, and his inclusion of it in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, is no denial of the darkness, but instead an embrace of it as an essential part of his poetic project. Assessing the relation between the subsection and the whole is made clearer by viewing the original publication, when the trauma was raw and its effects as yet unassimilated. This has not been possible since its original publication until now, with the publication of the new edition. But before turning to the full implications of this new edition, it is essential to first consider its origins as well as to address Whitman’s core project, which is most clearly laid out in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855.
“Song of Myself,” the poem that opens Leaves of Grass, encapsulates the essence of Whitman’s poetic gamble. It exudes a willful shamelessness which scandalized most contemporary readers—with notable exceptions, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson—and extends beyond the sociopolitical mores of the time into questions one might regard as fundamental to human thought and self-awareness. He is not at all troubled by confounding an unsympathetic reader:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
And neither is he ready to bow to ostensibly more powerful forces. If he is compelled to face a strong opponent who is unwilling to recognize Whitman’s spiritual capacity, he will meet that opponent’s strength in kind, then exceed it:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Not a bit tamed, indeed, but what is this untranslatability? Surely the author of Democratic Vistas, a fervent believer in the spiritual possibility of America, would not wish to exclude those who do not speak his language, metaphorically or otherwise. But is the speaker “untranslatable” because he is so superior, or does translation not apply when the goal is to encompass, and therefore speak of and to, everyone?
A certain amount of this exuberance is mere willfulness and evokes the pleasure found in self-exultation, but there is also something deeper at play. Harold Bloom, Whitman’s most ardent present-day champion, believes that Whitman represents the new American nation’s final break with European Protestantism, a shift toward a new blending of “Enthusiasm and Gnosticism,” a kind of American religion of communal self-discovery:
Walt Whitman forever will be [the American Religion’s] poet-prophet, who sings only songs of myself. We have now an American Jesus and an American Holy Spirit, and have largely banished Yahweh, except that he marches as Warrior God. Endlessly trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
Make of that what you will (like him or not, Bloom’s own enthusiasm is undeniable), but the longer one stays with Whitman, the more radically the text seems to transform itself from a free-verse exultation of self into an attempt to formulate a distinct spiritual life for the rapidly expanding United States.
The “barbaric yawp” of the “Spontaneous Me” one finds on the surface mutates into an ontological commitment to bringing the body and soul into harmony, then breaking down entirely the division between them. This poetic alchemy is carried out in both political and non-political terms, with long sections devoted to calling out individuals and communities by name, then asserting their unity:
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same
and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant
and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the
limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin
leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier,
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with
fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine,
or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners,
(loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake
hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
The “Song of Myself” pours the self out into the song and together they cover the landscape of a nation on the verge of its emergence as a world-historical force. By this act, the surface attempts to draw the depths upward and into plain view, thus forging a genuinely democratic poetics. An image which neatly sums this up and which Whitman employs throughout his career is that of the soul and the body:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is
We all know where this leveling can lead in crass, political hands, but make no mistake: Whitman’s project is a high metaphysical drama whose success depends entirely on a measured refinement of the poet’s soul as he comes into contact with his nation.
This metaphysical strain carries on through Whitman’s life, with 1892’s so-called “Deathbed Edition” of Leaves of Grass, published only two months before his death, extending some 300-plus pages beyond the original 1855 edition. A good deal of the additional material is comprised of work published separately over the course of Whitman’s life, then significantly pared down or otherwise molded into a shape that would fit the magnum opus, and such is the case with Drum-Taps.
LAWRENCE KRAMER, IN his almost fiery introduction to NYRB’s new edition of Drum-Taps, laments Whitman’s subsuming of the smaller book into the bigger one. Citing the Norton Critical Edition of Leaves, Kramer notes that this editorial process ultimately caused Drum-Taps to lose half of its content. Slightly misleading, however, is his next claim, that “[t]he retained poems do not include the ‘Lilacs’ elegy, which appears with three other, much briefer poems in “Memories of President Lincoln.’” While this is true enough, Kramer fails to mention that “Memories” immediately follows the Drum-Taps cluster, and that the group of three “much briefer poems,” also includes one of Whitman’s most iconic poems, “O Captain! My Captain!” They are not exactly lost in the weeds, never mind the Leaves. Plus, one might cite Kramer’s own concerns regarding the submerging of an important text within a larger group when these enduring homages to the savior of the Union remained within Drum-Taps.
In a moment of greater charity toward the Good Gray Poet’s editorial decisions, Kramer allows that the “overall arc—from martial fervor to regret to regret and mourning—remains intact.” That is not, apparently, enough, since he goes on to conclude:
In some respects, the Leaves version of the original book is a retraction. It is certainly a simpler, less candid, and in some ways less courageous text than the work from which it was hewn. […] The primary aim of the present volume is to undo the damage Whitman did to his own legacy when he dismantled the expanded Drum-Taps.
This condemnation seems to function on two distinct but related assumptions. The first is that of the popular view of Drum-Taps, simply reversed. Kramer does indeed seem to think of the 1865 text as a chastened Whitman, one who no longer possesses the full confidence in the untrammelled progress of America. But this, in his view, seems to be a good thing. Indeed, Drum-Taps, so far as representing a crisis, should be seen as a corrective. Elsewhere in his introduction, Kramer refers admiringly to the apparently journalistic tendency in some of the poems. “Their import,” he writes, “is documentary, not heroic,” the further implication being that such direct reportage is a counterbalance not only to Whitman’s more extravagant works, but to the entire tradition of poetic hero-worship.
But either of these interpretations (i.e., Kramer’s or the popular one) could only be the case if the second assumption holds, which is that the wisdom of sorrow is necessarily superior, or at least equal, to the wisdom of joy. If Drum-Taps is Whitman’s penitence, then it is natural that breaking it apart and incorporating it into the larger Leaves of Grass is a distortion of the former book’s significance. But this seems to overlook the weight of Whitman’s overall project, as well as the tradition of war poetry. Kramer writes that the photographic quality of the Drum-Taps poems abandon the tradition inaugurated by Homer and Virgil, which idolizes warriors and, by implication, ignores the horrors of war. But what of Achilles grieving the loss of Patroclus? Is this not like the “manly love” and subsequent loss which Whitman so often extols as the binding force of the infantry camps? And as for Drum-Taps’ resignation in the aftermath of war, there are striking thematic resemblances to Aeneas carrying the graven images of Trojan gods as he makes his way to found Rome when Whitman writes:
Years of the unperform’d! your horizon rises—I see it
parting away for more august dramas;
I see not America only—I see not only Liberty’s nation,
but other nations preparing
I would submit that Whitman is directly within the tradition inaugurated with the birth of Western Civilization, replete with the same difficult, subtle, yet assured mixture of triumph and uncertainty, hope and despair, light and dark. I certainly do not mean to suggest that the Whitman of the Drum-Taps takes on the same rhetorical task as that of “Song of Myself.” There are indeed moments of doubt, as when he asks:
Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself
Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?
And sullen hymns of defeat?
But there is always the upward lift, sometimes derived from the sheer sensuousness of experience:
The pennant is flying aloft, as she speeds, she speeds so
stately—below, emulous waves press forward,
They surround the Ship, with shining, curving motions,
Other times a more articulate reckoning of the idealist poet with his less than ideal world:
Solid, ironical, rolling orb!
Master of all, and matter of fact!—at last I accept your
Bringing to practical, vulgar tests, of all my ideal dreams,
And of me, as lover and hero.
The characterization of the world as ‘ironical’ suggests that experience (that is, the world as one encounters it both physically and spiritually) will always prove superior to, or at least divergent from, preconceptions, and the only genuine preparation for and response to life is an ever-expanding openness. This would seem to encapsulate a good deal of Whitman’s poetic intention. And while a return to the standalone Drum-Taps aids us in seeing how central a role it plays in the whole of Leaves of Grass (a title of ever-renewing irony), it also reminds us of the enormity of that book’s project, of which these poems are only a part.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.