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This poem is a reminiscence of a reminiscence, a story Whitman claims to have heard in childhood, about the last words of a veteran of the Revolutionary War. With these last words, the veteran recounts the imagery of battle, and demands to have his “war-days” back at the expense of peace for everyone.

By beginning the poem with “Amid these days of order, ease, prosperity,” Whitman intends to contrast the peaceful present with the violent past. The following line, “Amid the current songs of beauty, peace, decorum,” might simply echo the previous line, but “songs” is a word now closely connected to Whitman’s own poetry by this point in Leaves of Grass, and it would seem that “current” signifies the poetry he is currently writing at this point in his life. His description of these “current songs” reveals a much different Whitman than is expressed in his earlier works—at “peace” with death, with a changed perception of “beauty,” and a formerly unknown desire for “decorum.”

Most beguiling is Whitman’s virtual lack of overt judgment about the dying veteran, and one must look to the lines mentioned above, as well as the surrounding poetry in this section in order to find this judgment. There is certainly much description about the veteran’s character—“queer,” “savage,” “spiritualistic”—but these judgments are cast as part of the story Whitman had been told and, therefore, they are not Whitman’s judgments, but the judgments of the original storyteller. Whitman’s only obvious personal judgment about this man and his dying words can be found in the parenthetical, “(likely ‘twill offend you).” One familiar with Whitman’s feelings about war as expressed in much of his poetry would assume that he, too, would be offended by the man’s desire for violence. But now that we’ve established a drastic change in Whitman’s own character expressed by the second line, and considering the poet’s rapid aging and poor health, it becomes possible that the poet could, somewhat, identify with this man. Why else, after all, might he tell the story?

Although the theory above is plausible, the opposite seems far more likely when considering the surrounding poetry in this section. Whitman celebrates death as an evolutionary voyage, as an essential part of life with which he is now at “peace,” and he has accepted the endlessly forward movement of life. Clearly, Whitman finds an old man’s desire to be young again, to resist the natural order of things, “savage,” offensive, undecorous, and– particularly in the case of this veteran, who would wish war upon all people in exchange for the return of his own youth–utterly selfish.

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Amid these days of order, ease, prosperity,
Amid the current songs of beauty, peace, decorum,
I cast a reminiscence (likely twill offend you,
I heard it in my boyhood;) More than a generation since,
A queer old savage man, a fighter under Washington himself,
(Large, brave, cleanly, hot-blooded, no talker, rather spiritual-
Had fought in the ranks fought well had been all through the
Revolutionary war,)
Lay dying sons, daughters, church-deacons, lovingly tending
Sharping their sense, their ears, towards his murmuring, half-
caught words:
Let me return again to my war-days,
To the sights and scenes to forming the line of battle,
To the scouts ahead reconnoitering,
To the cannons, the grim artillery,
To the galloping aids, carrying orders,
To the wounded, the fallen, the heat, the suspense,
The perfume strong, the smoke, the deafening noise;
Away with your life of peace ! your joys of peace!
Give me my old wild battle-life again!