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In this poem, Whitman reflects back to the days of the American Civil War, echoing sentiments from “Drum Taps” of essential equality between the soldiers of the North and South, and reforming those sentiments into “meanings to the future.”

“While not the past forgetting, To-day, at least, contention sunk entire” — Whitman acknowledges that the conflicts of the past, which divided the North and South, certainly remain at the forefront of the nation’s memory “to-day.” But to what does “to-day” refer? The following lines indicate that “to-day” signifies the end of the war, as Whitman recollects it, when despite the perpetuation of Northern and Southern divisiveness, “contention sunk entire,” the fighting ceased completely, with “peace, brotherhood” taking its place — for “to-day, at least.”

The “sign reciprocal,” or the symbol that mutually applies to the soldiers of the North and South, is what “lay on the graves of all dead soldiers”: “Wreaths of roses and branches of palm.”

Roses, of course, are a timeless symbol of love, but wreaths of roses carried a different symbology in ancient Rome. At public games they were given as prizes, and were worn as crowns upon the heads of heroes. In the same era, roses were also planted in cemeteries, often at the direction of a dead Roman’s will. Clearly, all of these historic symbolisms resonate with the greater context of Whitman’s poem.

The palm branch carries equally significant symbolism. Referring again to the Pre-Christian Roman era, it was a symbol of triumph and victory, given as rewards in public games and in celebration of military successes. In addition, early Christians “used the palm branch to symbolize the victory of the faithful over enemies of the soul, as in the Palm Sunday festival celebrating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.”

Clearly Whitman’s inclusion of these symbols are incredibly apt, as their many meanings all apply to the fallen soldiers he memorializes in this poem. However, he insists that the poem does not merely memorialize, that it is not “for the past alone,” but “for meanings to the future.” Whitman has reiterated what he had to say in his account of the war written decades before, but has reformed it, perhaps in an attempt to polish a clearer legacy of the war to leave for the future that would follow after him.

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While not the past forgetting,
To-day, at least, contention sunk entire peace, brotherhood up-
For sign reciprocal our Northern, Southern hands,
Lay on the graves of all dead soldiers, North or South,
(Nor for the past alone for meanings to the future,)
Wreaths of roses and branches of palm.
Publishd May 30, 1888