Courtney for 10/6

October 4th, 2009

In class last Tuesday we mentioned a certain part of Memorandum where Whitman sort of casually mentioned that the war was over and then went about accounting on the patients he was seeing and his daily duties and activities.   We talked about how, for Whitman, the war was not yet over.  He was not concerned with the battleground statistics that we learn about in history books.  Whitman’s experience of the war was unique in that he never saw actual battle, but knew perhaps better than anyone what the outcome of it was.  His wartime experiences changed him dramatically as a writer and as a person.  Just as he was less concerned with the fact that the war had officially been deemed “over,” his ideas about his writing and their influence were also shifting.

The fact that Whitman would even ask a question like, “Must I change my triumphant songs?” speaks volumes about his changing perspective.  Where we had once seen a Whitman that was so sure of himself (almost to a point of fault), we begin to see an uneasiness brought on by the terrible experiences of war and the changes that such trauma will bring.  When the smoke cleared and the battle cries finally died out, I get the feeling that Whitman was left wondering if anyone really cared about the majesty in a blade of grass anymore.

Whitman did change his “triumphant songs.”  The diaries that he kept were concise and accurate in a way that deviates from his traditional style in a very obvious way.  These notes and observations went on to become detailed accounts of his experiences.  In much of the post-war poetry, the ambiguity is cut out and replaced with jarring details of war carnage that are almost the exact opposite of his previous ramblings.

I remember reading Song of the Open Road at the beginning of class.  An avid adventurer, I was really inspired by lines like-

I think heroic deed were all conceiv’d in the open air and all free poems also,                                                                                            I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,                                                                                                                                                  I think whoever I shall meet I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,                                                                                       I think whoever I see must be happy.

Later, in Drum Taps, his attitude has changed-

LONG, too long America,                                                                                                                                                                                            Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,                                                                                   But now, ah now, to learn from the crisis of anguish, advancing, grappling with                                                                                  Direst fate and recoiling not,                                                                                                                                                                                      And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are,                                                                           (For who except myself has yet conciev’d what you children en-masse really  are?)

Perhaps Whitman, like America, had grown too complacent on an easy path.  It took the crisis of the Civil War for America to rebuild a stronger and freer union.  Likewise, although Whitman’s poetry was changed after the terrors he experienced, it only became stronger and more balanced.

5 Responses to “Courtney for 10/6”

  1. Avatar of jpike1 jpike1 on October 5, 2009 1:25 pm

    The comparison between Song of the Open Road compared to Whitman’s post-war poetry is such a great example. Whitman was much more optimistic about life’s journey because he had not seen how abruptly someone’s life could end. Like we discussed in class, this realization of the effects of war took a physical toll on Whitman, and he aged considerably during the Civil War years. Therefore, I also saw Drum Taps and his post-war poetry as a more grown up Whitman who had definitely matured emotionally as well.

  2. Avatar of meghanedwards meghanedwards on October 5, 2009 7:03 pm


    I love your point at the end about Whitman growing stronger and more balanced at the end of the war. He had the strength of experience to back his prophecy up, and his empathy is so much more believable–painful even, especially with what we’ve read in class. I also think that “Long, Too Long” is also Whitman’s justification for the war; without the struggle of battle, America has not been able to see what it can withstand. The fact that America is able to re-unify and rise again after such as massacre is only proof of the divine-prophet’s conception.

  3. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle on October 6, 2009 9:40 am

    I think you’re right that we start to see an uneasiness, or doubt, in Whitman’s writing. However, I think the war only strengthened his belief in what he had been saying before the war. He preached love and tolerance more than ever before but started to doubt both how and with how much ease this could be accomplished. The war definitely changed Whitman, both as a poet and a man, quite a lot.

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon on October 6, 2009 11:37 am

    I’m curious about that final line of “Long” you cite, which I marked in my book when reading too– doesn’t it sound like the ghost of our old Walt, claiming for himself a vision of the nation no one else has yet managed? And yet somehow quieted by parentheses…

  5. Avatar of Erin Longbottom Erin Longbottom on October 6, 2009 11:46 am

    “I get the feeling that Whitman was left wondering if anyone really cared about the majesty in a blade of grass anymore.”
    This struck me as both funny and kind of sad. Going from the 1855 Song of Myself to Drum-Taps has created this really intense image in my mind of Whitman becoming rather beaten down by the things going on in his America, almost to the point of hysteria. I also imagine is was quite frustrating for him to read much of the other poetry and writings at the time glorifying the war and celebrating the end, when he knew that it was far from over.
    Also, love your comparison of those stanzas.

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