Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jessica Pike for October 6th

Filed under: Uncategorized — October 4, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

The first thought that crossed my mind after reading all of “Drum-Taps” was that the Civil War had humbled Walt Whitman. It is difficult for me to imagine the 1855 Whitman and the 1892 Whitman as the same individual. In the 1855 Leaves of Grass Whitman even admits that he is egotistical and writes, “I know perfectly well my own egotism” (76). Yet, when I compare the pre-war Whitman to post-war Whitman, I can see that his all knowing attitude changed from being a confident poet who thought his poetry would save the nation, to a poet that was reflecting on the devastating effects of war.

Yet, at the same time I feel that Whitman has a distinctive voice that is calling out to his readers. Although he no longer has all of the answers, Whitman wants readers to reflect on the change in the nation by turning to his poetry. I came to this conclusion after reading “As I lay with my Head in Your Lap Camerado”. Reading this poem, and comparing it to pre-war Whitman, his first person “I” is still present. Also, through the usage of “you” there is still the personal invocation to the reader. The usage of the word “confession” further indicates that Whitman is trying to maintain a relationship with his readers, because he is able to expose this personal secret.

Yet the speaker is no longer someone that is confident and all knowing. Immediately, just by looking at the title, the image denotes a change in the position that the speaker is placing himself. No longer the “prophet” authority figure; rather, the title suggests a speaker who is weak and is in a position of submission with their head in a lap. But, when examining the end of the poem, I saw a reference to the “pre-war” Whitman, when the speaker admits “I confess I have urged you onward with me.” These lines echoed Whitman’s 1855 “Song of Myself”, when the speaker utters, “Shoulder your duds, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth” (82). However, in this 1855 poem, Whitman saw a journey that had a rewarding result, as opposed to the 1892 Whitman who ends the poem in a disillusioned state and writes, “without the least idea what is our destination”. After being beside death day in and day out, Whitman no longer had all the answers to the journey of life, therefore his poetry reflects his disillusioned nature.

At the same time however, Reynolds reminds us that Whitman saw the war as a “purifying fire”. So, although Whitman witnessed the horrors of war, Whitman must have thought of war as a necessary evil that would eventually strengthen the nation. This is reflected consistently throughout Drum-Taps. I saw this most vividly in the poem “Song of the Banner at Daybreak”. First, this poem is unique because it is one of the first times that there is a distinct recognition of speakers and sections. The poet, pennant, child, and farther are all connected because of the commonalities of war and fighting for freedom. Yet at the same time each speaker brings something different to the poem. The child represents the raw innocence and sees the good in the nation and states, “O father it is alive”. Using the childlike figure in this poem, Whitman is no longer putting himself as an all knowing speaker, yet Whitman uses this child’s words to convey the hope for the future of a united America.


  1. abcwhitman:

    It’s hard to maintain egotism, literally “I”-ism, when your life revolves around serving others. Whitman’s perspective changes from “I” to “you”(plural) during the war. Not that he discontinues using the pronoun “I” in “Drum Taps,” but as you point out in your post he chooses to identify a more pluralistic “I”– a father, a mother, a son, a banner, a centenarian– rather than the suspiciously Whitman-like “I”. Even though I’m a huge fan of egotism, I recognize that a change of perspective is always a vital part of any sort of maturation process, and in this case it’s the maturation of a poetic voice.

  2. meghanedwards:


    I really struggled when I was reading “As I Lay with My Head..” because I agree with you; the speaker is in that submissive position that yields to his comrade, and his tone sounds so defeated against the words of 1855. Yet I can’t help but feel that Whitman is still unyielding here, still hopeful in his words and in his faith of the people. This strikes me as especially true when he remarks that he won’t heed “experience” (perhaps the experience that the pain of war has brought?) and despite the fact that he is uncertain about the future, he “still urge(s).” Perhaps it’s a little bit of both; Whitman is mellowing to a balance between the cocky prophet and the disillusioned veteran.

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