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  • Sam P. for Oct. 6

                If Whitman’s 1850s poems (even in their final “Deathbed” form) are characterized by a prevailing inclusiveness, an impulse to fold many voices and outlooks into a celebration of “the procreant urge of the world” (28), his post-Civil War Drum-Taps signifies instead an overriding drive to weed out irrelevancies in the name of war, and a concomitant mutation of that “procreant urge” into an embrace of America’s ineluctable bloodthirstiness.  In his persona’s most strident exhortations to take up the rifle and meet the enemy, Whitman deliberately excludes whatever he finds domestic, feminine or weak from the battle cry, paradoxically separating a war that concerns the fate of the entire nation into its own sphere of experience, unreachable to those outside it.  When read in a shared context with earlier works like “Song of Myself,” the Drum-Taps poems reveal an ironic undercurrent by which Whitman argues that, despite the sexy robustness of armies full of sweaty young men, the war’s need to shut out particular realms of American life, to figuratively amputate non-fighting limbs from the national body, makes it a grotesquely unhealthy affair.

                Whitman most often casts this separation in terms of silencing or ignoring those societal elements that most distract from the thrill of uniting to fight and kill.  Near the end of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” the speaker advises the reader to “Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer, / Mind not the old man beseeching the young man, / Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties” (420).  The experience of war, and the swath of Americans privy to it, thus drastically narrows from Whitman’s earlier avowal in “Song of the Open Road” that “Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men, / They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go, / But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great” (306).  Gone from Drum-Taps, then, is the sense that America might be marching toward that “something great” from down “the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before” it (297).  Instead, the country’s young men lurch headlong into something terrible and inescapable, sweeping from view the noncombatants that remind them of the broader world they no longer occupy.

                The poem “To a Certain Civilian” dramatizes this divide even more explicitly, and in terms that deepen the impossibility of understanding Drum-Taps on the same ground as Whitman’s prewar poetry.  In “Civilian,” Whitman insists that he belongs on the soldiers’ side of the American cultural breakage, that “I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to understand—nor am I now; / I have been born of the same that the war was born, / The drum-corps’ rattle is ever to me sweet music” (455).  By defining the soldiers’ experience as isolated from the “timidity” and softness of mothers and children, and then defiantly taking his place alongside those soldiers, postwar Whitman no longer presumes to see widely enough to assure his reader of “the perfect fitness and equanimity of things” (29).  His poetry, as a document of the damage wrought by war, must reveal the degree to which that “equanimity” has shaken loose, even at the cost of alienating him from the sublime interconnectivity that otherwise pervades his work.

    7 Responses to “Sam P. for Oct. 6”

    1. Brady Earnhart says:

      Fascinating idea that in his war poems Whitman becomes for the first time “exclusive.”

    2. tallersam says:

      Perhaps the Whitman of the Civil War cast aside the sweeping, albeit abstract and general, inclusiveness of his earlier poems in favor of the immediate, pressing ‘calamus’ love that he found among the soldiers of the Civil War.
      The soldiers of the war are perfect examples of the “weed[ing] out irrelevancies” that you see Whitman as doing. Yes, it is unhealthy for them to have such a one-sided view of things, as most (if not all) of them recognize, but it is necessary in their immediate circumstances. Perhaps what ultimately separates Whitman from the soldiers is his inability to shift back into that ‘inclusive’ mindset; while most soldiers eagerly ran back home and (re)started their lives, Whitman was still trying to maintain the emotional magic that he discovered in the military hospitals.

    3. Mara Scanlon says:

      But a poem like “The Artilleryman’s Vision”, which is basically about PTSD, no?, shows that war itself excludes the domestic, shuts out the infant’s breath and the wife and the pillow, even if the soldier wants to live again in that feminized world. I’m not sure this book really does show any soliders making it successfully back to a pre-war life; we see them parading in martial form after the war, and see news of their deaths reaching those fields and farms and doorframes, but not the men themselves at home except in this very haunting poem.

      OtherSam, part of what interests me about D-T (drum-taps rather than delirium tremens, but who can really differentiate?) is the irregular but unnerving return of the repressed– like the soldier who can still feel that leg even when it’s been cut off, the grieving domestic world refuses to be utterly shut out.

    4. s-words says:

      Yeah, I agree that the “Drum-Taps” poems suggest most nearly the feeling that “war itself excludes the domestic.” By affecting the “war cry” that would hurtle the country into the realities of death and misery, I think, Whitman attempts to “embody the war (spirit),” and thus, in the context of his open-hearted earlier poetry, show how war closes men off from the American “whole” he otherwise promotes.

    5. Hydrolyze Dude says:

      Whats up! Wonderful concept, but can this actually do the job?

    6. caretaker landscape says:

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    7. Foundation for Defense of Democracies says:

      Foundation for Defense of Democracies…

      The Rosy Armpit of the Internet » Sam P. for Oct. 6…

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