Whitman’s “Song of Myself” Playlist

The next track: Pat Benatar’s “Love is a battlefield” – or at least life is in Whitman’s poem “Life.”

EVER the undiscouraged, resolute, struggling soul of man;

(Have former armies fail’d then we send fresh armies—and fresh again;)

Ever the grappled mystery of all earth’s ages old or new;

Ever the eager eyes, hurrahs, the welcome-clapping hands, the loud applause;

Ever the soul dissatisfied, curious, unconvinced at last;

Struggling to-day the same—battling the same.

Just keep going!

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Random Love for Walt

I love “Life”:

Ever the undiscouraged, resolute, struggling soul of man;

(Have former armies fail’d? then we should send fresh armies — and fresh again;)

Ever the grappled mystery of all earth’s ages old or new;

Ever the eager eyes, hurrahs, the welcome-claping hands, the loud applause;

Ever the soul dissatisfied, curious, unconvinced at last;

Struggling to-day the same — battling the same.


There’s always a struggle – but there’s always something new…  “Ever the soul curious”…

Reminds me of that line of Emerson’s…

“If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.”
That’s all. <3 it.

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Tara for Nov 12

When I was doing some research on Drum-Taps, I stumbled upon a few authors who claimed that Drum-Taps was the pivot on which Whitman’s work turned.  One critic claimed that it was the pivot that took Whitman from the physical to the spiritual.

There is a good deal of Whitman’s spirituality in these later poems.  Having previously annotated Eidolons, this is where I can shed some light.

Whitman’s spirituality was heavily influenced by Emmanuel Swedenborg’s philosophy of the ultimate.  Swedenborg believed that every material thing had a spiritual counterpart, or ultimate.  In 18…, Balfour Stewart and P.G. Tait published The Unseen Universe.  This Post-Swedenborgianism book takes Swedenborg’s notion of the ultimate to another level.  Stewart and Tait maintained that everything on earth is duplicated in a spiritual facsimile, and they believed in the ultimate unreality of the physical world and true reality of the spiritual realm.   In doing this, Stewart and Tate dissolve the entire physical and social world into spirit. 

In “Eidolons,” included in the Inscriptions, Whitman creates an ultimate that is ever-revolving – an ever-expanding circle that includes all things past-present-and future. 

We see this same notion in “Continuities”

“Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,

No birth, identity, form — no object of the world.

Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;…”

Undoubtedly, Whitman would find comfort in this belief.  Christianity’s afterlife held nothing for him – since he wanted to be remembered on earth – and cared little about heaven.  In these later poems – even in much of Drum-Taps – there is a consistent mention of being unnamed, forgotten, and alone.  Believing in Swedenborg’s ultimate allows Whitman to console himself in the fact that nothing can be lost… including memory of him and his life’s work. 

Regardless of this belief, however, I think Whitman wanted to be remembered tangibly.  I doubt he was content with being a smokey essence floating endlessly through everything.   

This spiritualism is seen throughout Whitman’s later works.  Just to point a few examples where I recognized it:

In “To-Day and Thee”, the final line, “The heirdom all converged in thee!”, shows this belief – as all of the past converges into today. 

In “You Tides with Ceaseless Swell,” Whitman refers to the “unseen force” as “holding the universe with all its parts as one — as sailing in a ship”. 

(Random interjection: I do wonder if there is any connection with Whitman’s spiritualism and his use of tides.  The tide would be a useful metaphor since it comes and goes, gathering and carrying, always – just as his ultimate (or eidolon).)

In “Going Somewhere” – “we all are onward…speeding slowly/life, life an endless march…/The world, the race, the soul…/All bound as is befitting each”.

I’ll stop here.  I think I’ve belabored his spiritualism enough for one blog. 


Swedenborg information from Reynold’s cultural biography (previously sited on this blog)

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Structured yet Free: The Essence of Whitman’s “Eidòlons”

Thesis: Structured yet free, the form of “Eidólons” mimics, supports, and reinforces its content.

Context – “I MET a seer…”

Emmanuel Swedenborg: – The Seer

  • Swedish scientist turned philosopher
  • Doctrine of Correspondences: Every material thing has a spiritual counterpart, or “ultimate”


  • The Unseen Universe
  • Post-Swedenborgian book – Balfour Stewart & P.G. Tait
  • Everything on earth is duplicated in a spiritual facsimile: Ultimate unreality of the physical world, true reality of the spiritual realm.

Whitman knew of both Swedenborg and of The Unseen Universe – and it is here that we find the basis of Whitman’s spiritual beliefs as outlined in this poem.

What is an Eidolon?

  • Denotation: A phantom, apparition; an ideal
  • Whitman’s Connotation: Swedenborg’s “ulimate”, the spiritual essence of all things


A ballad…

  • Quatrains
  • Incremental Repetition

And not a ballad…

  • No regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern
  • Rather than alternating 4 and 3 stress lines, Whitman’s 1st and 4th lines have similar stress counts, always fewer than the stress counts of the 2nd and 3rd lines


  • Lines create rows
  • “glean eidólons”
  • glean: to gather or pick up ears of corn after the reapers
  • Whitman is gathering eidólons throughout his poem


  • Each quatrain = four layers of strata
  • Entire poem = 21 quatrains
  • Deepest layer of strata: eidólon;
  • Visually mimics Whitman’s belief: eidólons are the final layer of everything.


  • Repeated but altered lines that end each quatrain
  • Whitman uses it to continue to characterize his “eidólons” as he gathers them


  • Contain all life, all space, and all time
  • Everlasting
  • True Realities
  • The entities of entities
  • Fixed, yet unfixed
  • Round, full-orb’d

BUT…Why does Whitman adhere to any form?

Unconventional metrical pattern:

  • Allows the fourth line to be short & concise, thereby illuminating the essence of the poem: eidólons (the final word of every stanza)

Quatrains allow him to:

  • Build Strata
  • Expand a Circle
  • Thus, demonstrate the essence of the “eidólon”

Eidolons as Strata

“Ever the summit and the merge at last, (to surely start again)”

A visual representation of how Whitman builds the eidolons as strata in the poem.
A visual representation of how Whitman builds the eidolons as strata in the poem.

Eidolons as an Expanding Circle

“Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle…”

a visual representation for how Whitman uses his descriptions of eidolons to expand a circle, similarly to the strata
a visual representation for how Whitman uses his descriptions of eidolons to expand a circle, similarly to the strata

Whitman begins small – with himself, “I, you, man, woman” and ends with the infinite future. These and everything in between are what constitute his impression of the spirtual ultimate, eidolons.

“Eidólons” as a Circle

The poem also acts as a circle – as it begins and ends in the same place.

Philosopher & Poet Frame: The Mediators

  • I MET a seer…”
  • “The prophet and the bard

Song Frame: The Medium

  • “Put in thy chants said he…”
  • “Thy very songs not in thy songs…”

The Philosopher and the Poet are the mediators between the physical and the spiritual world – and the medium through which the poet mediates is the song (i.e. the poem).

Works Cited

Abrams, N.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. “Ballad.” Glossary of Literary Terms. 9th ed. United States: Wadsworth, 2009, 21-23.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Eidólons.” Whitman Poetry and Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1996. 168-170.

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Tara for Oct 22

“What is happiness, anyhow?  Is this one of its hours, or the like of it?—so impalpable—a mere breath, an evanescent tinge?” (817).

This week I have been totally absorbed with Whitman in New Jersey because of my Cultural Museum Project.  I have traveled to the Whitman-Stafford house in Laurel Springs, NJ ( 305 Maple Ave), to Laurel Lake, and to two different sections of Timber Creek, one in Deptford (Timber Creek Park) and another in Westville, around where the creek empties into the Delaware River.

Before I began “Looking for Whitman” around South Jersey, I read the portions of Specimen Days that discuss his time in Camden when he visited the Staffords often (in present-day Laurel Springs) and spent his summers in and around the Stafford Farm, Laurel Lake, and Timber Creek.  As I went to these places I thought about Whitman’s descriptions. 

I thought that there would be little chance that there was anything left of what Whitman once saw.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I don’t know if it was the place itself or the knowledge that Whitman had once stood where I was standing that brought Whitman’s descriptions alive.  Despite the neighborhoods, busy roads, and other “distractors” that have developed between Whitman and me, there was something still serene, peaceful, and transcendent about the places.

The Whitman-Stafford House would blend right in with the rest of the neighbordhood if it weren’t for the historical-site signs.  The building is closed till November for cleaning and renovations – so I couldn’t go in, but the big tree in the yard with the changing leaves

Laurel Lake is something I have driven by countless times – and never stopped to see it, never really saw it except for the blur from my periperheal  vision as I drove by.  When I finally found a road that went far enough down (I thought, for a moment I was going to have to trespass on someone’s property to actually see the lake!) to see the whole lake, I was again pleasantly surprised.  It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day and the bird were sunbathing by the lake.  Whitman’s descriptions certainly suited the moment. 

When I went to Timber Creek Park in Deptford, I was underwhelmed.  The hiking trails were beautiful, but the views of the Creek weren’t.  I’d imagine if I continued my walk I would have gotten better views, but that must wait till another day.  :)

Still Whitman’s descriptions of the trees and the general affect nature had on him can be felt at Timber Creek Park.  After a 5 minute walk through the beginning of the trail, you hardly remember you’re in Deptford near major roads.  It is a nice, quiet refuge from the rest of the world.  I this, I found Whitman.

In Westville, after almost jumping a fence (a loud, barking dog stopped me), I finally freaked out a woman enough for her to let me go into her backyard to snap some close-ups of Big Timber Creek.  When I mentioned I was doing a project, she looked at my quizzically.  When I mentioned Whitman – I think she figured I was talking about the bridge. 

There are few people in the area who know that Whitman once frolicked naked in Timber Creek or that he spent his summers in Laurel Springs.  

 I think Whitman still is in these places – but I think that is because those of us who study him bring him there with us.

When I finished my frantic travels around these areas, I returned to Specimen Days.  And so I return to the complete quotation with which I began this entry:

“A clear, crispy day—dry and breezy air, full of oxygen.  Out of the sane, silent, beauteous miracles that envelope and fuse me—trees, water, grass, sunlight, and early frost-the one I am looking at most to-day is the sky…What is happiness, anyhow?  Is this one of its hours, or the like of it?—so impalpable—a mere breath, an evanescent tinge?” (817).

Here Whitman looks at a beautiful day – not unlike Tuesday, when after a week of rain, the sun finally shone and the weather was a cool, comfortable 60 degrees – and wonders just what happiness is. 

This is from “The Sky-Days and Nights-Happiness,” dated October 20th.   Over 130 years later, I, too, was at Timber Creek on October 20th.  This discovery was a little bit of impalpable happiness! :)

Timber Creek from Westville, NJ - t.wood 10/20/09Timber Creek from Westville, NJ – t.wood 10/20/09

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Cultural Museum: Timber Creek & Laurel Springs, NJ

“…commenc’d going for weeks at a time, even for months, down in the country, to a charmingly recluse and rural spot along Timber creek, twelve or thirteen miles from where it enters the Delaware river. Domicil’d at the farm house of my friends, the Staffords, near by, I lived half the time along this creek and its adjacent fields and lanes” (Whitman,Specimen Days 804)

Timber Creek from Westville, NJ - t.wood 10/20/09

Timber Creek from Westville, NJ - t.wood 10/20/09"indescribable skies of limpid blue, with rolling silver-fringed clouds"

Undoubtedly, Camden defined much of Whitman’s later life. The sojourns he took out of Camden, though, were equally influential. While Whitman lived in Camden, he befriended the Stafford family. It was this friendship that carried Whitman further into New Jersey to Timber Creek and to what is now known as Laurel Springs. And it is this connection with Timber Creek and the Stafford house with which Whitman credits (at least somewhat) his mental and physical recovery from the effects of his first stroke – a “semi-renewal of the lease of life” (804).

At these places, Whitman sat often with pen in hand and mused on nature and on life, musings which ultimately found their way into Specimen Days. Today, over 130 years later, Timber Creek and Laurel Lake are still charming – although much less recluse than they once were – and still echo Whitman’s descriptions of 1874 & 1875.

“We had a heavy shower, with brief thunder and lightning, in the middle of the day; and since, overhead, one of those not uncommon yet indescribable skies of limpid blue, with rolling silver-fringed clouds, and a pure-dazzling sun” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 810).

Timber Creek

“Down every day in the solitude of the creek. A serene autumn sun and westerly breeze to-day as a I sit here, the water surface prettily moving in wind-ripples before me” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 816).

Named for the large amounts of timber that grew along its banks, Big Timber Creek is 11 miles long and drains an area of 63 sq. miles. It has 9 tributaries, 6 major lakes, and 25 waterway miles, and it forms the boundary between Gloucester and Camden counties in Southern New Jersey. Traveling through 28 communites, Big Timber Creek begins in Washington Township and Winslow Township and ends in Gloucester City and West Deptford, emptying into the Delaware River approximately 3 miles south of Camden. While some farmland and forest still surround the creek, much of it is becoming rapidly “surbubanized.”

from http://www.njconservation.org/html/gfa-timber.htm

from http://www.njconservation.org/html/gfa-timber.htm

The Armewamexes branch of the Lenni-Lennape Indians lived along the creek. Colonization around the creek began in the 1670s when the Quakers and Irish arrived. The first European Settlement along Timber Creek was Fort Nassau, established in 1623 at the mouth of the creek. It was a sensible place to settle, for it made transportation (in the absence of roads) much more feasible. South Jersey farmers also used the creek to transport crops to Philadelphia.

Today, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation has protected over 100 acres of land surrounding Big Timber Creek, essentially preserving much of what Whitman loved about the creek. The NJCF also partnered with Deptford Township and the NJ State Green Acres Program to create and preserve an 18-acre park, known as Timber Creek Park. Walking along the park trails in this unexpected refuge takes the traveler through the history of the Creek, but a study of its vegetation and wildlife – those same things Whitman wrote about in Specimen Days.

Through the trees at Timber Creek Park, t.wood 10/19/09

Through the trees at Timber Creek Park, t.wood 10/19/09

Laurel Springs post office, by the railroad tracks - t.wood, 10/19/09

Laurel Springs post office, by the railroad tracks - t.wood, 10/19/09

Laurel Springs, NJ

Laurel Springs is located in Southern New Jersey, 14 miles from the Walt Whitman Bridge, which connects Philadelphia to New Jersey.

The Whitman-Stafford House - t.wood, 10/19/09

The Whitman-Stafford House - t.wood, 10/19/09

What is now known as Laurel Springs first belonged to the Lenni-Lenape Indians, and was settled by European settlers in the early to mid 17th century. Quakers were among the first settlers in the area.

Joseph Tomlinson came to the area in 1686 and after his marriage in 1690, he acquired 117 acres of land, part of which is now Laurel Springs. Ephraim Tomlinson, Jr., Joseph Tomlinson’s great-grandson, bought 819 acres, located on both sides of Timber Creek. Part of this became Laurel Springs. Joseph Tomlinson’s great-great-grandson, another Ephraim, built a home in 1844 and began a small community. He orginially chose the name Laurel Mills due to the dense growth of laurel in the area. (The Ancient Greeks used Laurel wreaths to honor poets and heroes. How apropos that Whitman would find himself in Laurel Springs…)

This marks the beginning of what is now known as Laurel Springs, New Jersey.

A railroad was built in 1877, which made Laurel Springs more accessible. Prior to this time, three farms and a pasture defined the boundaries of present-day Laurel Springs. Two of those farms, totaling 187 acres, were owned by Montgomery Stafford. It is here that Whitman converted one of the Stafford Farm buildings into his summer home (1876 and 1884). The Stafford house that Whitman eventually made his summer home still stands today at 305 Maple Avenue in Laurel Springs.

The Whitman-Stafford House - t.wood, 10/19/09

The Whitman-Stafford House - t.wood, 10/19/09

The Whitman-Stafford House from the yard - t.wood, 10/19/09

The Whitman-Stafford House from the yard - t.wood, 10/19/09

“The clear beams are now thrown in many new places, on the quilted, seam’d, bronze-drab, lower tree trunks, shadow’d except at this hour—now flooding their young and old columnar ruggedness with strong light, unfolding to my sense new amazing features of silent, shaggy charm, the solid bark, the expression of harmless impassiveness, with many bulge and gnarl unreck’d before” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 814).
Only a few blocks from the Whitman-Stafford House is Laurel Lake, the lake Whitman once proclaimed was the “prettiest lake in either America or Europe”. A short walk from the house, Laurel Lake was yet another refuge for the ailing Whitman.
Laurel Lake, near Whitman-Stafford House - t.wood

Laurel Lake, near Whitman-Stafford House - t.wood

What Whitman found at Timber Creek, Laurel Lake, and on the Stafford farm was a rejuvenated self. Although these same places are now surrounded by neighborhoods, houses, and busy roads, they still hold something of solitude and peace for the reader of Whitman. Much of what he wrote in Specimen Days of these places his readers can still see.

Whitman is still there.

After visiting these places, I’m certain that Whitman said it best:

“It seems indeed as if peace and nutriment from heaven subtly filter into me as I slowly hobble down these country lanes and across fields, in the good air—as I sit here in solitude with Nature—open, voiceless, mystic, far removed, yet palpable, eloquent Nature” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 830).


Works Cited

“Big Timber Creek Watershed.” New Jersey Conservation Foundation. New Jersey Conservation Foundation, 2009. 17 Oct. 2009 <http://www.njconservation.org/html/gfa-timber.htm>.

“Fact Sheet: Big Timber Creek.” Delaware Riverkeeper. Delaware Riverkeeper Network. 17 Oct. 2009 <http://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/factsheets/big_timber.html>.

“Timber Creek Park Trail Guide.” Big Timber Creek. Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust, Inc. 17 Oct. 2009 <http://www.bigtimbercreek.org/timber_creek_park_trail_guide.htm>.

Whitman, Walt. “Specimen Days.” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996.

Wolfe, Bob. “Borough History.” Laurel Springs-NJ: News. 31 January 2004. Borough of Laurel Springs. 17 October 2009 <http://www.laurelsprings-nj.com/news.php?extend.3>.

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Tara for Oct 15

the "Known But to God" grave markers at the American Cemetary in Normandy.

the "Known But to God" grave markers at the American Cemetary in Normandy.

I’ve heard the complaint that Whitman’s prose from the war period is a bit dry.  While it may not be the most exciting and dynamic prose I’ve ever read, the historical presence of his work seems irreplaceable.  I’m especially interested in this period of Whitman’s poetry and prose since I spend I significant amount of time on Civil Poetry in my American Studies class. 

There are two subjects that I noticed throughout that I’d like to address here.

1. The Unknown/Unnamed Soldier

“Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers” (748)

After this line, Whitman imagines and quickly details the battle seen where the unknown soldier receives his deadly shot.  At last… “the Bravest Soldier crumbles in mother earth, unburied and unknown” (748).

Whitman poses a question at the beginning of this entry, “Of scenes like these, I say, who writes-whoe’er can write the story?”   When I think of all of the casualities of the Civil War – and their distance from the “writers” of history, I  wonder who did write the story of the Civil War – and how accurate it was. 

In one entry, Whitman discusses how the “Real War” will not be written.  Though he muses that this may actually be a good thing (debatable, I think), it’s true.  The realities of the war were most experienced by those who died on the battlefield and many of them don’t have the ability to tell their history or be a definitive part of it due to their anonymity in death. 

The “unknown” soldier is something Whitman seems to use, at least in part, to unite the Union and Confederate soldiers. 

“Everywhere among these countless graves-everywhere in the many soldier Cemetaries of the Nation…we see on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousand or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown” (801).

They’re not Union or Confederate soldiers, but men. 

Whitman’s discussion here reminds me of two other Civil War poems: “Like Brothers We Meet” by George Moses Horton and “The Unknown Grave” by Henry Timrod.

2. Dying Alone

This subject is an extension of the previous, as these unnamed soldiers die without family or friends at their sides.  It is likely that his comrades were not even present, as death is quick in battle and the casualties must be left behind in order to advance. 

I wonder to what extent the humanity Whitman expresses in “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” (438-9) of one soldier (possibly a father) burying another was a reality on the battlefield or a consolation for him or his readers.  At some points in Whitman’s war musings he mentions the man who remained on the battlefield, wounded, for fifty hours.  In this entry he talks about how often soldiers are left on the battlefield for hours – left to their “fates”.

This repeatedly addressed subject – often only a brief mention of someone dying in a hospital without family or acquaintance – made me wonder if this is where Whitman’s anxiety about death – seen in much of his late poetry – begins.  Dying with family and friends around is a privilege that becomes yet another casualty of war. 

I think Whitman sometimes used his poetry (and perhaps his prose) to give these men a history, their war a history the best way he could.  “The Wound-Dresser” chronicles some of his experience in the hospitals, and in a sense, recalls those things that were “so soon forgotten”:

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,

While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,

So soon what is over forgotten and waves wash the imprints off the sand,

With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,

Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)


And what of all of this might we not say about the casualties of war today?

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Whitman’s “Songs of Myself” Playlist

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Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”

As I was reading “Song of the Banner at Daybreak”, I was reminded of this song when the banner asks, “For what are we, mere strips of cloth profiting nothing,/Only flapping in the wind?”.  The poet, does not hear and see strips alone, but much more. 

So other than the “wind” – how does Dylan’s song relate to Whitman?  I think it poses questions that Whitman might ask if he were alive today – questions he began to ask in his lifetime that still remain unanswered.  I think the ambiguity of the answer that is “blowin’ in the wind” would have been appealing to Whitman.  The answers surround us and yet eludes us.  While early, hopeful Whitman may have been disheartened by this answer, the later, more disillusioned Whitman may have regrettfully agreed.

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Tara for October 8

ethiopian woman

Ethiopia Saluting the Colors

Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,

With your woolly-whit and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?

Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?


(‘Tis while our army lines Carolina’s sands and pines,

Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia com’st to me,

As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)


Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d

A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,

Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought. 


No further does she say, but lingering all the day,

Her high-borne turban’d head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,

And courtesies to the regiments, the guidons moving by.


Why is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?

Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red, and green?

Are things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen? (451-452)


This poem, from the “Drum-Taps” portion of the 1891-1892 Leaves of Grass, immediately caught my eye because of previous research I conducted on the role of African Americans in the Civil War.  While the Emancipation Proclamation was a ground-breaking document that would begin an impetus of change, it came into existence, at least somewhat, for political purposes.  Lincoln, with the help of a politcally active Frederick Douglass, realized that the slaves could be an enormous asset on the front lines.  Freeing all slaves in the North would both ignite the patriotic passion in some Northern slaves and possibly motivate Southern slaves to make the move to the North.  Douglass knew that this fact would motivate Lincoln and, ultimately, achieve something much greater: freedom for the slaves.  Douglass, during this time, urged African Americans to fight in the bloody battle, and fight they did.  Much more was on the line for them – not just their “country” – but their freedom, their inclusion in America’s tenets of “Democracy.” 

Indeed, slavery was perhaps the catalyst to the Civil War, but not the overriding cause.  The overriding cause was questions over state rights.  Still, abolitionists made the issue of slavery a major issue of the war that has since dominated history textbooks and undoubtedly changed the course of American history. 

Obviously, Whitman noticed the centrality of this issue (How could he not?) based on this poem.  This, however, is merely what drew me to the poem.  The content, admittedly, is a little unclear – his message a little muddled – at least at first glance.

His descriptions of the woman are interesting – she is so “ancient” that she is hardly human with hair a woolly-white, a turban’d head, bare and bony feet.  Might this be a symbol for the “ancient” practice of slavery that ought to be abolished? 

 The moment of the woman’s greeting of the colors is crucial, as Sherman’s army is marching through Carolina, one of the places that increased the Union Army’s control, undermining the Confederacy.  We would expect her to be saluting the Union Army fighting for her freedom.  As she emerges from her hovel, she says only three lines explaining her capture by the “cruel slaver” – saying it has been a hundred years since she was torn from her parents. 

She says no more – but lingers, perhaps a constant reminder, a motivator for the soldiers? 

In the final stanza the “fateful” woman become “blear” or dim, indistinct, as though as Sherman’s men undermine the Confederacy’s power slavery fades away.  The final question: “Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?” is a little perplexing.  He ends with a question, opening up this scene to his reader, but I’m not entirely certain where he’s taking us with it.

On a somewhat random note, I wonder to what extent “hardly human” is meant ironically.  If the woman is meant to be a symbol of slavery, she is of course “hardly human” or entirely inhumane – since the act of slavery is inhumane.  Whitman means that she is “hardly human” because she is “ancient” and fading away.  Would his readers have read “hardly human” as “second-class” citizen – an accepted and driving catergorization of African slaves at the time?  He seems to be playing and reordering the “typical” way of thinking – and turning it on its head.

So I guess where I end this – is that this turban’d woman, with her turban in Ethiopia’s colors, is not a single woman, but an image of slavery – an “ancient”, hundred-year-old practice in America saluting the colors of the Union Army who will, finally, end the ancient practice. 

A final note on the placement of this piece in the “Drum-Taps” section – I find it fascinating that this poem is squished in the middle of these poems.  It is as though Whitman wanted to remind his reader, in the midst of the war, that the cause – and the effects of victory – were very great indeed.

I love this poem.  A gem.


Whitman Poetry and Prose, Library of America

image source: http://cleanwaterforlife.xanga.com/

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Whitman Found: More Levi’s Commercials

It’s really remarkable that Whitman has eased his way into modern society through Levi’s and US!  Good timing!

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