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Walt Whitmans Reflections Toward Civil War

Walt Whitmans Reflections Toward Civil War

Walt Whitman came to be known as the greatest American poet of the 19th

century. He was born on May 31, 1819, near Huntington, New York. He grew up

on a farm and had little formal education. While living in Brooklyn, he attended public

school for six years. He had several jobs editing newspapers in New York. He built

houses and worked in the real estate business from 1850 to 1855. During this time he

read at home and at libraries. He would even carry a book with his lunch so that he

could read on his lunch break. Whitman developed an interest in writing and began

experimenting with a new style of poetry. People did not approve of his new style. At

one point he was threatened with criminal prosecution because several of his poems were

considered obscene. This newspaper publicity created interest in his book Leaves of

Grass, a collection of his poems. Whitman also wrote a collection of war poems that

were written during the Civil War called Drum-Taps. In 1871 this collection of

poems was added to Leaves of Grass. Whitman was too old for the military service,

so he took part in the war by caring for the injured. This made him develop a strong

sense of comradeship, or a “love that binds and transcends all else”(Woodress 3561)

Everyday he would walk around comforting and caring for the men. He always had

a notebook in his hand and was continuously writing in it. His experiences as a hospital

worker are clearly expressed in many of his poems. Walt Whitman died on March 26,

1892, from lung, liver, stomach, and kidney diseases. His philosophy centers

around the thoughts that life and death are continuous processes and God is seen

everywhere and in everything. His philosophy also centers around his thoughts of the

independence of ordinary man. Many poems of Walt Whitman reflect his emotions

Whitman’s first collection of poems was called Leaves of Grass. In this book he

celebrates the brotherhood of man, democracy, America as a symbol of both, and

Lincoln as a symbol of a lonely individual deeply involved in humanity. Whitman is

considered a philosopher, propagandist, humorist, and a poet, because of his

breadth. He will always be remembered as a poet of force and eloquence, and as

a prophet of high ideals. “Drum Taps,” an edition to Leaves of Grass, reflects

Whitman’s deepening awareness of the significance of the Civil War and the hope

for reconciliation between the North and the South. These were considered

forced poems, because they were comments on events taking place.

“Beat! Beat! Drums!” was published on September 28, 1861 in Harper’s Weekly

and the New York Leader. This had a superimposing spirit and technique and was also

a part of his collection of poems called “Drum Taps.” These expressed his personality.

It was written shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. Whitman had not yet seen the

battlefields and the war hospitals. This poem expresses his patriotic emotions during

this time. The poem also reflects the startled reactions of the North to the initial setbacks

and the frustrations of the early days of the Civil War. The first stanza tells of how the

sound of the drum and the bugle spreads from country to city, from home to church, and

to the marketplace. The second stanza tells of how the drum and bugles stand out even

among city noises, such as traffic, bargainers, talkers, and businesses. The third stanza

expresses how the drum and the bugle did not even stop for the old, weak, children, or

The full meaning of the poem “To the Leavened Soil They Trod” is told in the last

two lines. “The Northern ice and rain that began me, nourish me to the end, But the hot

sun of the South is to fully ripen my songs” (Allen 202). Whitman was saying that he

was sympathetic to the North and he stood for what the North believed. When he went

to Virginia and the hospitals of Washington he realized that blood was also shed in the

South. He became sympathetic to the South because they were human, too.

He did not change his views toward the war, but believed that the witness of the war

would make his poetry complete and full of emotion (Allen 202).

“Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is only a seven line poem, but it is full of meaning.

The poem paints a picture for the reader. The picture shows a military unit crossing

a “silvery river” (Allen 212). The horses are splashing in the water with the men,

who have brown faces, sitting on their saddles.

In the poem “Come Up from the Fields Father” Whitman describes the

behavior of a family that has just received a letter from their son that is off at war.

The daughter calls her father out of the fields and calls her mother to come read the

letter. It is autumn, the trees are green, yellow, and red, and the apples and grapes

are ripe in the orchards. There is a cool wind, the sky has wondrous clouds, the

farm is prospering, and all is calm. The father and mother hurry to the door. The

mother shakes of fear and excitement. They open the letter and she only reads

“gunshot wound” (Whitman 257). The daughter says “Grieve not so , dear mother,

see, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better” (Whitman 257). The

mother knows that her son is already dead, yet she longs to “be with her dear dead

son” (Allen 258). Whitman is writing about the fringes of war. This poem is so

full of emotion that the reader can feel the pain of the families, who suffered from

the war. In this poem Whitman was writing as a propagandist, who was spreading

the emotional affects of the war. He seems more at ease and actually more

“Dirge for Two Veterans” is a song written for a funeral. Whitman describes

the moon shining down on a double grave. A father and son are both going to be

buried. “In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell, two veterans, son and

father, dropt together and the double grave awaits them” (Whitman 273). Streets

are filled with voices and tears, bugles and drums can be heard everywhere, and

the father and son are laid to rest together. Whitman reflects his emotions and

feelings that “Death has become an end that is comforting and beautiful. It is,

“The Wound-Dresser,” Whitman presents himself as an old man looking

back on the war and answering questions of children. Much of this poem is

an autobiography, but it is not written as facts or history. It is actually written

as an imaginative look into the future. Whitman finds that his satisfaction lies

in helping the sick and the wounded. When reading this poem, one can almost

hear a calm, passionate, old man telling his experiences of the war. As Whitman

recalls the war, he asks himself “what stays with you latest and deepest? Of

curious panics, of hard fought engagements, or of sieges tremendous what

deepest remains?” (Allen 208). He vividly describes looking down at the

wounded on the ground after a battle. He saw their blood turning the grass

red. He recalled walking into the hospital tent and seeing rows and rows of

cots with injured soldiers. He went from one cot to the next dressing the wounded.

He felt each persons pain, “one turns to me his appealing eyes, poor boy! I never

knew you, yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would

save you” (Allen 209). This poem makes their pain visual. There are soldiers

with wounds all over their body that are offensive, stumps from amputations,

and pale faces. Whitman walks around pacifying the suffering men. He is

struck with emotion in the last line of the poem as he says “Many a soldier’s

loving arms about this neck have crossed and rested, Many a soldier’s kiss

dwells on these bearded lips” (Allen 210).

Many of Whitman’s work contained themes of loneliness, unrequited

affection, going to the grave, and emotions reflecting the civil war. He has written

hundreds of poem . His most intense writing was during the Civil War. During this

time he felt the need to put his experiences in poetry. These poems told of things

he saw, heard, felt, and experiences he had. “Common to all Whitman’s poetry

are certain major themes: reconciliation of the body and soul, purity and unity of

physical nature, death as the ‘mother of beauty,’ and above all, comradeship or

love, which binds and transcends all else” (Woodress 3561). Many of Walt Whitman’s

poems reflect his emotions toward the civil war.


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