Flash of Lightning, Sprig of Lilac: Representations of Nature in Whitman’s War Poetry
By Hannah Marcum '18
ENGL-425: Seminar in Literary Studies
I enjoyed the development and detail of “Flash of Lightning, Sprig of Lilac: Representations of Nature in Walt Whitman’s War Poetry” as Hannah explores Whitman’s multi-faceted imagery of war and relates it to Kant’s Critique of Judgement and the theory of the sublime. Hannah is an insightful reader of both the original poetry and philosophy as well as secondary criticism. In addition, her voice engages the reader with nuances of words and ideas. It is a pleasure to read Hannah’s prose.
Aroused and angry,
I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign’d myself.
To sit by the wounded and sooth them, or silently watch the dead.
-epigraph to Drum-Taps (1871)
Walt Whitman never understated the significance of the Civil War on his poetry. The sixth verse in Leaves of Grass (1891-2), titled “To Thee Old Cause,” dedicates the volume to a “peerless, passionate, good cause,” declaring, “These recitatives for thee,—my book and the war are one” (2, 15).1 This declaration signals the inclusion of two central sections of Leaves—Drum-Taps and Memories of President Lincoln—with poems that span the length and breadth of the war both chronologically and thematically. Several prominent scholars have employed these sections in tracing the turbulent war years; Whitman, like every American, was profoundly changed by the five years of fighting.2 His transformation climaxed in December of 1862, when the news of his brother George’s injury in battle drove him to Washington, D.C. (Loving 67). It was there his famous service as a war nurse began with the new year, providing the inspiration for celebrated portions of Drum-Taps. Jerome Loving relates this perspectival change:
Although Whitman was slow to engage emotionally in the war effort, these kinds of experiences made it impossible for him to ever retreat from it again. For the poet the Civil War became a marriage ceremony of sorts—between him and his country—and his poignant wartime poems in Drum-Taps (1865) a betrothal and a spiritual renewal. (68)
As Loving intimates, Whit-man’s personal experience of the war was, in the beginning, at a far remove from his poetic experience, but the two approaches met and finally converged late in the war, as seen in the shift from the optimistic, belligerent “recruitment” poetry that begins Drum-Taps to the more subdued and reflective “battlefield” poetry at its center. Ending with poems like “Reconciliation,” followed by Memories of President Lincoln in the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, the final project of Drum-Taps is that of synthesizing Whitman’s “book and the war,” that is, his overarching political-poetic vision for America and the effects the Civil War had on its feasibility. The war changed America, to be sure, but in these postbellum works Whitman seems to be asking, ‘Did it change my America?’
While rooms could be filled with scholarly work on Whitman’s Civil War experience, my approach, informed by ecocriticism, studies his well-documented shift in perspective through the nature imagery he employs in Drum-Taps and Memories of President Lincoln. By his own account, as M. Jimmie Killingsworth notes, Whitman was “drawn out of nature and into history” at the start of the war (ch. 5). Early poems of Drum-Taps are often cited to exemplify Whitman as urban poet or political poet, and the thematic foci of these works stray from his earlier meditations on the natural world.3 However, I find the prolific use of natural metaphor in these poems provides an environmental framework for contrast with his battlefield poetry, which places poet and reader intimately within the natural world, as well as those works from before and after the war, where nature is a more explicit participant. In its mirroring of the political framework of Whitman’s war poetry, this ecopoetic reading uncovers the tensions and attempted reconciliations within.
Guiding my study, alongside the work of Whitman critics, is the aesthetic philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In his 1790 Critique of Judgement, Kant treats “those judgements, called aesthetic, which concern the beautiful and the sublime in nature or in art” (169). Beauty, he clarifies, is specifically tied to judgements of taste, which originate in pleasure due to a sense of formal purposiveness of an object. Sublimity, on the other hand, arises from “an intellectual feeling” that is not necessarily pleasurable nor connected to an object’s purposiveness (192). In an earlier work, Kant had made the clearer distinction that “the sublime moves us, the beautiful charms us,” and in the Critique, he systematizes the effects of these forces of charming and moving (245, note 4). In the 18th century, discussion of the sublime was relatively new to the study of aesthetics, and Kant’s parallel treatment of the beautiful and sublime in nature and art provides a vocabulary for unpacking these themes in Drum-Taps. Harold Bloom has long identified Whitman’s poetry as sublime, writing in 1976 that “Song of Myself” remained “the greatest instance yet of the American Sublime” (Miller xxvi). Intensifying this view more recently (2016), he equates Leaves of Grass with “the American Sublime” itself, “incarnated in a book that is also a man” (Bloom 23). While Bloom’s verdict on Leaves is compelling, I explore both the beautiful and the sublime in Drum-Taps, particularly the way they diverge and dovetail in Whitman’s use of natural imagery to depict watershed moments of the war, from his own move to Washington, D.C. to the assassination of President Lincoln.
“Deeps More Unfathomable”: The Sublime War
Is war natural? Generally, we understand this philosophical question in anthropocentric terms, asking whether it is natural for humans to go to war with each other. To augment this inquiry, some authors explore the question literally—that is, ecologically—by posing or juxtaposing the world of war with the natural world. When a shell destroys a farmhouse, the arrator in Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga” (1891) describes the cries of a young child as “something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey–a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil.” Such a description not only erases the humanity of the child, but replaces it with a supernatural and completely alien image. Bierce’s descriptive mode is typical of naturalism, a representation of the universe as utterly indifferent to the dealings of humans, which gained traction as American writers witnessed the perceived purposeless violence of the Civil War. While Whitman, who observed that violence firsthand, writes during the shift to naturalism, his poetic depictions of the natural world in and around Drum-Taps do not follow it. Significant changes do occur in this regard, suggesting that Whitman faced the same doubts as his contemporaries, but after the war, he remained true to the older tradition of transcendentalism and its more benevolent portrait of the universe.
To contextualize Whitman’s war poetry, a momentary glance at the indiscrete 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass offers the clearest picture of his antebellum style. Political tensions were already high; Whitman himself underwent a switch from Democrat to Republican around 1854 as the former party intensified their pro-slavery stance and Abraham Lincoln gained prominence in the latter (Reynolds 149). Still, Stephen John Mack notes that the in first edition of Leaves, Whitman had “conflated history and nature. He had invested historically contingent, laissez-faire Jacksonian America with the authority of unalterable but benign nature” (ch. 6). The first edition of Leaves introduces the poet’s meditation on this early conception of nature among his characteristic catalogs of his environment near and far:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’ouvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery (662-666)
Here, a focus on the small and prosaic demonstrates Whitman’s early approach to the natural world. He favors the close and casual, the intimate and “benign,” over the lofty grandeur of more traditional romantic poetry. The microcosm he portrays admits no note of discord. Alongside it, however, in what will eventually become the pivotal thirty-third section of “Song of Myself,” Whitman prophecies, “We are about approaching some great battlefield in which we are soon to be engaged, / We pass the colossal outposts of the encampments….we pass with still feet and caution” (810-811). Five years before the Civil War’s onset, Whitman already has a belligerent side; he fills several subsequent pages with lines recounting the 1836 Battle of the Alamo and imagining similar future scenes.4 Fifteen years later, it would become Whitman’s central task in Drum-Taps to reexamine his conflation of history and nature in light of the thoroughly historical war (Mack ch. 6).
“Colossal” is Whitman’s chosen adjective to describe the military outposts he envisions in the lines above, a term which German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement defines as “the mere exhibition of a concept if that concept is almost too large for any exhibition” (253). This is not to suggest the outpost per se physically exceeds our capacity to comprehend it—rather that it connotes the connection between Whitman’s war imagery and Kant’s aesthetic philosophy.5 Kant was among the first to delineate an aesthetic contemplation of the “sublime,” which refers to a quality of greatness beyond measure that evokes the strongest sense of awe conceivable (244).6 This goes beyond the merely beautiful, which naturally attracts us, to a “liking incompatible with charms, and, since the mind is not just attracted by the object but is alternately always repelled as well, the liking for the sublime contains not so much a positive pleasure as rather admiration and respect” (Kant 245). “This Compost” contains one of Whitman’s most famous depictions of the aesthetic sublime: “Now I am terrified of the Earth, it is that calm and patient, / It grows such sweet things out of such corruption, / It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses” (42-44). Any such scene to which we are simultaneously drawn by its magnificence and paralyzed by its power exemplifies the sublime. A poem near the beginning of Drum-Taps starts with a description of such vehemence:
Rise O days from your fathomless deeps, till you loftier, fiercer sweep,
Long for my soul hungering gymnastic I devour’d what the earth gave me,
Long I roam’d the woods of the north, long I watch’d Niagara pouring,
I travel’d the prairies over and slept on their breast, I cross’d the Nevadas, I cross’d the plateaus,
I ascended the towering rocks along the Pacific, I sail’d out to sea,
I sail’d through the storm (“Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps” 1-6).
Now, in place of the tree-toad and wren, stand pouring Niagara and towering coastal rocks. Citing these lines, Michael Moon identifies a “naturalistic view that good and evil are compounded in all reality” in Whitman’s “references to the violence inherent in nature” (Leaves 245, note 7). Recognizing this inherent violence brings closer Whitman’s natural aesthetic to that put forth by Kant. In other words, when his subject matter first turns to the war, Whitman’s natural imagery turns to the sublime.
War is sublime—thus Kant conceives it, “if it is carried on in an orderly way and with respect for the sanctity of the citizens’ rights. […] A prolonged peace, on the other hand, tends to make prevalent…base selfishness, cowardice, and softness” (263). Kant believed that just and “orderly” war was capable of bringing out what is selfless and strong in men. Whitman, in the fiercely nationalistic recruitment poetry that begins Drum-Taps, appears to agree. As Betsy Erkkila notes, he “envisions the war as a dramatic means of drawing the people away from their self-interested pursuit of business as usual toward the republican values of patriotism, sacrifice, and courage” (196). This is readily visible in the first poem of Drum-Taps:
How you sprang—how you threw off the costumes of peace with indifferent hand,
How your soft opera-music changed, and the drum and fife were heard in their stead,
How you led to the war, (that shall serve for our prelude, songs of soldiers,)
How Manhattan drum-taps led. (“First O Songs for a Prelude” 7-10)
This hymn to the marching soldiers of Manhattan echoes Kant, describing a distasteful peace in order to heighten the glory of war. Accordingly, Whitman eschews his earlier focus on small, peaceful images of nature, combining sublime scenes in the natural world with unbarred praise of Union troops in the intense climax of “Rise O Days:” “Lo! from deeps more unfathomable, something more deadly and savage, / Manhattan rising, advancing with menacing front— Cincinnati, Chicago, unchain’d” (25-26). Then, in a decisive move that unites nature poet with politic, he exclaims, “How Democracy with desperate vengeful port strides on, shown through the dark by those flashes of lightning!” (30). This fervent treatment of both the war and the natural world permeates the eight or so recruitment poems that begin Drum-Taps. Kant writes that in apprehending the beautiful, the mind is in “restful contemplation,” but when presented with the sublime it is “agitated” by “a vibration…a rapid alternation of repulsion from, and attraction to, the same object” (258). In 1855’s Leaves of Grass, Whitman championed a view of nature bathed in restfulness, but in the early poems of Drum-Taps, his agitation is clear through nature’s agitation.
The recruitment poetry is often singleminded in its attraction to sublime scenes, but moments of repulsion appear throughout. One such moment occurs in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak,” advertised in 1861 but not published until its appearance in Drum-Taps (Genoways 83). Whitman writes a dialogue in which he intends to “dramatize the threat of secession by lending each view its own voice: the voice of the poet, the voices of father and son, and the voices of the banner of America and the pennant of war” (Genoways 83-84). The banner and pennant, speaking as one, exhort the human characters to “fly in the clouds and winds” with them, and while the poet and child are persuaded by its sublime presence, the father’s voice is contrastingly cautious (24). He tells his son, “It is to gain nothing, but risk and defy every thing, / Forward to stand in front of wars—and O, such wars!—what have you to do with them? / With passions of demons, slaughter, premature death?” (102-104). His son does not speak again, so the questions are left hanging, followed only by the banner’s countering retort, “Demons and death then I sing,” (105) and the poet’s “haughty and resolute” hymn of allegiance (122). Genoways characterizes Whitman’s “strongly pro-war stance” in this poem as “strikingly radical” (84), while Erkkila calls it “emphatically Union” in its commitment to a unified nation, yet notes that “one hears the dissenting voice of doubt that would come to dominate later war poems” (195). The “poet” in “Banner at Daybreak” may be a patriot, but the same man also penned the questions posed by the father, which cast doubt upon not only the purpose of war but also its place in nature. Aligning war with “demons, slaughter, [and] premature death” complicates a straightforward understanding of its naturalness and leaves the sublime natural symbolism of Drum-Taps tainted by strangeness.
“Cold Dirges of the Baffled”: The Personal War
A heap of severed limbs met Walt Whitman when he stepped off the train at Washington, D.C. in December of 1862 (Loving 67). This debris marked the site of the Battle of Fredricksburg, which had ended the week before in a controversial Confederate victory. Walt was on a familial mission to locate his brother George Washington Whitman, who had been superficially wounded in the battle (Loving 67). At the army hospital where he found his brother recovering, Whitman first observed the nightmarish reality of the Civil War, which he described as “…the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Hospitals…those forming the Untold and Unwritten History of the War” (Memoranda During the War 5). As Erkkila puts it, Whitman in Washington, D.C. came face to face with “America not as union but amputee, the heritage of the fathers not remembered but dismembered” (198). After nearly three years of war, the assured battle cries of the north, epitomized in Whitman’s recruitment poetry, had fallen silent. The fighting showed no signs of slowing and the nation was, ironically, united in its restlessness. It was in this climate at the hospital opposite Fredricksburg that the proud poet of democracy chose to adopt a new name. He did not return home again during the war, but stayed in the capital to write of and directly tend to, as he told Emerson, “America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulchre of Washington itself” (Correspondence 68). He became both nurse and historian; he became the “wounddresser.”
The shift of December 1862 on Whitman’s perspective was one primarily of proximity. Instead of hearing news of the war from letters and newspapers delivered to him in his sequestered New York home, Whitman was near the front lines, observing firsthand the mutilated bodies in all their humanity. This same consideration of distance tempers our appreciation of the sublime, Kant argues, because sublimity “carries with it the idea of…infinity” in what we perceive, yet we are unable to fully apprehend this magnitude from either too close or too far away (255). This demonstrates that sublimity, to a degree, is subjective; it exists “not so much [in] the object as the mental attunement in which we find ourselves when we estimate the object” (256). Among other factors, judging a thing “sublime” depends on the proximity of the viewer in relation to the object. If one were in a rowboat being tossed upon a stormy sea, one would be very little likely to sit back and appreciate the aesthetic magnificence of the waves. When he stepped off the train at Fredricksburg, one might say, Whitman climbed into that rowboat. Without the comfortable cushion of distance, he could no longer celebrate the military sublime. As shown above, the father’s voice in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” is an early whisper of uncertainty in regards to the war that surfaces in Drum-Taps.7 Similar traces of doubts arise in several of the next pieces, often in voices other than the poet’s own. In “The Centenarian’s Story,” it is the old Revolutionary veteran, modeled on George Washington, who cries “It sickens me yet, that slaughter!” and reflects that the battle he was part of had “[n]o women looking on nor sunshine to bask in, it did not conclude with applause, / Nobody clapped hands here then” (64, 76-77). The explicit absence of light—the next line mentions “darkness,” mist,” and a “chill rain” (78)—overshadows the lightning-flashes of the recruitment poems. Closely following this piece, “Come Up from the Fields Father” relocates the horrors of war to a familiar farm-home setting, with “apples ripe in the orchards” and “grapes on the trellis’d vines,” where a recent rain has left “the sky so calm” and the farm “vital and beautiful” (6; 9-10). In this setting, full of life, the family receives word of a wartime tragedy: “While they stand at home at the door he is dead already, / The only son is dead” (30-31). That is he the “only son” dooms the farm as well as the family, both left without an heir. After this despondent point in Drum-Taps, Whitman adopts the subdued and contemplative tone of a man trying to make sense of the destruction surrounding him. This effort is perhaps best exemplified in the poem “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” a piece Moon describes as “a monologue both lyrical and dramatic…artfully controlled and profoundly felt” (Leaves 255, note 6). Whitman’s poetic “I” recounts a night spent mourning the loss of a young boy on the battlefield. At sunrise, the elegy ends:
And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle- field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell. (21-26)
Not drums nor storms accompany this “strange” image of war, but language of intimacy and love. Before entering the hospitals at the front, as M. Wynn Thomas explains, Whitman had been drawn to “‘what affects man in masses’—by which [he] meant not just size of the armies involved but what the size signified…a whole society mobilized for the first time in history” (97). During this vigil, the poet cares not for the levée-en-masse of either side, but for the singular body and soul of the soldier he loved. The sublime war at that moment disappears, along with its magnificent imagery. A “rude-dug grave” forms the setting for this somber, personal elegy. Even as the narrator buries his fallen ‘son,’ the ‘sun’ rises and illuminates the scene in new light. This juxtaposition marks another change that occurs within Drum-Taps: the mismatch of nature imagery with mood. Whereas in his recruitment poetry the martial tone and vast natural landscapes heightened each other, here the beauty of nature and the ugliness of the front lines undermine each other. The poet claims as much in “Year That Trembled and Reel’d Beneath Me,” a six-line lament which Moon suggests refers to 1863-4 (Leaves 259, note 2):
Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!
Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,
A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,
Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,
Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?
And sullen hymns of defeat? (1-6)
Without answering his own questions, Whitman shows that nature, in its unaffected way, answered for him by continuing on in warmth and beauty as the war became ever colder and uglier. Mack argues that “given the poet’s previous reliance on the perfect correspondence between nature and the ideal, the problem of a violent and unacceptable reality first presents itself to the poet as an anomaly, a failure of correspondence” in this poem (ch. 6). “Year That Trembled” is perhaps the nearest Whitman comes to affirming naturalism as his contemporaries do. But his poetic depiction of nature is yet sympathetic to the human condition.
To that end, the image of motherhood is important in Whitman’s exploration of war and the natural world in Drum-Taps. As the father in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” voices doubt about the war, the mother figure voices another perspective elsewhere. For instance, the “Mother of All” in “Virginia—The West” asks, “with calm voice speaking, / As to you Rebellious…why strive against me, and why seek my life?” (9-10). Whitman’s invocation of the “Mother of All” first represents his unified vision of the nation against which the Confederacy is fighting.8 In addition, as in other sections of Leaves of Grass, the mother also traditionally represents the earth.9 When war is understood as unnatural, a “struggle against death” in Killingsworth’s words, it must also be understood as un-maternal, a “parallel struggle against the earth” (ch. 4). America-as-mother and Earth-as-mother are both endangered by the war. Whitman satirizes the threat of division by secession in “Virginia—The West” as a vivisection with an “insane knife” (4). The threat to Mother Nature is more subtly suggested in the final stanza of “Come Up from the Fields Father,” where the grief of a farmwife mourning her son’s death in battle causes the speaker to lament, “O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw, / To follow, to seek, to be with her dead son” (36-37). Flourishing natural imagery in the second and third stanzas of this poem provide a sharp contrast with the final bleak image of double death.10 Neither iteration of the mother fears for herself; each reticently accepts that the war will devalue her life in pursuit of a seemingly worthier goal. The Confederacy’s goal of secession outweighs the value of America as a Union; both sides’ pursuit of victory at 52the cost of any, or every, life undermines the value of nature as an organic whole. The somber characterization of the mother figure in Drum-Taps signals her preparation to be, if needed, foremost among the war’s martyrs (9).
In an attempt to avoid the martyrdom of nation and nature, and to synthesize the themes of Drum-Taps thus far, Whitman hearkens to the same image in “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic A Voice:” “Sons of the Mother of All, you shall yet be victorious, / You shall yet laugh to scorn the attacks of all the remainder of the earth” (5-6). His vision of a nation reunified by “affection” is coupled with a prophecy of the reunification of tone with natural imagery (2): “To Michigan, Florida perfumes shall tenderly come, / Not the perfumes of flowers, but sweeter, and wafted beyond death” (12-13). From his vantage point near the front lines, Whitman attempts to realize these harmonies through becoming the poet of reconciliation. “
“Beautiful as the Sky”: The Reconciliation of War and Nature
In addition to the plethora of political implications it brought about, the Civil War ushered in a new style in American literature—effectively curtailing romanticism and its offspring transcendentalism—which Erkkila claims affected Walt Whitman as it did others:
The changes wrought by the war…had the effect of jolting literary America out of romance and into realism. If in the prewar period Whitman had viewed himself as a poet-prophet, mythically embodying democracy and the revolutionary traditions of the past, during the war years he came to see himself as a kind of poet-historian, preserving a record of the present moment for future generations. (205)
The war poetry acts as something of a microcosm of Whitman’s career: in the recruitment poetry, we see him as poet-prophet, while in his battlefield poetry from Washington he embodies the poet-historian. At the end of the war, Whitman first reconciles these two personas before he moves on to his chosen task of reconciling the nation. In his post-war poetry, he is at once historian and prophet, at once mourner and healer. Above all, as Thomas tells us, “Whitman greeted the ending of the war” with “tones of reconciliation” (95). Though the literary scene was changing around him, Whitman’s political vision as the poet of democracy and of the Union emerged unscathed, even strengthened, as he wrote in Memoranda During the War: “Before I went down to the Field, and among the Hospitals, I had my hours of doubt about These States; but not since. […] And curious as it may seem the War, to me, proved Humanity, and proved America and the Modern” (59). As Kant claims, war here provides a setting conducive to evoking the best in human nature. This is a particular effect of the sublime, which Kant writes “raise[s] the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and…gives us the courage to believe that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence” (261). Whitman characteristically wishes to reconcile this understanding of the soul’s fortitude in war, reminiscent of his recruitment poems, with the more subdued tones of his battlefield writings. The war “proved Humanity” at its most sublime, while at other moments it “proved” Whitman’s conception of nature as beneficent and beautiful.
In the final poems of Drum-Taps, as well as the subsequent Memories of President Lincoln, Whitman estranges himself from Kant and from the naturalists, who would agree with the philosopher that nature “in its chaos…most arouses our ideas of the sublime, or in its wildest and most ruleless disarray and devastation” (246). Kant places the sublime in opposition to the beautiful; naturalism places nature itself in opposition to the beautiful insofar as beauty requires some kind of order or design to exist, as Kant argues.11 But Whitman returns precisely to the beautiful—that which is bounded and purposeful—and the natural in “Reconciliation”: “Word over all, beautiful as the sky, / Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, / That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world” (1-3). In a conception characteristic of Whitman, he claims it in the hands of death that the war-rent world will be unified and returned to a state of beauty. “Reconciliation” first appeared in the 1865-66 volume Sequel to Drum-Taps, alongside poemsthat later shifted position in Leaves of Grass, including “O Me! O Life!” which ended up preceding Drum-Taps in 1881. This is a poignant laundry list of questions the war raised for Whitman “of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined, / The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?” (6-7). Encouragingly, he next provides an “Answer— That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse” (8-9). Indeed, both life and death are constantly at work in the cyclical rebirth of the natural world and in Whitman’s poetry.
The premier instance of this life-death alliance is another poem originally from Sequel to Drum-Taps, a tender threnody to President Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”12 Throughout its sixteen sections, Whitman succeeds in reconciling some of the deepest tensions present in his Civil War poetry. After following Lincoln’s coffin as it travels by train cross-country, Whitman inserts parenthetically, “Not for you, for one alone, / Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,” thereby reconciling the individual memory of the President, in keeping with his intimate battlefield and hospital poetry, with the collective, national memory of the 620,000 casualties of the war (46-47). This expansive move conjures up the hymn to the levée-en-masse in his recruitment poetry, as the poet now sings their lament. Beyond a eulogy to his Manhattan soldiers, however, Thomas boldly asserts that “When Lilacs…” becomes for Whitman “a song that reunites North and South” through their shared experience of death and suffering (107). The full effects of what Loving calls Whitman’s “betrothal and spiritual renewal” of the nation come to light (68, cf. 45 above). These marriages within the poem fulfill the role of the poet of democracy, even in the midst of the most trying era for democracy in America since its founding.
Enhancing and even surpassing these political healings in “When Lilacs…” are the bouquets bound from its “trinity sure” of natural symbols: the lilac, the western star of Venus, and the hermit thrush singing its carol (4). Lincoln’s springtime death allows Whitman to formulate that event’s connection to the yearly bloom of lilacs, of which he first gives just one sprig to Lincoln’s “coffin that slowly passes” (45) and then comes “with loaded arms…pouring for you, / For you and the coffins all of you O death” (53-54). This anticipates the reconciliation of life and death, no longer at odds but working in harmony, as is only natural. The poet claims he will “adorn the burial-house of him I love” with “pictures of growing spring” so that even the body’s final resting place continually experiences life (80-81). This relation strengthens fully at the thrush’s song in section 14, where death is given personification as “dark mother,” mirroring and extending Whitman’s traditional anthropomorphic notion of the earth as mother. The thrush then sings to this “strong deliveress”:
From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feasting for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high- spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night. (151-154)
In these lines, one further reconciliation is brought about by Whitman, that of the sublime and the beautiful. His “open landscape” and “high-spread sky,” especially in their association with death, are traditional images of sublimity, yet Whitman allots these lines to a small songbird, who would hardly be noticed in such a scene.13 Out of Whitman’s three symbols, the thrush and the lilac both work to narrow the reader’s focus in on the close and approachable details of nature, while Venus in the twilit sky serves to broaden it out to the expansive, even infinite bounds of creation. “When Lilacs” is ripe with nature imagery that spans both the sublime focus of his Whitman’s early war poetry and the small, detail oriented focus more often associated with his name. Walt Whitman’s poetic account of the Civil War is among the richest literature in existence from that era of American history. The journey on which the man and his poetry embarked at the outset of the war remains unique, thanks to his singular talent woven together with his dynamic experience as the war progressed. At the same time and in the same respect, that journey mirrors the quintessential American journey through the war, exploring in turn life and death, the individual and the army en masse, the sublime and the beautiful. Throughout his war poetry in Drum-Taps and beyond, representations of the natural world inform Whitman’s understanding of the war in a way that transfers to readers as they take the same (literary) journey. In his reflection on the war after the final shots were fired, Whitman develops a poetic conception of “reconciliation” based on the harmonic model he found in the inner workings of nature. These works preserve a hopeful postbellum statement that can guide readers to recourse to nature, no matter how far they may have strayed.
1 Michael Moon points out that Whitman “comes closest to defining [the cause] in the 1860 ‘To a Certain Cantatrice’ as ‘the progress and freedom of the race’” (Leaves 6, note 2). Curiously, Whitman rarely refers to the ‘Civil’ War; he writes of the “war of attempted secession” and uses variants of this phrase elsewhere (Prose Works 154).
2 In addition to the sources I reference below, see especially the recent monographs The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War by Roy Morris, Jr. (Oxford, 2001) and Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War by Robert Roper (Walker & Co., 2008).
3 Cf. Ted Genoways’ Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America’s Poet during the Lost Years of 1860-1862, especially “The Representative Man of the North” (pp. 44-78), or “The Union War” in Betsy Erkkila’s Whitman the Political Poet (pp. 190-225). Erkkila’s following chapter, “Burying President Lincoln” (pp. 226-239), takes into consideration natural imagery in “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” and exemplifies the comprehensive approach I take.
4 Cf. 853-932.
5 From Whitman’s notebooks: “Immanuel Kant said that of the manifold wonders pressing upon his receptivity the play of law in the outside world and the other play of passion and spirit in the human Soul most excited his awe and admiration. And these are the centripetal and centrifugal motives of all Walt Whitman’s pages” (1506). My argument, where Kant is concerned, does not hinge on the slim chance that Whitman was consciously channeling his aesthetic theory but rather on the notional marriage of the two writers’ conceptions of war and the sublime.
6 Edmund Burke (1730-1797) is generally considered the first to systematically delineate the concept of the sublime in art and nature, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Kant acknowledges Burke’s contribution in Critique of Judgement: “We can now also compare the transcendental exposition of aesthetic judgments we have just completed with the physiological one, regarding which work has been done by someone like Burke…so that we may see where a merely empirical exposition of the sublime and of the beautiful may lead.” He goes on to say that Burke “deserves to be mentioned as the foremost author in this way of treating the subject,” while still critiquing his “merely empirical” or physiological approach (276).
7 For other lines that hint at uncertainty in the poems cited in Part I, cf. “First O Songs” 37, 41-2; and “Rise O Days” 31-2.
8 Recall that Whitman identified the conflict primarily as the “war of secession” (cf. note 1 above). His portrayal of America-as-mother persists past the war, brought to completion in “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood” in the cluster Whispers of Heavenly Death (cf. Leaves 381).
9 Cf. “A Song of the Rolling Earth” 41, e.g.
10 Cf. p. 51 above for specific lines.
11 Cf. Kant 244.
12 Sequel to Drum-Taps does not exist as a discrete cluster in the deathbed edition; instead, “When Lilacs” appears as the first poem of the Memories of President Lincoln cluster that immediately follows Drum-Taps, thus remaining in similar placement throughout its inclusion in Leaves of Grass. Cf. Whitman 276, note 1.
13 From Whitman’s notebooks: “Hermit Thrush / Solitary Thrush / moderate sized grayish brown bird / sings oftener after sundown sometimes quite in the night / is very secluded/ likes shaded, dark places…in swamps—/ is very shy/ sings in May & June— / not much after June/ is our best songster/ song clear and deliberate—has a solemn effect— his song is a hymn […] is the bird of the solemn primal woods & of Nature pure & holy” (766).
Bierce, Ambrose. “Chickamauga.” The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales and Memoirs, Library of America, 2011.
Bloom, Harold. The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. Spiegel & Grau, 2016.
Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. Oxford UP, 1996.
Genoways, Ted. Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America’s Poet during the Lost Years of 1860-1862. U of California P, 2009.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Translated, with an Introduction, by Werner S. Pluhar. Hackett, 1987.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics. U of Iowa P, 2004. The Walt Whitman Archive, www.whitmanarchive.org, ID: anc.00162.
Loving, Jerome. “Caresser of Life: Walt Whitman and the Civil War.” Whitman and the Civil War, special double issue of Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 15, no. 2, 1997, pp. 67-86.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: A Mosaic of Interpretations. U of Iowa P, 1989.
Mack, Stephen John. The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy. U of Iowa P, 2002. The Walt Whitman Archive, www.whitmanarchive.org, ID: anc.00159.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Thomas, M. Wynn. “Weathering the Storm: Whitman and the Civil War.” Whitman and the Civil War, special double issue of Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 15, no. 2, 1997, pp. 87-109.
Whitman, Walt. Complete Prose Works. David McKay, 1892. The Walt Whitman Archive, www.whitmanarchive.org/published/ other/CompleteProse.html.
——. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Edited by Michael Moon. Norton, 2002.
____. Memoranda During the War. New Republic Print, 1875. The Walt Whitman Archive, www.whitmanarchive.org/published/ other/Memoranda.html.
——. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. 6 vols. Edited by Edward F. Grier. New York UP, 1984.
——. Walt Whitman to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 17 January 1863. The Walt Whitman Archive, www.whitmanarchive.org, ID: uva.00344.