Tapping into History: A Review of Drum-Taps: The Complete 1865 Edition by Walt Whitman

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Drum-Taps: The Complete 1865 Edition
By Walt Whitman
Edited, annotated, and with an introduction by Lawrence Kramer
New York Review Books, 2015
170 pages, $14
Reviewed by Robert Savino Oventile

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In 1865, Walt Whitman published DrumTaps, a collection of poems grappling with the Civil War. The collection’s writing had a beginning in December, 1862. On December 11–15, in Virginia, the Battle of Fredericksburg took place, a casualty-heavy Union loss. On December 14, snaking through the night sky over Fredericksburg, the Aurora Borealis glowed red. Whitman’s brother George was among the Union soldiers at the battle. A New York Herald report listing wounded combatants included an entry Whitman believed referred to George. Though fearing the worst, Whitman hurried from Brooklyn to Washington, D. C., hoping to find George recovering in one of the makeshift hospitals set up about the city. When Whitman arrived in the capital, he spent days searching but failed to find his brother. Whitman then secured a military pass so he could press on to the Union camp at Falmouth (adjacent Confederate-held Fredericksburg), where Whitman did find his brother, who had suffered a minor wound. While at Falmouth, Whitman worked burying the soldiers still lying dead on the Fredericksburg battlefield.

After finding George alive and well, Whitman gave himself over to volunteer work tending injured soldiers, first visiting a hospital in Falmouth and then dedicating himself to the soldiers crowding the hospitals in Washington. Whitman persisted in this unpaid service for the remainder of the war, giving comfort and care to thousands of soldiers in the form of companionship, writing letters, providing favorite foods, distributing books, securing needed cash, and so on. He often took on the duties of a hospice nurse.

Tending to the wounded and the dying, pondering the quick and the dead, musing on the portents, Whitman wrote his poems. He brought Drum-Taps out in April of 1865. Then, to add poems addressing the war’s end and poems mourning President Lincoln, Whitman published a second edition that October containing a section titled Sequel to Drum-Taps. This section includes Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.”

To mark the book’s 150th anniversary (1865–2015), The New York Review of Books has done poetry lovers the great favor of republishing Drum-Taps, edited by Lawrence Kramer, Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University. Kramer worked with a group of his graduate students in preparing the copious and useful notes to the poems this edition of Drum-Taps includes. The notes and Kramer’s thoughtful introduction give readers ample assistance in opening and entering the book.

As Kramer points out, another beginning for Drum-Taps was Homer’s Iliad. Whitman was an enthusiastic reader of the Iliad in English translation. An 1857 jotting by Whitman exalts, “Sixteen English translations of Homer and more besides.” The influence of the Iliad on Drum-Taps manifests frequently, including in the short poem “Cavalry crossing a ford”:

A line in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands;
They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the
   sun—Hark to the musical clank;
Behold the silvery river—in it the splashing horses,
   loitering, stop to drink;
Behold the brown-faced men—each group, each person, a

   picture—the negligent rest on the saddles;
Some emerge on the opposite bank—others are just
   entering the ford;
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind. 

Kramer notes that Whitman knew the work of the English painter and aesthetician William Hogarth. In his 1753 work The Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth describes the s-shaped or serpentine contour as “the line of beauty.” Hogarth calls this contour or line “the sublime in form” and finds it “remarkably displayed in the human body.” In “Cavalry,” Whitman evokes “the line of beauty” to quite satisfying ekphrastic effect. If “each group, each person” is “a picture,” then the poem’s words capture the simultaneous movement and stillness of the larger picture of the crossing. In a single moment, horses and riders pause amidst, exit from, and enter into the Heraclitean river. Whitman’s depiction of the “serpentine course” taken by the “line in long array” fuses movement over time with stillness in space.

So how does Whitman’s beautiful ekphrasis show the Iliad’s influence? The Iliad narrates the battles at Troy as unveiling a particular beauty. The combat’s exposure of fighters to the anonymity of being determines the beauty in question. In “Cavalry,” the sunlight flashing on weapons, the equipage’s “musical clank,” and the “silvery river” register such beauty in anonymous existence. In Drum-Taps, names of persons go missing almost entirely. While lying on the gurney rolling from one’s abode to the waiting ambulance, look up: the trees and the sky, the warmth of the sun, the sun itself, are achingly beautiful in their existence wholly indifferent to one’s name. The Iliad dramatizes encounters with such beauty far more intense than those an unwarranted cardiac scare can offer. As Kramer argues, Whitman drops the heroic modes of the Iliad, say the overwhelming pride of Achilles. Whitman keeps and revises the Iliad’s poetizing of war as disclosing beauty in anonymous being.

Whitman splices this Homeric poetizing with Christian motifs. When the speaker of “In clouds descending, in midnight sleep” dreams of the corpses he dug trenches for to bury en masse, he dreams “Of the dead on their backs, with arms extended wide”: these fallen soldiers lay nameless on the battlefield as though crucified. Kramer argues Whitman thinks of the combatants’ deaths as crucifixions entailing neither resurrection nor salvation. In “A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim,” Whitman writes of his encounter at Falmouth with three blanket-covered corpses, argues Kramer, “as a Calvary without crosses.” In the poem, the speaker lifts the third blanket and declares, “Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of yours / is the face of the Christ himself; / Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.” “Dead and divine”: does Whitman anticipate Thomas J.J. Altizer’s death of God theology?

Whitman brought out the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass as a new Bible for Americans. An 1857 notebook entry reads, “Founding a new American religion (? No Religion).” The 1860 Leaves of Grass would articulate a religion through an implicit disarticulation or negation of religion. This dis-articulating negation happens when Whitman’s affirmative tropes evade and exceed semantic fixations, creedal or ideological, what Harold Bloom calls “an achieved dearth of meaning,” a sublime poem’s ruining of the sacred truths. Already a major poet in 1860, for better or worse Whitman did not become an anarchistic Joseph Smith.

Drum-Taps is less about founding a religion than about preserving and healing the Union. Exhorting Americans to unite in pioneering westward to clear-cut “primeval forests,” “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” grates on contemporary ecological creeds. An ideology of American empire intrudes in the poems heralding the Union’s future. Among the poems in Drum-Taps worthy of Whitman’s genius, “When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” most fully justifies the lines ending “Song of Myself”: “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.”




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Atticus Review is a weekly online journal that publishes stories, poems, flash prose, creative nonfiction, mixed media, book reviews, and other genre-busting words of wisdom and interactive literary whimsy.

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