Term Paper: Walt Whitman and the Poetics of War

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Walt Whitman and the Poetics of War

Throughout the course of his poetic career, Walt Whitman strove to attain a poetry that was uniquely American in both its voice and its concerns. To a large extent, it can be said that he accomplished this goal. Leaves of Grass is widely regarded as a classic work of American literature, and the individual poems that comprise it serve as a valuable record of the Zeitgeist. Indeed, Whitman was a man of the 19th century, and as such, we can gain some insight into the general feelings and ideas relating to the tragedy of the Civil War, which would tear the country apart. In what follows, I intend to analyze five of Walt Whitman's poems related directly to the tragedy of war. In the course of my analysis, I intend to show how Whitman's initial optimism was soon dispersed into a more tragic realism once he became aware of the inherently destructive nature of war.

One of the earliest and best known incantations of war in Whitman was the poem "Beat! Beat! Drums!" This poem has come to be seen as a patriotic rally call for the North, in which he evokes the preparatory noise of war - the bugles blaring, the drums beating - and describes the way in which the fever for war has overtaken the entire nation. At the same time, the poem concludes with a tone of morbid warning that predicts the catastrophes that war inevitably entails:

Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mother's entreaties,

Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,

So strong you thump O. terrible drums -- so loud you bugles blow.

It should not be forgotten that Whitman was more than just a passive observer of the American Civil War. He also participated, in that he devoted a significant amount of his service to caring for the wounded. This gave Whitman immediate, direct access to the realities of war, and helped him compose many of his best-known "frontline" poems, such as "An Army Corps on the March." This poem provides a realistic glimpse into what it must have been like to serve in the army during this time, and is almost journalistic in style and tone:

With its cloud of skirmishers in advance,

With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip, and now an irregular volley,

The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on,

Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun - the dust-cover'd men,

In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground,

With artillery interspers'd - the wheels rumble, the horses sweat,

As the army corps advances.

By this point, the realities of war have sunk in, and Whitman has clearly lost interest in romanticizing war, as we saw him doing in "Beat! Beat! Drums!"

In "Bivouac on a Mountain Side," Whitman is concerned with a geographical description of a war-tarnished landscape. In this respect, he aligns himself with the great tradition of American landscape poetry and painting. A bivouac, of course, is an improvised military encampment that is usually out in the open, leaving its soldiers vulnerable to enemy fire. The speaker of the poem is watching as an army proceeds to stake out a bivouac in an idyllic mountain valley. The scene of the campfires dotting the mountain at night is wonderfully evoked:

The numerous camp-fires scatter'd near and far, some away up on the mountain,

The shadowy forms of men and horses, looming, large-sized, flickering,

And over all the sky - the sky! far, far out of reach, studded, breaking out, the eternal Stars.

Here, we see Whitman briefly returning to his romantic mode in showing us an isolated moment of profound beauty amidst the horrors of war. He juxtaposes the natural world with the havoc and chaos of the human kingdom down below, showing how… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Walt Whitman and the Poetics of War.  (2008, April 16).  Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/walt-whitman-poetics-war/9003823

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