In class last Tuesday we mentioned a certain part of Memorandum where Whitman sort of casually mentioned that the war was over and then went about accounting on the patients he was seeing and his daily duties and activities. We talked about how, for Whitman, the war was not yet over. He was not concerned with the battleground statistics that we learn about in history books. Whitman’s experience of the war was unique in that he never saw actual battle, but knew perhaps better than anyone what the outcome of it was. His wartime experiences changed him dramatically as a writer and as a person. Just as he was less concerned with the fact that the war had officially been deemed “over,” his ideas about his writing and their influence were also shifting.
The fact that Whitman would even ask a question like, “Must I change my triumphant songs?” speaks volumes about his changing perspective. Where we had once seen a Whitman that was so sure of himself (almost to a point of fault), we begin to see an uneasiness brought on by the terrible experiences of war and the changes that such trauma will bring. When the smoke cleared and the battle cries finally died out, I get the feeling that Whitman was left wondering if anyone really cared about the majesty in a blade of grass anymore.
Whitman did change his “triumphant songs.” The diaries that he kept were concise and accurate in a way that deviates from his traditional style in a very obvious way. These notes and observations went on to become detailed accounts of his experiences. In much of the post-war poetry, the ambiguity is cut out and replaced with jarring details of war carnage that are almost the exact opposite of his previous ramblings.
I remember reading Song of the Open Road at the beginning of class. An avid adventurer, I was really inspired by lines like-
I think heroic deed were all conceiv’d in the open air and all free poems also, I think I could stop here myself and do miracles, I think whoever I shall meet I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me, I think whoever I see must be happy.
Later, in Drum Taps, his attitude has changed-
LONG, too long America, Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only, But now, ah now, to learn from the crisis of anguish, advancing, grappling with Direst fate and recoiling not, And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are, (For who except myself has yet conciev’d what you children en-masse really are?)
Perhaps Whitman, like America, had grown too complacent on an easy path. It took the crisis of the Civil War for America to rebuild a stronger and freer union. Likewise, although Whitman’s poetry was changed after the terrors he experienced, it only became stronger and more balanced.test Filed under Uncategorized | Comments (5)