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«Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps: Shifting Attitude towards the Civil War MD. Abu Shahid Abdullah European Joint Master’s Degree in English and American ...»

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Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps: Shifting Attitude towards the Civil


MD. Abu Shahid Abdullah

European Joint Master’s Degree in English and American Studies

Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg, Germany


Walt Whitman was completely disgusted by the social and political condition of Pre Civil War

America, and his Drum Taps provides an alternative vision of an America ruled by a wave of

comradely relationship. However, the poems in Drum Taps provide a shifting attitude towards the

Civil War, which is undoubtedly influenced by Whitman’s own war experience. Whereas the initial section welcomes the terrible war, the middle section turns to depict the violence of the war, and the last section focuses on the reconciliation to the cost of the war and the comradeship among the soldiers; this shifting attitude towards the war is the direct outcome of Whitman’s experience in the war hospitals. He believes that the soldiers, transformed by the war experience, will help to build a more egalitarian and democratic society, which he has long been dreaming for.

[Key Words: Civil War, Comradeship, Chauvinism, Democratic idea]

1. Introduction Drum-Taps, the masterpiece of Walt Whitman, was written on the event of the American Civil War and it focuses on the shifting attitude of the narrator to the war. Whitman saw the Civil War primarily as a war to preserve the Union. He hoped that the Northerners would discover true, or pure, democracy in the very process of defending it. In Drum-Taps, we find a dual perspective where Whitman assumes the voice of the soldier and also reconcile that experience through the voice of a compassionate observer. “Drum-Taps offers an alternative vision of America, one ruled not by the ‘cash nexus’ coming to dominate northern society, but by a network of intimate, comradely relationships" (Thomas, 1987, p. 187).

Whitman began to see the Civil War simultaneously as both personal and national history, the memory of which had to be preserved (Szczesiul, 1993, p. 132). On the personal level, the war presented the Whitman's concept of comradeship and love which he experienced in the war hospitals. “On the national level, the war proved to be the testing ground of the American democratic ideal. As a result, Whitman saw in the war the potential for what could be a private, personal poetry with national significance” (p. 132). Whitman was totally against the anti-bellum American society. He dreamt of a truly democratic society and believed that the war would bring an ideal society. “The war, to him, proved humanity, and proved America and the modern” (Thomas, 1987, p. 194). Not only the poet, but people from different spheres of life were against the government, political upheaval and secession, and they believed that the only way to get rid of this situation was to have a war.

The narrative ordering of the poems in the Drum Taps cluster suggests Whitman's shifting ambitions, and captures his own development during the war years. The aim of the paper is to prove that the poems in Drum Taps do not really stick to any single attitude towards the war; they, rather, convey a shifting war view which actually reflects the changing mindset of Whitman himself towards the war. Working in the war hospitals, staying with the soldiers, and observing the horror of the war, Whitman realizes his ever changing attitude towards the war which he reveals in his poems. His poems shift from portraying the jingoistic attitude towards the war to depicting the horror and brutalities of war; some of his poems describe the reconciliation of the narrator to the cost of the war, and also focuses on the positive aspects of the war such as brotherly love among the soldiers. He believed that the soldiers, transfigured by their experience, would return to inspire the nation’s growth toward a truly egalitarian, fraternal and democratic society. The weight Whitman places on the Drum-Taps and his hospital life signifies how crucial and significant he considers the war to be in his development as a great poet. His service in the war hospitals earns him the title “wound dresser” and “good gray poet”. Besides these, his war poems earn him positive remarks because of his almost photographic accuracy of observation, a masculine directness of expression and real tenderness of feelings. With the collection of war poems, Whitman hoped that his own record of the war would reunite the country.

2. Different Sections in Drum-Taps When the Civil War began in 1861, Whitman, like many of his fellow citizens, welcomed it as a violent but necessary agent to heal the disintegration of the nation. Initially, the poet remained in Manhattan and Long Island, and confirmed his support for the Union; however, this general confidence began to be shattered after the Battle of First Bull Run, which forced the Union troops to retreat to Washington. As Whitman expressed, the outcome of this battle provoked one of “those crises… when human eyes appeared at least just as likely to see the last breath of the Union as to see it continue” (Kaplan, 1996, p. 735). However, in spite of this pessimism, Whitman kept his trust in the Union, which is reflected in the initial poems of Drum-Taps in which he asserts that Northerners should to join the army and defend the nation.

The poems of the Drum-Taps may be broken down into three sections which correspond to the speaker's shifting attitudes toward the war. The first section, which comprised of eleven poems, serves two main purposes; it describes the jingoistic idealism of the speaker in the early days of the war, and defines the goal of the poet-figure. The second section contains seven poems which deal with the realities of war; these poems shock the narrator and fill him with reservations and doubt. Finally, in the fourteen poems of the third section, the narrator reconciles himself with the war through his rejuvenated sense of comradeship, and interprets it on both a personal and national level. All of the poems of the third section focus on the power of comradely love and show the recuperated confidence of the poet-figure in his mission. Let’s analyze the three sections in detail.

2.1 Chauvinistic Attitude and Welcoming the War

The early poems in Drum Tapes are very many patriotic and inspiring in tone. Like most other northerners, Whitman also believed that the war would not be a long lasting one and he was very much enthusiastic about the war. These poems reflect the urban excitement and welcoming of the war, and invite the spirit of war to move everyone to defend the unity of the nation. Although these poems want to justify the cause of war and the participation of the northerners, they also include traces of doubt, fear and anxiety. He places poems like “First O Songs for a Prelude”, “Beat! Beat!

Drums!”, “Eighteen Sixty-One”, and “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” which welcomes and mystifies the war. “First O Songs for a Prelude” welcomes a massing force to meet and defeat the South. It is also an assertion of the popular democratic will after more than a decade of corrupt and unrepresentative government, and a proof of democracy unparalleled in all the history of the world.

The speaker describes how soft opera music has been replaced by the sound of drums and how the music of drums has brought a change in the city where he has been living for long years.

“How you sprang—how you threw off the costumes of peace with an 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”) He welcomes the war, no matter how long it continues, and shows how people from different classes and spheres of life move to the war. All are busy with war preparation and even the ladies are ready to work as a nurse. The total situation gets a festive touch.

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The poet celebrates the gathering of a professional force as well as the completely voluntary gathering of the true citizen army. The soldiers were not fighting for money or for the interest of others. They were fighting for true democratic equality and freedom (Thomas, 1987, p. 195).

The old men are showing the young, new recruits how to wear the dresses. Armed soldiers arrive every day and pass the city and though they are covered with dust they look absolutely fantastic and solid. The speaker goes on to describe the tearful parting of the mother and son, and, most importantly, although she kisses her son, she does not utter a single word to detain him from going to the war. In the very last line the speaker says that the city is now exultant and it is smiling with ecstasy.

“But now you smile with joy exulting old Mannahatta.” The poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Welcomes the war and urges it to disturb everybody so that the people cannot do their work. The speaker thinks the war is more important than any other things and people should pay attention to that. He is so enthusiastic that he urges the war, even to shake the dead.

“No bargainers’ bargains by day-no brokers or speculators-would they continue?

Would the talkers be talking? Would the singer attempt to sing?

Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?” But in the second and the third stanza where the sound of drums is requested to disturb the “bargainers’ bargains by day”, overwhelm the “business of brokers and speculators”, do not consider the old and the young, and shake even the dead, there prevails an undercurrent of doubt and uncertainty regarding the cause and success of the war.

The second function of the first section is to determine the role of the poet. The poems "From Paumanok Starting I Fly like a Bird," "Rise, O Days, from your Fathomless Deeps" and "The Centenarian's Story" expand this notion of the war time poet. From here the poet confidently takes the role of a national poet and he becomes more confident when he asserts in the poem "Rise, O Days, from your Fathomless Deeps," that he is well prepared to sing the song of war. To the poet, the war seemed like a purifying fire that would burn away the city’s problem. In “Rise O Days from your fathomless Deeps” he begged the war to crash louder and louder to three American cities of their prewar evils (Reynolds, 1995, p. 419).

The first section closes with four poems which can be considered as transition between the previous idealistic poems and the later realistic ones. These poems imply the recruitment in the battlefields and the tension of coming war. In these poems, no destruction and sufferings of the people are found; rather only light description of war is shown there. The new grouping of the four poems increases their picturesque qualities; they are snapshots of everyday war scenes and are a sort of verbal expressionistic. In this section, the focus shifts gradually from group to individual by moving from the armies described in the Poems “Cavalry Crossing a Ford”, “An Army Corps on the March”, “Bivouac on a Mountain Side” and “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame” to specific soldiers and their relatives. These poems give us an idea of the soldiers and their lives, and they are not depicted as either Unionists or Confederates but as common soldiers. The first two poems are of motion, daylight and sunlight and the last to take place at night and in a camp beside the camp fire. The last two poems depict the terror of the night as the night takes on the characteristics which are associated with the suffering, horror and terror of the war.

“The numerous campfires scattered near and far, some away Up on the mountain, The shadowy forms of men and horses, looming, largeSized, flickering,” (“Bivouac on a Mountain Side”)

2.2 Realities and Brutalities of the War

The second section of Drum-Taps comprises of seven poems, and it states the narrator understands of the brutal and harsh reality of the war. His confidence, chauvinism, self-assuredness are shaken terribly in this section. The poems are mainly concerned with the carnage of the war, and describe the terrible brutality of the war in every concrete term. The poems” A March in the Ranks HardPrest, and the Road Unknown” explicitly describes the experience of a soldier when he, after having a crushing defeat, retreats, enters into a hospital, and watches terrible suffering of the fellow soldiers. He says that after entering the hospital, he sees a scene which has not been portrayed by any picture or movie. He describes the wretched condition of the war hospitals and the hellish life the wounded soldiers have to live there. Here, the speaker has clearly turned away from his earlier jingoistic attitude and tries to focus on the terrible aspects of the war.

Entering but for a minute I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made, Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps, …………………………………………………………….

Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood, …………………………………………………………….

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating, (“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown”) This poem focuses on the terrible sufferings of the soldiers and shows that the medical facilities for the soldiers are not up to the level. In this poem, the speaker soldier is helpless; he cannot stop war, nor can he save a soldier from bleeding to death. But before he gets the order from his commander to leave, he sits by the dying soldier and gives him company. The war is relentless and no one can stop it. It will continue to move in its own way, no matter how many soldiers die or how much the people suffer.

“Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness, Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks, The unknown road still marching.” In the poem “Year that Trembled and Reel’d Beneath Me” the speaker is doubtful whether he will continue his earlier jingoistic, patriotic and idealistic manner or not. He is no longer the same speaker; he was at the beginning of the war and the Drum-Taps. The continuation of the war has caused doubt in him.

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