«Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps: Shifting Attitude towards the Civil War MD. Abu Shahid Abdullah European Joint Master’s Degree in English and American ...»
The speaker says that he is full of gloom and that he must change his triumphant song into a song of bafflement and defeat. This is the speaker’s emotional low point in the cluster, but he has already provided with a touch of resolution in the previous poem, “As Toilsome I Wandered Virginia’s Woods”. He describes how he sees the inscription written on the tomb of an unknown soldier, which he cherishes for a long time. His particular attitude to see all men as his comrades, even the enemies, saves him from his current sadness. His fellow-feelings help him a lot to reconcile with the enormous and terrible cost of war. Later poems in the Drum-Taps mainly focus on the power of love and comradeship. Besides this, the positive outcomes of these brotherly love and comradeship for the nation are also hinted.
2.3 Reconciliation to the Cost of War, Comradeship, and Democratic Idea
The most important part of Drum-Taps deals with direct experience of suffering and death in war with high spirituality. Before arriving in Washington Whitman had been in New York and had no direct experience of war and the battlefield. Though he knew about the war, it did not have any effect or influence on him. Thus, his stay in Washington helped him come in direct contact with the war where he saw the violence and the destruction of the war, and sufferings of soldiers. This particular section of Drum-Taps is significant because here, Whitman shows not only the sufferings, but also the love and comradeship the soldiers feel for each other. “Generosity, tact,
propriety, affection, and, always, toughness in the face of extreme suffering and impending death:
these were the qualities he saw among the wounded” (Reynolds, 1995, p. 426). He believes that when the war finishes, these soldiers will build a new democratic society based on their war experience; this constitutes for Whitman his vision of a perfect democratic society.
In this section of Drum-Taps, Whitman puts the reader through the human cost of the conflict and shows the instances of suffering, death, frustration and mourning. He becomes a mediator and pacifier, and his poems give identity to all the unknown soldiers who fought the battle. He reconciles himself with the cause of the war as he finds a new and concrete cause being fought for. “He realizes that
democracy is a hollow cause of the war; on the other hand, democracy expressed through brotherly love is significant at any cost. In this final group of poems, the narrator does not extol democracy itself, but man’s love for the fellow man” (Szczesiul, 1993, p. 136).
The poem “Vigil Strange, I kept on the Field One Night” is one of the finest examples of love and comradeship among the soldiers in the battlefield. This is the story of two soldiers and one of them, the younger one, dies. The old soldier passes the whole night with the body of the dead soldier and buries him in the chill ground; his love towards the dead soldier is so intense that he even calls him son. Whitman wants to say that war is not all about destruction. He thinks that the soldiers, in spite of their suffering, wound, and destruction, learn how to feel and show brotherly love to one another. This fellow feeling is crucial and significant in establishing a fully democratic society. The emotion the soldier shows for his dead comrade is amazing.
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you Dearest comrade-not a tear, not a word, Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier ……………………………………………………………………….
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, and swift was your death, I faithfully loved you and cared for you living; I think we shall surely meet again,) This poem tells us that in the midst of war, violence, and sufferings these soldiers do not forget their human qualities rather they feel and love one another very much.
“The wound Dresser”, which is about the suffering of the fellow soldiers in war hospitals and the love and compassion the narrator feels for them, is believed to be the finest poem in Drumtaps. The poem is autobiographical in the sense that like the narrator in the poem, the poet is also served in the war hospitals where he talks with the wounded soldiers, gives them company and, most importantly, tries his best to work as a pacifier of mental and emotional wounds of the soldiers. The poem describes the sufferings of the soldiers in the Civil War hospitals, and the narrator’s suffering, faithfulness to duty, and developing compassion as he nurses the soldiers’ physical wounds and gives them comfort. Being asked by the children, the narrator, instead of telling the story of brave battle, describes the suffering of the soldiers and the brotherly feelings among them.
The poem is divided into four sections. In the second section, the narrator gives us a terrible picture of the hospitals and the hellish sufferings of the soldiers: row after row of cots, some soldiers without cots lying on the ground bleeding into the dirt, row after row of amputations, gangrene, fevers, crazed minds, bloody rags, open wounds and so on.
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground, Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital, To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return, To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss, An attendant follows holding a tray; he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
In the midst of all these, he is busy with the soldiers where he sees a boy, and seeing his pain he wants to die instead of him. This feeling of the fellow soldiers helps him come to terms with the violence of war. His love is as deep as that of the soldiers’ love for the country as he wants to die in a boy’s stead.
“One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” The third section describes faithfulness, and expands to the poet’s experience of compassion as he witnesses the suffering, and suffers himself to see the sufferings as he cannot do anything to relieve them. Apparently, he keeps calm, but inside he is torn with pain to see the brutalities of war. The image of a dying soldier’s arm around the neck and kissing show how faithfully the narrator serves his duty as a nurse. “The Wound Dresser” occupies a central position in Drum-Taps because here Whitman shifts from his jingoistic attitude to war to the suffering caused by the war, from the glories of war to the mental and emotional realities of war and its cost of human being. Besides this, he, through the speaker, reveals his love, compassion and brotherly feelings for the wounded.
This particular poem is really crucial in the sense that it is directly related to Whitman’s personal war experience in the hospital during the war. The way he serves the wounded soldiers, the love and emotion he shows towards them is reflected in the poem through the speaker. He believes that the soldiers are learning a lot of things from the war, especially brotherly love and comradeship, and when the war finishes, these soldiers will go back to their normal lives and will practice these qualities in order to reorganize and reshape the country. By the touch of those soldiers a new America will be created which Whitman has long cherished. The poet wants to bind the people from both North and South through compassion and love, though he has a sense of personal sufferings. It is the recognition of shared loss and pain which will eventually be used to rebuild the nation. The poem’s ending with dying soldier’s loving arms and kissing implies the power of union.
The poem “Dirge for Two Veterans” is a fine example of Whitman’s acceptance of the cost of the war where the changing traits of drums reflect the speaker’s changing attitude towards the war (Szczesiul, 1993, p. 137). In poem like “Beat! Beat! Drums” and “City of Ship” the drums were associated with invitation to arms that hinted the start of the war, but in this poem sound of drums is associated with the death of two soldiers which no more depicts the passion and exuberance of the war but the brutality. As the funeral procession passes, the speaker tries to find comfort in the scene.
The way drums were associated with the longing for war in the first section of the Drum-taps, in the same way the night was related to terror and horror of the war in the second section but in “Dirge for Two Veterans” the meaning changes totally. Here the moon gives the dead soldiers light and the drums and the bugles serve as a source of music, and it is the speaker’s love for his comrades that bestows the scene with a sense of serenity.
In the poem “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice”, the speaker professes that men from the North and the South shall be comrade and this idea gets its fullest expression in the poem “Reconciliation” as he kisses a dead Confederate soldier. To him, the enemy soldier is as divine
as he is:
“For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead, I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near, Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin” (“Reconciliation”) This reconciliation can be interpreted on both personal and national levels. On the personal level, the kiss implies the final act of the poet during the war; he is now fully prepared to interpret the war. “On the national level, the reconciliation is the end of the war, and the hope for the unity between the North and the South in the future” (p. 138).
The poet, in the remaining poems, goes on to interpret the war for the benefit of future generation because he believes that the war has taught people, especially, the soldiers some important lessons which are absolutely necessary to rebuild the nation. For example, in “Spirit Whose Work Is Done,” he addresses the spirit of war as if it was his source of inspiration, and asks that he may be its mouthpiece to the future. In “How Solemn as One by One”, he talks of a kindred spirit which exists between all men and which cannot be killed either by bullet or by the bayonet, and he also goes on to say that the war has strengthened the spirit. In the last poem of the cluster “To the Leavened Soil They Trod”, the speaker again sings of the union between the North and the South; he says that his songs, composed during the war, will travel a huge distance and will be nurtured by the “Northern ice and rain” and ripened by the “hot sun of the South”.
The poems in Drum-Taps represent an important development in Whitman’s consciousness.
Different sections of the book vividly show his shifting attitude to the war. Whereas the earlier poems welcome the terrible war, the middle poems turn 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 which is believed to be used for rebuilding the nation. The poems in different sections of Drum-Taps interpret the war in different ways and put light on the historical perspective of the war. This book also helps Whitman receive positive comments from the contemporary critics, and his activities during the war have been praised highly.
As time passes and the war continue, the poet comes in touch with different incidents, gets direct war experience, his views, attitudes and ideologies regarding the civil war changes, and the focus of the book also shifts. It is really interesting how the focus can be shifted from welcoming the war too, at the end, denoting the fellow feelings and comradeship. In the last poems of the cluster, the narrator equalizes the enemies with him. The poet’s long cherished dream of rebuilding the nation also starts to see the light of hope through the war experiences of the soldiers. He was the loving comrade of both those the war had taken and who had survived to begin a new era.
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Name: Md. Abu Shahid Abdullah Affiliation: European Joint Master’s Degree in English and American Studies Institute: Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg, Germany Address: Pestalozzistrasse 9F, Room No: 6003, 96052, Bamberg, Bavaria, Germany Cell No: +4915739157029