Walt Whitman The First Modern Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

In "Song of Myself," the longest and most complex of the three poems from Leaves of Grass, Whitman celebrates not only the self, but also the self with, and among others. This poem has 52 separate sections, each of them uniquely rich in imagery; theme; setting; sensory impressions, and sensuality. Section 1 of the poem, for example, freely celebrates Whitman's "Self": his essence, health, body, individuality, and joy of living, as well as the collective "self" and selves within others: "I celebrate myself and sing myself,... For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

Subsequent sections of "Song of Myself," elaborate, by using diverse images, metaphors, and sensory impressions, upon the essential themes suggested within the first section: the individual; the "collective" individual (the individual's identification with other "selves," both within and outside of that individual); one's soul; one's separate senses; and one's relationships with and enjoyment of others. Section 2 expands the celebration of the self to "The smoke of my own breath," and "M respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs." Section 6 ponders "What is the grass," and the myriad things of which a leaf of grass, by God's design, might consist, in answer to a child's question. Sections 10 through 16 celebrate, again, the vastness of America and the diverse ways, lives, and glories of her people. Later stanzas celebrate myriad blending, metaphysical and real, of time and space, the self and others; those near at hand and those far away; those both known and unknown; and the endless combinations and possibilities of the self; others; the body; the soul; American regions and states, and the nation as a whole.

Four poems by Walt Whitman about the Civil War, from a larger book of Civil War poems called Drum Taps, which Whitman published in 1865, are "Beat! Beat! Drums!" (1861); "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" (1865); "The Wound Dresser" (1865), and "Reconciliation" (1865-1866). Each of these uniquely reveals the poet's changing attitudes about the war itself. For example, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" describes, almost musically, the loud rhythmic beating sounds of the intrusive drums and bugles of war, as they interrupt the far less dramatic rhythms of everyday life: church; school; traveling through the city. While the poem does not romanticize war, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" still seems to suggest, through its own steady, drum-like rhythm, that this war must in fact be fought, in order to preserve the very way of tranquil, predictable life that the drums and bugles now interrupt. In that sense, the poem functions, then, as a sort of call to action, through necessity.

However, in the second poem, "Cavalry Crossing a Ford," written four years later in 1865, Whitman's speaker is less a war enthusiast, and instead, more of an observer of the stark, portrait-like, ironically colorful scene in which cavalry and horses splash their way across a silvery-appearing ford. The third poem, "The Wound Dresser" (1865), is about soldiers who have been wounded in the Civil War being treated inside a hospital, and the feelings of the man who dresses their wounds, shares their suffering, and sometimes watches them die, springs from Whitman's own grim, four-year experiences as a hospital volunteer dressing the wounds of soldiers at hospitals in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a volunteer male nurse during the war years. According to "Walt Whitman 1819-1892" (Lawall et al.): "Whitman's role of wound dresser was heroic, and it eventually undercut his buoyant physical health" (p. 2079). Within the poem "The Wound Dresser," Whitman's speaker in the poem no longer merely hears or observes the war: instead, he is actively engaged with the enormous sorrows and sufferings of the wounded soldiers to whose needs he tends. Angel Price suggests, in "Whitman's Drum Taps and Washington's Civil War Hospitals" that, in fact:

The most poignant scenes of the Civil War come from Walt Whitman's wartime prose and most distinctly his book of poetry entitled Drum Taps (1865) Many of its poems resulted from his years in Washington, D.C., spent as a psychological nurse to sick and wounded soldiers. Whitman wrote to a friend in 1863, "The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield" in reference to the aid of his cheerful disposition and careful attention to the welfare of the soldiers.

Finally, the fourth Civil War poem, "Reconciliation" offers a brief, poignant reflection about the war dead and, the end of the war. This poem creates a simple metaphor of reconciliation: that of a living man caressing his enemy, who lies white-faced inside his coffin. This poem expresses Whitman's feelings about the beauty of the calm aftermath of war, and the ability of the living, finally, to begin to heal from the wounds the war has caused. The poet's expressed wish within "Reconciliation" is also that time might heal, for the living, both the physical and psychic wounds of the war. Readers of these four Civil War poems by Whitman may notice considerable differences between them: not only in content and apparent attitude toward the war, but also in rhythm, line-spacing, paragraphing, and indentation; cadence, tone, style, descriptions of sounds, textures, and colors, metaphor, and imagery, which reflect Whitman's varying attitudes toward or views of his respective subjects -- the war and different aspects, impressions, or realizations the poet has derived from what he has seen of it, in hospitals; in open fields; on the faces of the dying as he dresses their wounds.

From the mid through the late 19th century, Walt Whitman was the first to contribute his uniquely American poetic voice to a growing cannon of distinctly American literature. The bold, free-form exuberance of Whitman's poetry moved it far beyond the constraints of traditional English verse, which had restricted other American poets both before and during Whitman's time. Clearly a great experimenter with, and a great innovator of modern American poetry, Walt Whitman, in his writings of and for a democratic, all-inclusive America, embodied the essence of a truly American modern poet.

Works Cited

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Donald Mc Quade et al. (Eds.). New York: Longman, 1993. 56-102.

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