And had Bucke never read any of Whitman's earlier poetry (Leaves of Grass, for example) "we might think that words could not convey greater passion" than they did in Drum-Taps (p. 171). "But now we know better," he went on. The "splendid faith" of Whitman's earlier poems is "greatly dimmed" in Drum-Taps, he insists. Bucke writes that he was told by a person "who knew the poet well, and who was living in Washington when 'Drum-Taps' were being composed, that he has seen Walt Whitman…turn aside into a doorway or other out-of-the-way place on the street…" (p. 171).
Once out of the bustle of the busy street, Whitman would take out his notebook, Bucke continues, write some lines to Drum-Taps "…and while he was so doing he has seen the tears run down [Whitman's] cheeks. I can well believe this, for there are poems in Drum Taps that can scarcely be read aloud after their full meaning has once been felt" (Bucke, p. 171). But those tears that Bucke's friend related to him -- while certainly showing passion -- "show also a loss of personal force (i.e. faith) in the man who some years before wrote 'Children of Adam' and 'Calamus' without flinching" (p. 171).
John P. McWilliams Jr. -- Drum Taps and Battle Pieces: The Blossom of War
McWilliams consistently insists that Whitman did not really believe in or worry about the "sectional strife" in the Civil War. The war "raises no doubts about national unity or national strength" (McWilliams, 1971, p. 193) in Whitman's work. In his American Quarterly piece McWilliams explains that Whitman goes about examining various scenes of war, but he never writes about a "specific battle" and never pits the South against the North or the North against the South in Drum Taps.
The Drum-taps' themes are not about "Freedom combating slavery, Right combating Wrong," and the themes are not about the presence of Satan or the "corruption of Eden," McWilliams asserts (p. 194). Whitman's purposes are not along the lines of "eulogy, elegy, or hymn of victory" McWilliams continues. What Whitman is very deeply concerned with in Drum-Taps is for the individual, McWilliams writes. Whitman conveys that theme by bringing to the reader's mind the "changing relationship between Walt Whitman the poetic 'I' who is all men, and the Spirit of War" (p. 194).
The emotional changes that Whitman went through as the war dragged on, and as he saw different aspects of the war, are reflected in Drum-taps, McWilliams writes, with a hint of sarcasm. Embracing the spirit at the beginning of the war, the first nine poems in Drum-taps "celebrate war" but a bit later after glorifying the beginnings of this great war Whitman -- and after proclaiming himself the poet who glorifies war -- is "compelled to examine the realities of war," McWilliams goes on (p. 196).
Whitman creeps ever closer to the battleground in his poems; in "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" Whitman is watching the Union Army crossing a river then camping on a mountain then in "By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame" the poet is now actually in the army camp. And in that campsite the poet's physical presence brings a reality to Drum-taps that was absent in the beginning, according to McWilliams.
McWilliams says that when Whitman's tone transcends the glorification of the war at the outset, into another reality, the "sorrowing acceptance of its miseries" shows the critic that the poet "only becomes real when he learns to grieve" (McWilliams, p. 196). Here is an example of why the thesis of this paper: Whitman is not being overly romantic about war. He is just painting the picture that the nation was feeling at the beginning of the war. But in witnessing the slaughter and carnage of war -- or reading in gruesome detail -- a person soon becomes weary of war.
Because Whitman places himself in the shoes of the soldier -- becomes "a participating soldier and not a detached observer" in McWilliams' view -- the poet can "reconcile himself to a single enemy, and then declare that his action is symbolic of national reconciliation" (McWilliams, p. 197). In the following passage from "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim" Whitman is brilliant in his ability to squeeze the whole world down to "the sorrowing mother or to the three dead youths on field stretchers" (McWilliams, p. 197). Whitman shows an "almost mystical love for the individual torn apart by war" (McWilliams, p. 197):
"Young man I think I know you / I think this face is the face of the Christ himself / Dead and diving and brother of all, and here again he lies" (Whitman quoted by McWilliams, p. 197). And again in "The Wound-Dresser" Whitman shows that he is not merely romanticizing the war or the injuries; he has an "overflowing love of mankind," McWilliams insists; and hence, by "extension" Whitman shows love for every man as he becomes the dresser of wounds, which indeed he was in many hospitals during the Civil War.
"Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war / but soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resigned myself / to sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead" (Whitman quoted by McWilliams, p. 197). In this passage Whitman clearly is enraged against the enemy; he sees the horrific, unbelievably savage results of men firing guns into one another's flesh in pitched battles where hundreds, thousands will lay bleeding and dying after the battle is done. It is important to realize that Whitman, the humanist, the poet who cares about families and young men, "is given equally to Northerner and Southerner," McWilliams reminds on page 198. This is a sign of the poet's love for "national reconciliation" (McWilliams, p. 198).
Thomas Wentworth Higginson -- an Attack on Whitman's Patriotism
Higginson has recklessly attacked Whitman for not enlisting in the war with the Union Army. According to Harry R. Warfel (Drum-Taps / Walt Whitman) Higginson "…elaborated the reasons why a man who bragged of consummate health and called on all others to fight should not have remained at the comparatively remote distance of the hospital" (Warfel, 1959, p. xii). This is not a critic who made some passing negative criticisms of Whitman; rather, Higginson "continued attacking Whitman…" in a way that suggests fanaticism (Warfel, p. xii). Indeed, Higginson (according to Warfel) prepared an obituary for the New York Post well prior to Whitman's death. "Of the many hundreds of obituaries this was the most widely distributed, the most elaborate, the most damaging," Warfel writes (p. xiii). Basically Higginson was calling America's greatest poet a coward.
Warfel considers Higginson among "the best of men"; and so Higginson's brutal attack on Whitman's patriotism makes Warfel "quaver at the inhumanity" given that apparently Higginson wrote the scathing obituary "during Whitman's critical illness three years before" (Warfel, p. xiii).
John Burroughs -- in Defense of Whitman's Patriotism
In Warfel's book he cites a response by a respected scholar and intellectual as to Whitman's patriotism. The scholar is John Burroughs, a noted author, conservationist and moral leader during the time of Whitman's productive and published life. In his book, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person Burroughs recounts the times he went into the Civil War hospitals and witnessed Whitman as a "…man moving among the maimed, the pale, the low-spirited, the near-to-death" (Burroughs' book was digitized in 2009, p. 13).
The "lusterless eye" of every wounded soldier "brightened up at [Whitman's] approach," Burroughs wrote. As to Drum-taps, Burroughs noted that is was not "the purpose of the poet to portray battles and campaigns, or to celebrate special leaders or military prowess…" (Burroughs, p. 97). Instead, Burroughs continues, it was Whitman's desire -- through his poetry and his work in hospitals -- to show that "…the permanent condition of modern society is that of peace; that war, as a business, as a means of growth, has served its time" (Burroughs, p. 97). Burroughs believed that Drum-taps "will gradually and in due time come to be accepted as the vital and distinguishing memento through literature of the late war, and its strongest ties with the ages to come" (Burroughs, p. 106).
Harry R. Warfel, Editor -- Whitman's Patriotism is Questioned
In his book Drum-Taps / Walt Whitman editor Harry R. Warfel admits that there are reasons to question -- or "rationalize" -- Whitman's conduct while he wrote Drum-taps; those who question his patriotism "must [have] worked more on faith than on facts" (Warfel, p. xi). For Warfel, he believes that Whitman did indeed dip into patriotism perhaps a bit too fervently at the beginning of Drum-taps. Warfel calls it "the first flush of patriotism felt by so many at the time"; but Warfel believes that Whitman may well have been…