Walt Whitman was a poet of hope and encouragement, but his greatest poem is bleak at heart, ripped bloody, and shredded with despair. He was our verbal cheerleader, our avid egoist as well as our most enthusiastic inclusionist:
O to make the most jubilant song!
Full of music—full of manhood, womanhood, infancy!
Full of common employments—full of grain and trees!
O for the voices of animals!
Thus he warbles, making room with his constant, necessary roll-call for us all in “A Song of Joys.” Yet his greatest poem finds him desolate, solitary, at a complete loss for words, which is death for him. He was the poet of Brooklyn and Manahatta—he likes the native names for places—but his greatest poem was written in Washington, DC, where he lived for ten years in a series of rooms and boarding houses.
I’m referring to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Its magnitude, its lyric intensity, the scope and rhetorical dynamics of its moving scheme, its sheer beauty as song and psalm, all become one matchless thing. But the distance it travels—literally from Washington, DC, to Abraham Lincoln’s grave in Springfield, Illinois; but more so, figuratively, from natural description to war-torn destruction and despair, to death, and beyond death back (or forward) to language and hope of a habitable world—is as massive as Virgil’s epic or Dante’s or Milton’s, and more humane than them all. Here are the opening two sections:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with every-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western falling star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
In this poem, eventually, in its most incredible scene, Whitman the poet and our travel-guide is dead. To “effuse” himself in eddies, to dismantle the body, to die back into nature or the natural body of others, is not in itself an unusual trope for Whitman. He plays the martyr and the victim with equal conviction as he plays the hero or abiding commoner. Yet here his death feels more existentially factual and barren than in any other of his poems. He dies in real, palpable despair. His leader, his “Captain, my Captain,” has been murdered by a zealous man at the end of a vicious war. His faith in democracy and improvement has been blown apart. Nor has he, as he had prophesied, seen his beloved country “absorb him [and his poetry] as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” His death is an empathic association with the dead president but also enacts the larger erasure of hope. Even the violets he sees “peep[ing] from the ground” and the “gray debris” in the old woods reflect the colors of the brutal armies.
So Whitman, or his blasted spirit, fades to the swamp, a primordial world neither solid nor fluid. And the great talker listens: to a bird, the “solitary singer” hermit thrush whose song in section fourteen is a praise-song to death, alternately identified as lovely, soothing, delicate, and cool-enfolding. Whitman’s own earlier phrase is even more to my point. He says in part seven, in anticipation of the thrush and in an uncharacteristic conditional voice: “thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death.” The poet of life is, in his greatest poem, the poet of death.
The sacred nature of death in Whitman’s poetry is clear enough. Even the names by which he refers to the lilac elegy indicate his reverent purposes. As the poem proceeds, he calls this song a dirge, a chant, a serenade, a carol, and finally—and in this order—a “powerful psalm in the night.” The secular is the sacred for Whitman always. Rather it’s the sane element of death that catches my eye here. How is death sane? Death is chaos otherwise and in other poetry. What does it mean to be sane?
In Whitman’s first great poem, “Song of Myself,” the poet commences with a vision of things. I mean that literally. Whitman is an avid watcher, a self-confessed if typically wholesome ogler. He loves to look. His imagination is initiated by sight. He “observes” a leaf of summer grass, as here in the lilac elegy he first sees a lilac bloom and the planet Venus.
The romantic trope of sight is charged with sensory immediacy. We don’t have to think to observe. Or perhaps sight, with its optic nerve wired so directly into our reptile brain, is our first thinking. I look up to the sky and say “I see the sun.” But notice how immediately the little clause translates to inner cognitive awareness. When we finally understand that nasty math problem, what do we say? We say, “Oh! I see!” Whitman looks and looks. He “wander[s] all night in [his] vision.” “Look for me,” he flirts and challenges, “under your boot-soles.”
Whitman’s fundamental dependence on sight complies readily and eagerly with his intellectual father, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for whom that wacky, evocative “transparent eyeball” is a central figure. Emerson watches as the light of understanding flows into and back out of the poetic mind and political body alike. Who is more felicitous, light with his touch, than Emerson? “The simple perception of natural forms is a delight,” he writes. “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.” (All along we want to respell “eye” as its homonym pronoun to enjoy Emerson’s polite visionary pun.) “We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”
Part of the appeal of sight to Emerson is its antiseptic quality. The good Unitarian Brahmin, the gentle man, didn’t have to get his hands dirty if he could just look. He was dignified, a little fussy. He could be aloof. In one of the few instances we know of Emerson’s loss of control, as he documents in his diary on March 29, 1832, “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin.” This is the whole entry. His beloved wife had died on February 7, 1831, and her death shook Waldo to the bone. And so, even a year later, in an “act [that] remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane” according to Gay Wilson Allen, Emerson needed once more not merely to mourn his wife, but see her, visit her, take a look. Did he, as one commentator imagines, also touch her? How could he not? Did he lie down beside her?
The striking feature here is the unclean impulse of Emerson’s typically antiseptic and reliably sane demeanor. A year’s-dead unembalmed body in a family tomb would not be sanitary, as visiting that body would not be “sane.” Touching makes us crazy.
As I said, Whitman’s first impulse is visual. He’s a great observer with sweeping, panoramic skills. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” when he looks down into the East River, he sees his reflection in the tidal waters. But he sees also the image of the commuters passing, the ships of nations, even Manhattan’s skyline. He sees the movement of generations, time itself, history, all humanity. Whitman’s visual impulse is connective. But his transcendental figurations can also be blurring. He looks with such sweeping expanse that sometimes he sees only types, not particulars. Here is a scene from “First O Songs for a Prelude,” one of Whitman’s early Civil War poems:
Arm’d regiments arrive every day, pass through the city, and embark from the
(How good they look as they tramp down to the river, sweaty, with their guns
on their shoulders!
How I love them! how I could hug them, with their brown faces and their
clothes and knapsacks cover’d with dust!)
The blood of the city up—arm’d! arm’d!
This shocking boosterism is notable for its lack of identifying personal features. The soldiers have brown faces. That’s it. D. H. Lawrence complained about Whitman’s women that they “needn’t have had faces at all.” It’s true of these soldiers, as it is true of Whitman’s first war poems: generic, anonymous, unlived, a visual spectacle.
Whitman showed up rather late to the war. On Tuesday, December 16, 1862, he found in the New York Herald a list of soldiers from the 51st New York Infantry who’d been killed or wounded at the first battle of Fredericksburg. Among the names was “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore, Company D,” which Whitman rightly deduced as his brother George’s misspelled name. The poet took fifty dollars, which his mother withdrew from savings, traveled south by train to the nation’s capital and then by boat to Aquia Landing and finally Falmouth, Virginia. (In Philadephia, changing train cars, he had his pocket picked and showed up in DC, as he wrote, “without a dime.”)
George was not among the thousands in the huge hospital tent-camps around the capital. Instead, Walt found him nursing a shrapnel-wound to the cheek at a makeshift hospital along the Rappahannock, near the battle. Here he tended his brother, who returned to fight in other battles, heroically, rising to the rank of Captain.
George went back to war but Walt did not go back to New York. Was it a political magnet that drew Whitman back to DC? (After all, he said the role of poet is “representative.”) Was it some paternal-maternal need to take custody of so many desperately needful boys? The hospital camps around the city were huge, tens of thousands of wounded at times, and they were horrible in stench and disease, offering grim prospects of recovery. Infection killed more than artillery. Walt’s own first sight of a hospital camp was, as he wrote to his mother, “a heap of feet, arms, legs, &c. under a tree.” Was his compulsion to stay erotic, medical, aesthetic?
Here is what I know. He worked at government jobs, as a clerk, as a copyist, even getting fired at one point when a midlevel administrator deduced he was the author of that obscene book Leaves of Grass. He walked the city, he nodded to Lincoln who sometimes passed by, and over four years he claimed to have made some six hundred visits to hospitals, attending to “80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree.” He was nurse and doctor, he was secretary and last rites-giver, he was friend and companion to thousands. He worked a few hours a day, then went to the camps with his pockets full of stamps, crackers, horehound candy, pennies, lemons and oranges, jars of pudding, paper and pens, needle and thread. One hot day in the middle of June, he spent a chunk of salary to buy a wagonload of ice cream to soothe the boys of Carver Hospital. He read to them in large groups. The letters he wrote back to their families will break your heart. He sent news, death notices, requests, sometimes just to say I held his hand, or wiped his face, or cleaned his bandages. Sometimes just to say, I was there. To the parents of Erastus Haskell he wrote: “he … behaved always correct & decent … I used to sit on the side of the bed—I said once, You don’t talk any, Erastus, you leave me to do all the talking—he only answered quietly, I was never much of a talker.” Erastus languished for nearly a year and died of typhus: “he had his hair cut close about ten or twelve days before he died.”
Here is what he did. He got his hands bloody. He got his hands on these hurt soldiers one at a time. He learned their names; he nursed and aided them. Whitman replaced sight with touch—that most intimate of senses, but also the most dirty.
How is death sane? The root of “sanity” is the Latin word sanitas. Thus, my dirty little secret: This same word serves as the root for “sanitary.” To be sane is to be clean. To be healthy is to be reasonable. This sounds like the perfect formula for an America, in the 1840s and 50s, wild for progress and perfection, hungry for spas and cures, just discovering things like bacteria and germs. The war dirtied our hands, our minds, and our very sense of ourselves as a nation.
The war poems Whitman wrote during and after his hospital experiences are quite different from his prior ones. And he wrote a great deal during this decade. As Kim Roberts notes, “During his time in Washington (from the age of 44 to 54), Whitman wrote Drum-Taps (published in 1865), Democratic Vistas (1871), Passage to India (1871), and prepared two new editions of Leaves of Grass (1867 and 1871). He wrote drafts of material that would eventually become the basis for his books Memoranda during the War (1875), and Specimen Days and Collect (1882). It was an extremely prolific period that resulted in almost one hundred new poems.” But documenting the hospitals was as urgent to Whitman as his poetry, as he attests: “the Hospital part of the drama … deserves indeed to be recorded … over the whole land … an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans—the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Hospitals.”
The “Hospital part of the drama” infuses his poems with a particularity uncommon in his earlier War poems. Now he describes “bearing the bandages, water and sponge, / Straight and swift to my wounded I go … / Where their priceless blood reddens the grass on the ground.” Here in “The Wound-Dresser,” only a hands-on participant would know to say “from the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, / I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood.” And the portraits in the second half of Drum-Taps are not collective, nor generic: a poem for two veterans, a tan-faced prairie boy, one soldier, one “camerado” at a time.
The movement of Whitman’s imagination is a movement through the transcendental toward the real. It mirrors the blurred, optimistic youth of a country going through a phase of brutal growth. It took the vicious fact of war—getting his hands dirty, touching things, one at a time, not just looking at them—to show Whitman the insanity of experience.
Death may be sane, but life is not. Death is perfection, it is peace, it is clarity. Life is the horror. This discovery is the deepest “vision” at the heart of the lilac elegy:
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
So let me clarify. It is not that Whitman learned, in the war, the importance of touch. And he had always known that transcendence requires a death. In “This Compost,” he praises the “foul liquid and meat” of the dead, the “distemper’d corpses” that have startled him on his walk through the “still woods.” “Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person,” he says, incredulous with the discovery that even the “resurrection of the wheat” has been fed by the fetid “corruptions” of death. “What chemistry!” he exclaims, that the result of the natural process should be “that all is clean forever and ever.” This poem appears under its present title in the first post-war edition of Leaves of Grass, in 1867, as part of the Drum-Taps section, where its narrative placement suggests the war dead. But a much earlier version appeared in Leaves as early as 1856 as “Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat,” and seems to have been about a decaying animal in a field. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman again moves from sight to the particularity of touch. This poem appeared first as “The Sun-Down Poem” in the 1856 Leaves. Here, he “receiv[es] identity by [his] body.” His skin itself—that particular “necessary film”—verifies his “nighest name” and provides the necessary means of contact, connecting one to another: “I … felt their arms on my neck as a stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat.” Only through this particularity—of touch, of nomination and identity—is Whitman’s vision of hope and soulful improvement possible.
“Is this then a touch?” he asks as early as 1855 in “Song of Myself.” This great poem also started with sight, but here, at the poem’s heart, it is touch, he says, “quivering me to a new identity.” It is, he says, “about as much as I can stand.” Touch is unclean but generative, it is particular but connective, it is an individual’s act that nonetheless transfers sensations—those real thoughts—from one to another in a type of literal transcendence.
Yet this is one thing in theory, in abstraction, in “Song of Myself” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” It is another thing entirely to be confronted with the fact of a presidential hero shot in the head and the beseeching voices and ripped-apart bodies of so many young soldiers dying one by one. Is it possible that Whitman invents a form of transcendentalism that accommodates the real? Maybe this is Whitman’s greatest thematic contribution: not that the Civil War provided him with his first real validation of the necessity of touch; erotic, but also erosive, touch’s power has been part of his scheme all along. Rather now, touch—the knowledge of bodies—is made human, is given exact names, faces, and bloody hands by the war and by his transformative experiences at the hospitals. Whitman learned that touch may bring erotic delight and power, but it also brings damage, loss, and pain. Thus the lilac elegy becomes his great “retrievement out of the night.”
So here we are at the end of the beginning. And here is Whitman back in “Song of Myself,” always already ahead of us on the open road. When he says we can look for him under our boot-soles, he also says that he will “filter and fibre [our] blood.” We may still be looking, seeing. But he has made the progressive evolution to touch: the innermost kind of touch. He is literally inside us, touching us there—touching our blood, cleaning it, filtering and fibering it, as in a medical procedure to come. This is Whitman’s vision, the hoped-for evolution toward a perfect life, him and our one-self, all of us together, sane and sacred at the end.