I saw Old General at Bay
I SAW old General at bay;
(Old as he was, his grey eyes yet shone out in battle like stars;)
His small force was now completely hemm’d in, in his works;
He call’d for volunteers to run the enemy’s lines—a desperate emergency;
I saw a hundred and more step forth from the ranks—but two or three were selected; 5
I saw them receive their orders aside—they listen’d with care—the adjutant was very grave;
I saw them depart with cheerfulness, freely risking their lives.
Walt Whitman spent so much time tending to the wounded soldiers that he must have felt like a soldier himself. The video that we watched in class Tuesday about Whitman taking care of the sick and dying soldiers stayed with me long after the class ended. I can only imagine how being there in all of that pain and destruction must have affected Whitman. He seemed to be suffering from a post-tramatic syndrome type of illness after the time that he spent in Washington with the wounded soldiers. He may not have been in the battle, but he saw things happen to the soldiers that, in some cases, were just as bad. The amputations without any form of pain relief, the men’s limbs dying right before their eyes of gang-green, and infections of every kind killed the men right before his eyes, and he was helpless to save them. He did his best to make them as comfortable as he could with his limited resources. He kept the men company and often brought them small gifts, trinkets, and candies to keep their spirits up. The soldiers began to call him Santa Claus. Whitman certainly looked like Santa Claus with his long white beard, in spite of the fact that he was a young man in his 40s.
Another of Whitman’s poems from “Drum-Taps” that is, in my opinion, beautiful and inspiring is “Adieu to a Soldier.” I have posted it here for you to read because I hope that it moves you as it does me.
Adieu to a Soldier
By Walt Whitman
Adieu O soldier,
You of the rude campaigning, (which we shared,)
The rapid march, the life of the camp,
The hot contention of opposing fronts, the long manoeuvre,
Red battles with their slaughter, the stimulus, the strong terrific game,
Spell of all brave and manly hearts, the trains of time through you
and like of you all fill’d,
With war and war’s expression.
Adieu dear comrade,
Your mission is fulfill’d–but I, more warlike,
Myself and this contentious soul of mine,
Still on our own campaigning bound,
Through untried roads with ambushes opponents lined,
Through many a sharp defeat and many a crisis, often baffled,
Here marching, ever marching on, a war fight out–aye here,
To fiercer, weightier battles give expression.
I really enjoyed this poem of brotherhood. Whitman shows that he truly feels a special bond of kinship with the soldiers. His use of marshall language, “The rapid march, the life of the camp,” flows very beautifully in “Adieu to a Soldier.” In some lines he is shockingly bold in his comparison of himself as equal (if not better) than the soldier. However, I don’t find this to be particularly rude. I actually think that it shows just how close and comfortable he felt with the soldiers that he surrounded himself with. They were his “comrades.” When they died, a piece of himself died with them. Their deaths were obviously a huge influencing factor in Whitman’s works.
I read an article that interpreted “Adieu” as Whitman battling on opposite sides of the war against the soldier, and Whitman seeing himself as the ultimate victor. I disagree with this interpretation. I feel a very strong bond between Whitman and the soldier. I interpret the line “The hot contention of opposing fronts” not as Whitman and the soldier on opposite sides, but as just a description of the battle lines drawn between the two sides of the war. The line, “but I, more warlike” is almost like Whitman is poking fun at himself rather than putting himself up on a pedestal. He was in the hospital taking care of these dying soldiers. He could not possibly have felt anything but complete awe for these brave soldiers that gave all that they had to give for their country.