[by Josh, Dana A., and Cali]
This week we focused on Whitman’s Civil War poetry from the “Drum-Taps” section of Leaves of Grass, in addition to the first and second annexes he wrote for Leaves of Grass during his later years. Our readings and discussions from “Drum-Taps” centered around “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” “Eighteen Sixty-One,” “Bivouac on a Mountainside,” and “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” and we also focused on “So Long!,” “This Compost,” “Warble for Lilac-Time,” from his later annexes. Additionally, we briefly contrasted some of Whitman’s final poems—“Continuities,” “Going Somewhere,” “Mirages,” and “Out of May’s Shows Selected”—to his earlier ones via group discussions.
Earlier in the week we talked about the silence that Whitman experiences at the end of “I Sit and Look Out,” and how we should interpret it. Initially, we felt that it conveyed a sense of social paralysis and poetical impotence in relation to the seemingly unavoidable prospect of war. Marco also added that it could be a show of reverence or prayerful meditation, removed from a sense of fear. Either way, it is a rare moment in which Whitman is rendered speechless, and worthy of our attention. We contrasted Walt’s poetical silence in “I Sit” with his own personal recollections of a similar silence in the prose piece, “Opening of the Secession War,” from Specimen Days. He recalls the quiet that befell a crowd of strangers he was among when they first learned of the attack on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. In class, we referred to this, at James Hess’s prompting, as a “9/11” moment, and related our own stories of stupefied silence in the wake of great tragedy, demonstrating how transcendently powerful and universal this moment is. Professor Vander Zee described both these works as having a “sad, pensive and generous spirit,” juxtaposed to the intensity of his later war poems in “Drum-Taps.”
“Beat! Drums! Beat!” and “The Artilleryman’s Vision” are two poems we talked about in class that demonstrate this difference. Both are much more aggressive and seem to focus on the mercilessness of war and the enduring painful consequences it wreaks. Jen felt that “Beat!” was a hostile poem, demonstrating the ways in which war “destroys life and robs peace.” Referring to the rhetoric surrounding cleanliness and purging that suffused so many justificatory accounts of the Civil War, Professor Vander Zee suggested it might be viewed almost cleansing poem. The blood sacrifice of war purged the nation of some foul element. Certainly, there was enough corruption and fractured unity at the time to call for a cleansing of the nation. “The Artilleryman’s Vision” goes the furthest to show the aftermath of the war, revealing a former soldier’s battle with what we would today identify as PTSD symptoms. Whitman juxtaposes the sound of the infant’s breath to the sound of the rifle shots that still ring in the soldier’s ears. This disparity gives the poem abrupt movement and contrast, and emphasizes strangeness of military life, especially when the war is over and one must return to “normal life.” As we saw in the PBS documentary, Whitman suffered from similar symptoms after the war and knew first-hand the haunting effects of doing such bloody service in the name of one’s country. Peter also made note of the allusion to The Star Spangled Banner in the last line of “The Artilleryman,” and what Whitman is perhaps trying to say about patriotism and national identity.
After the war ended, the intensity of Whitman’s poems gradually became more subdued, and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” represented a crucial turning point in Whitman’s role as a poet. Whitman chose to rely on the conventions of pastoral elegies and deliberately recurring symbols when he wrote this poem, both which were new directions for him. Our discussions of this poem focused on three symbols in particular—the western star, the eponymous lilacs, and the thrush, which roughly corresponded to Lincoln, the national healing process, and the poets own voice, respectively. However, since Whitman chose to deal with symbols, they have the capability of transcending the historical events of the Civil War, transforming “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” into a poem that could be relevant to readers beyond any specific generation or national crisis.
Finally, we discussed the distance that Whitman seemed to place between himself and his audience, especially around the time he was writing the second annex to Leaves of Grass. Many critics claim that this distance makes Whitman’s poems seem less enthusiastic and more conventional than his earlier poetry, though Professor Vander Zee mentioned that Walt claimed there were many cryptic and subtle layers to these later poems which were not present in his earlier ones. For instance, “Mirages” seems to remove Whitman from his audience with the narrator within a narrator device, which makes the poem seem less intimate than Walt’s earlier ones, where he seemed to find enjoyment in directly engaging his readers with appeals, questions and revelations. In the face of such distancing devices, we must ask what Whitman intended? Why would he bury this final vision of lilacs in mirage, the account of which is itself fabricated as Whitman never made it further west than Denver? There’s a strangeness in these poems that demands further notice.
Quote and Tell, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:
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…
In these lines from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” Whitman conveys a feeling that many people have experienced before. Whitman seems to emphasize that those who have died are totally at peace now and are no longer suffering. Therefore, it would seem that Whitman emphasizes that the living, the loved ones who survived the tragedy, are the ones who are inflicted with the most grief. Fathers, mothers, sisters, wives, and friends are experiencing tremendous pain and suffering because of their losses, and while the dead should be remembered in elegy, it is actually the living who need consolation. This section also demonstrated Whitman’s ability to “move on,” a crucial step in the mourning process. As we see in his later works as we traced the endurance of his lilacs over time, the question remains of this moment of success can be preserved, if its success is indeed lasting.
Core Concepts: Elegy, Symbol, Allegory
Elegy: According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the function of elegy is to “lament, praise and console in the face of loss. Lament expresses grief and deprivation; praise idealizes the deceased and preserves her or his memory; and consolation finds solace in meditation on natural continuances or on moral, metaphysical, and religious values.” Elegy remains crucial for questions of poetic inheritance, as the elegiac poem is about the poet writing as much as it is about the subject mourned. This makes the genre deeply implicated in the making of literary history. The elegy has specific conventions, especially in the pastoral mode, which has been a major genre of poetic expression from Theocritus’s first Idyll to today. This is the genre that Whitman indulges in with his Lincoln elegy. These conventions include: “a procession of mourners, extended use of repetition and refrain, competition or antiphony between voices, appeals and questionings of deities and witnesses, anger and criticism, offering tribute, use of pastoral imager, and emblems and symbols of power drawn from the natural world.”
Symbol: For the Romantic poets, symbols were transcendent and unifying; they suggested something beyond knowledge and expressions. Symbols have a foot in both the real world and the world of forms or the ideal, and they work as a bridge between one and the other. Symbols are timeless, ahistorical, polysemous (meaning many things at once). The symbol is a power and product of what Coleridge would call the primary imagination; its force is close the divine.
As Professor Vander Zee noted, “Coleridge influentially elevated symbol above allegory as romantics in general elevated the organic, unifying, mystical and intuitive force of the imagination over the mere mechanical and constructive competence of what they called fancy. Symbols were thought to embody universal principles, allegories merely pointed to them; symbols were divine, allegories didactic.” Allegory, then, is kind of the shadow-side of the symbol, and in our discussions of Whitman’s use of symbols in “When Lilacs Last,” we also asked how we might think of the persistence of lilacs across his writing as a kind of degraded allegory, as a symbol that has lost its force and power, as a symbol that has aged. By valuing and trying to understand the demoted vision of allegory, rather than dismiss it out of hand, we also learned to value and understand what is most often read as a steep decline in Whitman’s late work.
Looking Ahead, a Note from Prof. VZ:
I ended Thursday’s class with a question: what happens when lilacs last. At the time, I thought of this question in terms of the evolution of Leaves of Grass, how certain images and tendencies and themes return and change in each edition of Leaves of Grass. But this question is not only the trope for our discussions of Whitman; it’s our trope for the course: what happens when the symbolic monolith of Whitman—all he has come to embody as a poet of America, a poet of Democracy, a poet of nationality and equality and freedom whatever your nation, a poet of innovation—lasts, persists, across the century. What do poets do with his vision? How do they reinvent it? How do they resist it? How do they embrace it? How do they struggle with this crucial legacy?
This coming week, we will talk broadly about Whitman’s influence before WWII. We’ll pay attention both to so-called “high-modernist” poets, and also working-class and political poets who looked back to Whitman. For Tuesday, please pay attention to a few questions in particular: How does Eliot’s The Waste Land form a response to Whitman? How is it influenced formally by his example, and where does it either reflect or deny Whitmanian themes? After reading The Waste Land, turn to William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All,” a poem that Williams writes in direct response to Eliot. How does “Spring and All” work to recover some core Whitmanian spirit that Eliot seems at times to have lost? Hart Crane also viewed his long poem, The Bridge, as a response to Eliot, but he more consciously invokes Whitman in order resurrect whatever he felt Eliot had threatened to destroy by way of his vision. Most striking about Crane’s response is how close his themes are to Whitman’s, but how remarkably distant his own formal methods are. I’d love to hear what you make of that. (Remember that you only need to read the Cape Hatteras section). Be sure to read the poems in VW from Pound and Robinson as well.
As always, I expect you to read and think about all assigned readings, of course; I just offer these prompts to help lend some direction to our class discussion on Tuesday.
Please use the comment box below to fill in any crucial missing details. What was most important and/or moving to you that was not addressed above? Also, anyone who points out typos made here will earn, well, much good will!