Week 18, Whitman and the Civil War

New York 7th Regiment marching down Broadway before heading off to war. Harper’s Weekly (May 4, 1861)
New York 7th Regiment marching down Broadway before heading off to war. Harper’s Weekly (May 4, 1861)


This week's text is "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun."

In the writings that we have read so far, we have frequently seen the intense pressures and tensions that the Civil War forged in Whitman’s work, often leaving him with no recourse but to celebrate his oxymoronic reactions to the mix of “sweetness” and “sadness” he found in his war experiences, or the blend of beauty and horror, love and death, he experienced in the war hospitals. This 1865 poem embodies another of those irresolvable tensions—the way the war made Whitman want to escape to a solitary rural retreat far from the urban space he inhabited, with its continual noise and incessant reminders of the war, and the way the war simultaneously made him want to even more fully embrace the militarized city and its raucous sociability. Oddly, he feels an equally strong pull toward silence and noise, toward “solitude” and “faces and streets,” and he is drawn toward composing his own “spontaneous songs” written “for my ears only” at the same time that he wants to record and broadcast the “strong voices, passions, pageants” and the very public “powerful throbs” of “Manhattan streets.”

This is another poem in which the real power and poignancy are contained in parentheses—first, at the end of the opening section, when Whitman’s two-line parenthetical insertion pauses to articulate the bewildering but inevitable pressures that make him desire such contradictory things: he sees what he “sought to escape” now confronting him and “reversing my cries”—“I see my own soul trampling down what it ask’d for.” His desire to retreat is forcefully countered by the even stronger desire to engage. Then, in the second section of the poem, as he passionately rejects what he had just so fervently sought, and as he embraces what he had just so firmly rejected, he pauses parenthetically again to dwell on the spectacle of “the soldiers marching” and “the sound of the trumpets and drums,” and he realizes how “flush’d and reckless” the soldiers heading off to battle are, and what a contrast they provide to the “returning . . . thinn’d ranks”: those ranks are “thinn’d” by the absent soldiers who will never return, and those ranks put on display the oxymoronic “young, yet very old, worn” soldiers who do return, but who come back in utter distraction, “noticing nothing.” Youth, exposed to war, no longer equates with freshness and vitality. Whitman exits this parenthetical pause to generate yet another catalog of urban excitement—another “brigade bound for the war” as part of “the endless and noisy chorus.” But one final quiet and brief parenthetical pause—“(even the sight of the wounded)”—brings him back to his deeply draining and yet inspiriting experience of caring for the soldiers in the hospitals. It is a final short aside, quickly swallowed up in the “turbulent musical chorus” of “Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me” in the final lines.

These three parentheticals make us realize that, as Whitman wanders among the Manhattan crowds—“these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs”—all the eyes and faces of the urban masses around him are in fact phantoms, here today and gone tomorrow: it’s just that the “thinn’d ranks” of the “returning” regiments and the memory of the countless “wounded” underscore for the poet just how quickly any “crowd” can dissipate into a phantom memory. Retreat, confrontation; excitement, despair; energetic youth, careworn age; silence, noise; presence, absence: it is the endlessly pulsating, oxymoronic experience of war.


“Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”


GIVE me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the
Give me a field where the unmow'd grass grows;
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis'd grape;
Give me fresh corn and wheat—give me serene-moving
animals, teaching content;
Give me nights perfectly quiet, as on high plateaus west
of the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars;
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers,
where I can walk undisturb'd;
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath'd woman, of whom
I should never tire;
Give me a perfect child—give me, away, aside from the
noise of the world, a rural domestic life;
Give me to warble spontaneous songs, reliev'd, recluse
by myself, for my own ears only;
Give me solitude—give me Nature—give me again,
O Nature, your primal sanities!
—These, demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless
excitement, and rack'd by the war-strife;)
These to procure, incessantly asking, rising in cries from
my heart,
While yet incessantly asking, still I adhere to my city;
Day upon day, and year upon year, O city, walking
your streets,
Where you hold me enchain'd a certain time, refusing
to give me up;
Yet giving to make me glutted, enrich'd of soul—you
give me forever faces;

(O I see what I sought to escape, confronting, reversing
my cries;
I see my own soul trampling down what it ask'd for.)


Keep your splendid silent sun;
Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by
the woods;
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-
fields and orchards;
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields, where the Ninth-
month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms in-
cessant and endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes! give me women! give me
comrades and lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones
by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give
me the sound of the trumpets and drums!
(The soldiers in companies or regiments—some, starting
away, flush'd and reckless;
Some, their time up, returning, with thinn'd ranks—
young, yet very old, worn, marching, noticing
—Give me the shores and the wharves heavy-fringed
with the black ships!
O such for me! O an intense life! O full to repletion,
and varied!
The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!
The saloon of the steamer! the crowded excursion for
me! the torch-light procession!
The dense brigade, bound for the war, with high piled
military wagons following;
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions,
Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs, with the
beating drums, as now;
The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of
muskets, (even the sight of the wounded;)
Manhattan crowds with their turbulent musical chorus
—with varied chorus and light of the sparkling
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.


During the war, Whitman must often have wished to flee “the noise of the world,” as he proposes to do in the first part of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun.” Nature’s “primal sanities” were a balm for his soul, and the images he conjures of rural contentment—the warbling of birds, the fragrance of flowers in the garden, the sight of the stars—fortify him in the city, to which he still adheres. Exhausted by his ministry to the wounded, he beseeches the sun to give him strength, which in the second half of the poem allows him to once again appreciate “comrades and lovers,” soldiers on parade, black ships in the wharves, the endless procession of people streaming past, full of passion: “O such for me! O an intense life! O full to repletion and varied!”

From retreat to engagement—this movement recalls the ebb and flow of certain passages in “Song of Myself,” the tidal rhythm that bespeaks the sea and also the beating of the heart, systole and diastole, the mechanism by which blood circulates through the arteries. Whitman understood at an elemental level how the waves breaking on shore mimic the motions of the heart.

“In the years of Buchenwald and Auschwitz,” the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis writes in “Chronicle of a Decade,” much of which is set in Nazi-occupied Athens, “[Henri] Matisse painted the juiciest, rawest, most enchanting flowers and fruits ever made, as if the miracle of life itself discovered it could compress itself inside them forever. Today, they speak more eloquently than any macabre necrology.” Elytis suggests that “An entire contemporary literature made the mistake of competing with events and succumbing to horror instead of balancing it, as it should have done.” Indeed his poems oscillate between the poles of the pastoral tradition (with a surrealist inflection) and the work of witnessing—the same tension that animates “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun.” For poets must decide at critical moments in their lives, in peacetime and at war, whether to retreat or engage: a defining feature of the human condition. One step back then one step forward, and vice versa, over and over again; in that interval lie our hopes and fears.



The kinds of oxymoronic reactions that Whitman had toward the war are some of the most difficult to articulate in words—to express how one can both hate and love the same thing, find it beautiful and horrifying, sustaining and devastating. Think about an event or an experience that has generated such oxymoronic reactions in you, and describe it in such a way that your reader can feel how it produced such deeply contradictory reactions in you.

Answer in the Comment box below or on WhitmanWeb’s Facebook page.

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