We began Whitman and the Civil War at the end, with Whitman’s extended and literal “death sentence,” a summing and a summoning of the hundreds of thousands who died in America’s Civil War. Now we go back before the war, to Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself,” a poem that celebrates an expansive, absorptive, unified self—a person and a nation that can contain contradictions and still remain united. The Civil War would explode this dream of unity-in-diversity, and Whitman would spend the rest of his life dealing with the shattering aftereffects of what he thought of as the “War to Preserve the Union.”
It is instructive, then, to return to “Song of Myself,” where we discover that years before the Civil War, he was already cataloging the dead from America’s earlier wars. In Sections 33 through 36 of the poem, Whitman confronts and absorbs the Revolutionary War and the Mexican War, the two wars that at the time loomed largest in Whitman’s imagination and in his own experience (he lived for three months in New Orleans just as the Mexican War ended, and he talked to many returning soldiers). Toward the end of his long catalog in Section 33, death and suffering and pain begin to take over, as the soul of the speaker of “Song of Myself” enters into the torture felt by those suffering and near death: “Agonies are one of my changes of garments,” the poet says: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” This section of “Song,” which began with such a buoyant embrace of the ever-changing world, ends with the stuttered beginnings of dark narratives of death, pain, and loss. And Whitman’s “I” absorbs the hatred and factionalism of war.
War is by definition about division. What one side in a war calls aggression and hatred and evil, of course, the other side sees as justice and valor and heroism: one side’s “massacre” is the other side’s just response to what it sees as its enemy’s brutality. The inescapable reality of war is that “young men” (and, increasingly, women) on both sides are maimed and murdered, and that their sacred bodies—the sensory apparatus of living souls—are reduced to ash.
Section 34 is a historical recollection of a mass death in one of the battles over Texas independence that led to the Mexican War. The emphasis here is not on the winners and losers, but on physical loss, the loss of physicality itself, as war takes its inevitable toll on the bodies of those who have been convinced or coerced to fight. In Sections 35 and 36, the narratives of war continue, now telling of the Revolutionary War sea battle off the British coast between John Paul Jones’s Bon Homme Richard and the British ship Serapis: both the British and the Americans lost over half their crews in the battle. The story Whitman tells of the “old-time sea-fight” turns darker and darker. It is night; the ship is sinking; “formless stacks of bodies” are all around, as is the gore of the battle itself—“dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars.” Again, the emphasis is not on victory, but on the awful bloody aftermath of battle. There’s a corpse of a child who served in the ship’s cabin and the corpse of a beautiful old sailor. At the end, amid the “delicate sniffs of sea-breeze,” there are the ominous sounds of “the hiss of the surgeon’s knife” and “the gnawing teeth of his saw” as the grisly work of amputation occurs.
A few years after “Song of Myself” was first published, the Civil War would become the war of amputation, with tens of thousands of soldiers returning home without arms or legs, and Whitman would reflect upon how war was after all primarily an attack upon the living body. Even those who survived often did so without the means of moving freely in the world or without the means to create, write, paint, make things. Amputation had the effect of cutting off the soul’s access to the world by taking away the body’s means of moving and expressing the soul. This section ends by looking unflinchingly at the “swash of falling blood” and listening to the screams and the groans as the amputations of the Revolutionary War prefigure those of the Civil War.
Whitman’s haunting final line, “These so, these irretrievable,” captures the blank horror of the loss: when a body is destroyed, it cannot be regained. It is as if the poet begins to describe the importance and vitality of what has been lost—“These so . . .” (so beautiful? so brave? so strong?)—but then stops in the moment of recognizing the futility of trying to reconstitute, even in words, that which has been forever taken away: “these irretrievable.” Whitman captures an unforgettable scene of loss, agony, and pain against the backdrop of the ultimate composter, the lapping ocean, awaiting the feast of death it is about to receive when it accepts the bodies and limbs that will be deposited there. The ocean will recycle them into other life but never again into the specific human forms that were lost in battle: those complete bodies are beyond retrieval, beyond experiencing whatever it is they thought they died for. Here, then, over a decade before he wrote “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” he was already facing the darkest truths of war.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marks-
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the
ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become
the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
I am the mash'd fireman with breast-bone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired, I heard the yelling shouts of my com-
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have clear'd the beams away, they tenderly lift me forth.
I lie in the night air in my red shirt, the pervading hush is for my
Painless after all I lie exhausted but not so unhappy,
White and beautiful are the faces around me, the heads are bared
of their fire-caps,
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.
Distant and dead resuscitate,
They show as the dial or move as the hands of me, I am the clock
I am an old artillerist, I tell of my fort's bombardment,
I am there again.
Again the long roll of the drummers,
Again the attacking cannon, mortars,
Again to my listening ears the cannon responsive.
I take part, I see and hear the whole,
The cries, curses, roar, the plaudits for well-aim'd shots,
The ambulanza slowly passing trailing its red drip,
Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs,
The fall of grenades through the rent roof, the fan-shaped explo-
The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air.
Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves
with his hand,
He gasps through the clot Mind not me—mind—the entrench-
Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth,
(I tell not the fall of Alamo,
Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo,)
'Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and
twelve young men.
Retreating they had form'd in a hollow square with their baggage
Nine hundred lives out of the surrounding enemy's, nine times
their number, was the price they took in advance,
Their colonel was wounded and their ammunition gone,
They treated for an honorable capitulation, receiv'd writing and
seal, gave up their arms and march'd back prisoners of war.
They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with horse, rifle, song, supper, courtship,
Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate,
Bearded, sunburnt, drest in the free costume of hunters,
Not a single one over thirty years of age.
The second First-day morning they were brought out in squads
and massacred, it was beautiful early summer,
The work commenced about five o'clock and was over by eight.
None obey'd the command to kneel,
Some made a mad and helpless rush, some stood stark and
A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart, the living and dead
The maim'd and mangled dug in the dirt, the new-comers saw
Some half-kill'd attempted to crawl away,
These were despatch'd with bayonets or batter'd with the blunts
A youth not seventeen years old seiz'd his assassin till two more
came to release him,
The three were all torn and cover'd with the boy's blood.
At eleven o'clock began the burning of the bodies;
That is the tale of the murder of the four hundred and twelve
Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?
Would you learn who won by the light of the moon and stars?
List to the yarn, as my grandmother's father the sailor told it to me.
Our foe was no skulk in his ship I tell you, (said he,)
His was the surly English pluck, and there is no tougher or truer,
and never was, and never will be;
Along the lower'd eve he came horribly raking us.
We closed with him, the yards entangled, the cannon touch'd,
My captain lash'd fast with his own hands.
We had receiv'd some eighteen pound shots under the water,
On our lower-gun-deck two large pieces had burst at the first fire,
killing all around and blowing up overhead.
Fighting at sun-down, fighting at dark,
Ten o'clock at night, the full moon well up, our leaks on the gain,
and five feet of water reported,
The master-at-arms loosing the prisoners confined in the after-hold
to give them a chance for themselves.
The transit to and from the magazine is now stopt by the sentinels,
They see so many strange faces they do not know whom to trust.
Our frigate takes fire,
The other asks if we demand quarter?
If our colors are struck and the fighting done?
Now I laugh content, for I hear the voice of my little captain,
We have not struck, he composedly cries, we have just begun our
part of the fighting.
Only three guns are in use,
One is directed by the captain himself against the enemy's main-
Two well serv'd with grape and canister silence his musketry and
clear his decks.
The tops alone second the fire of this little battery, especially the
They hold out bravely during the whole of the action.
Not a moment's cease,
The leaks gain fast on the pumps, the fire eats toward the powder-
One of the pumps has been shot away, it is generally thought we
Serene stands the little captain,
He is not hurried, his voice is neither high nor low,
His eyes give more light to us than our battle-lanterns.
Toward twelve there in the beams of the moon they surrender to
Stretch'd and still lies the midnight,
Two great hulls motionless on the breast of the darkness,
Our vessel riddled and slowly sinking, preparations to pass to the
one we have conquer'd,
The captain on the quarter-deck coldly giving his orders through
a countenance white as a sheet,
Near by the corpse of the child that serv'd in the cabin,
The dead face of an old salt with long white hair and carefully
The flames spite of all that can be done flickering aloft and below,
The husky voices of the two or three officers yet fit for duty,
Formless stacks of bodies and bodies by themselves, dabs of flesh
upon the masts and spars,
Cut of cordage, dangle of rigging, slight shock of the soothe of
Black and impassive guns, litter of powder-parcels, strong scent,
A few large stars overhead, silent and mournful shining,
Delicate sniffs of sea-breeze, smells of sedgy grass and fields by the
shore, death-messages given in charge to survivors,
The hiss of the surgeon's knife, the gnawing teeth of his saw,
Wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood, short wild scream, and long,
dull, tapering groan,
These so, these irretrievable.
You laggards there on guard! look to your arms!
In at the conquer'd doors they crowd! I am possess'd!
Embody all presences outlaw'd or suffering,
See myself in prison shaped like another man,
And feel the dull unintermitted pain.
For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep
It is I let out in the morning and barr'd at night.
Not a mutineer walks handcuff'd to jail but I am handcuff'd to
him and walk by his side,
(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat
on my twitching lips.)
Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried
Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last
My face is ash-color'd, my sinews gnarl, away from me people
Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them,
I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg.
Whitman’s vivid recreation of dramatic scenes from the Revolutionary War and the Mexican War, in sections 33-36 of “Song of Myself,” testify to the powers of his imagination, in the same way that Stephen Crane would later bring to life the experiences of a terrified soldier in the Civil War, in his novel, The Red Badge of Courage, though he was born six years after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. For great writers create believable portraits of people, places, and events from the past, if not whole-cloth from the imagination. Strange to think that in his otherwise optimistic “Song of Myself” Whitman described some of the same gruesome facts of war that would shape his future, prefiguring, so to say, his own destiny. Thus during his hospital ministry (he titled one Civil War notebook Walt Whitman, Soldier’s Missionary) he was a bearer of “death messages given in charge to survivors,” absorbing in his every fiber the measure and meaning of “The hiss of the surgeon’s knife, the gnawing teeth of his saw,/ Wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood, short wild scream, and long, dull, tapering groan.” No wonder his health gave out before peace came to the land, forcing him to recuperate for several months in Brooklyn.
Did he have an inkling of what was to come when he resurrected the story of 412 young men massacred in Texas and then fashioned a seaman’s monologue about John Paul Jones’ command of the Bon Homme Richard in “an old-time sea-fight” with the British ship Serapis? Impossible to say with any degree of certainty. But the world was shifting underfoot in the decade leading up to the Confederate secession from the Union, and the war scenes in “Song of Myself” suggest that Whitman not only understood the centrality of conflict in the unfolding of history but also that his vow to sing into being the whole of existence would be for naught if he did not account for the human propensity to destroy what we hold most dear. “Agonies are one of my changes of garments,” he wrote, as if to try on a pair of clothes, perhaps aware in the hidden depths of his soul that one day he himself would “become the wounded person.” Caring for dead and dying soldiers, he discovered how to turn his love for them into original ways of honoring the irretrievable: poetry and prose for the new world that would rise out of the ashes of war.
Do you read imagined or invented scenes in literature differently from what purports to be direct testimony? Is one more reliable than the other? If so, how and why?
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