Week 29, Whitman and the Civil War

Whitman’s note for a poem on Satan, part of his planning for “Chanting the Square Deific.” [Poem of “(the Devil (counteractive of the common idea of Satan]. Courtesy Walt Whitman Archive.
Whitman’s note for a poem on Satan, part of his planning for “Chanting the Square Deific.” [Poem of “(the Devil (counteractive of the common idea of Satan]. Courtesy Walt Whitman Archive.


This week's text is “Chanting the Square Deific."

There are a number of poems in Drum-Taps and Sequel that may initially seem like odd inclusions in a book of Civil War poems, and “Chanting the Square Deific” is one of them. What does this strange theological poem about a four-sided God have to do with the war? And what are we to make of its grammatically inchoate title, with a participle followed by a definite article and two hanging adjectives? Whitman had been thinking about the poem throughout the war, and in his working copy of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, he made notes to himself about adding the poem to his next edition—at the time, he was considering calling it “Quadriune” or “Deus Quadriune” (he also invented other possible names for this four-person god, including “Quatuor,” “Quatruna,” and “Quadrel”). When he decided on “Square Deific,” he turned an adjective—meaning “making divine”—into a noun, an act of making divine. What is being “chanted” in this poem is a god-making act, a poetic performance of a new and ever-shifting divinity. And in typical Whitman participial fashion, this act is an ongoing one—a never-ending chanting of an always active and conflicted and shape-shifting god. Americans, Whitman suggests, will forever be in the act of making a god but never settling on one.

And that new, morphing divinity, we come to realize, is a god carefully constructed for a nation that had nearly broken in two, a god for a reunified America that contains within itself the continual urge for rebellion, the continual testing of any set limits. This necessary satanic urge to rebel is something Whitman had been exploring from the beginning of Leaves of Grass (he named the rebellious slave in “The Sleepers” Lucifer), but it became even more crucial to explore during the war, when the Confederacy used the same rationale for its revolutionary secession from the Union that the original colonies had used for their revolutionary secession from Britain.

Late in his life, Whitman struggled to explain the significance of the poem: “It would be hard to give the idea mathematical expression: the idea of spiritual equity—of spiritual substance: the four-square entity—the north, south, east, west of the constituted universe (even the soul universe)—the four sides as sustaining the universe (the supernatural something): this is not the poem but the idea back of the poem or below the poem.” Whitman’s turn to geography here—a god that brings “spiritual equity” to “north, south, east, and west”—is revealing because those are the regions of the country—the North, the South, the East, and the West—that Whitman was continually trying to unite and blend after the war (think of “O Pioneers!”).

But this fourfold god—a nervous expansion of the Trinity—was evocative of American history, as the critic Kerry Larson has proposed. The first side of the new godhead is the lawgiver—Jehovah, Brahma, Saturnius, the “father” with “those mighty laws rolling,” the Old Testament God dispensing “judgments inexorable without the least remorse.” In a political sense, this God is the United States Constitution, the legal document that defines how the nation must govern itself. But that Constitution was of course written by revolutionaries, by the side of the godhead that is always “plotting revolt” and appears “full of guile,” “proud,” “defiant,” and “warlike.” The Confederacy represented the most obvious and dangerous example in American history of this always-present satanic force, but Whitman also associates this “comrade of criminals” with the “brother of slaves,” and gives him a “sudra” and “black” face. Slave revolts in antebellum America were often justified (by abolitionists and by slaves themselves) with an appeal to the nation’s revolutionary founding, to its Declaration of Independence, to its belief in the right of those who felt oppressed to revolt against their oppressors. Built deep into American history, then, is the tension Whitman later defined as “personalism,” the endless struggle between individual rights and communal responsibility, between each state’s autonomy and federal control. When the Revolution was constituted into a governing document, the Constitution itself soon came to seem oppressive to some, and American history became a ceaseless battle over how the nation, its member states, and its individual citizens interpreted the Constitution’s protection of diverse individual rights versus its fostering of a common social bond.

So America, Whitman decided, needed a wound-dresser built into the godhead, a “consolator” like Christ or Hermes (or like Whitman the visitor of hospitals), who is “the cheer-bringing God, with hope and all-enclosing charity,” bequeathing “sweet love” to all the wayward and unsatisfied children of the nation who came to feel dispossessed. Whitman’s “Square Deific” is a godhead, then, that contains the law-giving Union, the rebellious Confederacy, and the loving and forgiving spirit of healing that mends the inevitable fractures that occur when law gets tested by revolt and when law then gets amended to absorb that revolt (as the Constitution was amended to abolish slavery and invest the rights of citizenship in former slaves, in women, even in former Confederates). Whitman’s “square” god embodies the Satan-aspect into the godhead, making this peculiarly American god a self-challenger, a god that inevitably tests its own authority, pushes at the boundaries of the set law, amends and expands what had previously been considered to be the limits.

The fourth side of this godhead, then, is “Santa Spirita, the “breather, life,” the “general soul” that is at once “ethereal” and “the most solid.” This aspect of the godhead is the spirit of reconciliation itself, the joiner of God and Satan who proves that each needs the other to define itself (without revolt, the limits of law are invisible; without the limits of law, there is no arena of revolt). Transgression needs limits in order to be seen as transgression; limits need transgression in order to indicate what the limits are. The sustaining and uniting “breath” of the “Santa Spirita” is the very inspiration and respiration of the nation’s history, as it continues its wild, unending fluctuation between celebrating the rights of the individual and celebrating the rights of the diverse multitude, between favoring the strong and favoring the weak, between turning “red” and turning “blue” (as our current electoral maps visualize the conflict). As this national breathing in and breathing out goes on, the tensed “spirit” of the country takes on solidity in the very history that we live. What we are as a nation is what the breathing of the “general soul” produces. That solid reality may, at times, be ugly and violent, but ultimately, Whitman believes, the Union holds, new limits are set, reconciliation occurs, even as rebellion sows its seeds again, always in surprising and revolutionary ways. America keeps chanting its god-making song, and its spirit is the very breath of this poem on its rectangular page—four sides containing incessantly tensed and warring and healing and reconciling parts.


“Chanting the Square Deific”


CHANTING the square deific, out of the One advancing, out
of the sides;
Out of the old and new—out of the square entirely divine,
Solid, four-sided, (all the sides needed)…from this side
Old Brahm I, and I Saturnius am;
Not Time affects me—I am Time, modern as any;
Unpersuadable, relentless, executing righteous judgments;
As the Earth, the Father, the brown old Kronos, with laws,
Aged beyond computation—yet ever new—ever with those
mighty laws rolling,
Relentless, I forgive no man—whoever sins, dies—I will
have that man's life;
Therefore let none expect mercy—Have the seasons, gravi-
tation, the appointed days, mercy?—No more have I;
But as the seasons, and gravitation—and as all the appointed
days, that forgive not,
I dispense from this side judgments inexorable, without the
least remorse.


Consolator most mild, the promis'd one advancing,
With gentle hand extended, the mightier God am I,
Foretold by prophets and poets, in their most rapt proph-
ecies and poems;
From this side, lo! the Lord CHRIST gazes—lo! Hermes I—
lo! mine is Hercules' face;
All sorrow, labor, suffering, I, tallying it, absorb in myself;
Many times have I been rejected, taunted, put in prison,
and crucified—and many times shall be again;
All the world have I given up for my dear brothers' and
sisters' sake—for the soul's sake;
Wending my way through the homes of men, rich or
poor, with the kiss of affection;
For I am affection—I am the cheer-bringing God, with hope,
and all-enclosing Charity;
(Conqueror yet—for before me all the armies and soldiers
of the earth shall yet bow—and all the weapons of
war become impotent:)
With indulgent words, as to children—with fresh and sane
words, mine only;
Young and strong I pass, knowing well I am destin'd my-
self to an early death:
But my Charity has no death—my Wisdom dies not, neither
early nor late,
And my sweet Love, bequeath'd here and elsewhere, never


Aloof, dissatisfied, plotting revolt,
Comrade of criminals, brother of slaves,
Crafty, despised, a drudge, ignorant,
With sudra face and worn brow—black, but in the depths
of my heart, proud as any;
Lifted, now and always, against whoever, scorning, assumes
to rule me;
Morose, full of guile, full of reminiscences, brooding, with
many wiles,
(Though it was thought I was baffled and dispell'd, and
my wiles done—but that will never be;)
Defiant, I, SATAN, still live—still utter words—in new lands
duly appearing, (and old ones also;)
Permanent here, from my side, warlike, equal with any,
real as any,
Nor time, nor change, shall ever change me or my words.


Santa SPIRITA, breather, life,
Beyond the light, lighter than light,
Beyond the flames of hell—joyous, leaping easily above hell;
Beyond Paradise—perfumed solely with mine own perfume;
Including all life on earth—touching, including God—
including Saviour and Satan;
Ethereal, pervading all, (for without me, what were all?
what were God?)
Essence of forms—life of the real identities, permanent,
positive, (namely the unseen,)
Life of the great round world, the sun and stars, and of
man—I, the general Soul,
Here the square finishing, the solid, I the most solid,
Breathe my breath also through these little songs.


God-making is integral to religious poetry, from the Psalms and Song of Solomon to the Ramayana and Rumi’s ecstatic verses. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s Dream, William Blake’s prophetic books, Czeslaw Milosz’s Second Space—all seek the divine, describing in physical or metaphorical terms what inevitably remains beyond our comprehension. What these and other works from different faith traditions suggest is that the pursuit of spiritual meaning lies at the core of the human condition. It was thus fitting that in the aftermath of the Civil War Whitman revised his understanding of cosmology to account for, and attempt to heal, the rift between the North and South. To paraphrase a line from Auden’s elegy for Yeats: the madness of war hurt Whitman into a new vision of poetry, which in the case of “Chanting the Square Deific” posits a godhead that embodies the tension at the heart of American experience: the twin urges to revolt and reconcile that from the founding of the republic have shaped its history.

The voices he adopts, salvific and satanic, represent different aspects of being, different ways of apprehending reality, “foretold by prophets and poets, in their most rapt prophesies and poems.” Key words from “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d” and “Song of Myself” appear in a single line in the second section: “All sorrow, labor, suffering, I tallying it, absorb in myself.” To the herculean task of absorbing all, which preoccupied Whitman before the war, must now be added the tallying of pain and loss—prerequisites for his construction of “the general Soul,/ Here the square finishing, the solid, I the most solid.” Here is the largest version of the soul, which will suffice for the rest of his journey: “Breathe my breath also through these little songs.”

Whitman’s fourfold god brings to mind not only the four points of the compass, the four seasons of the year, the four elements, and the four phases of life, but also Blake’s fourfold vision, which he spelled out in a letter to Thomas Butts on November 22, 1802:

Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight,
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night,
And twofold always. May God us keep
From single vision & Newton’s sleep.

Beaulah was Blake’s figure for the subconscious, the source of poetry and dreams, without which it is impossible to grasp the whole. Not for him the trap of single, Manichean, or mechanical visions of the world. His is an argument for multiple perspectives, which is of course the “supreme delight” of reading Whitman before and after the Civil War.



Whether or not you believe in God, a god, gods, or no god, it can often be useful to imagine what an ideal god would be—what qualities your desired god would have, how many sides, how many aspects. Would your god be gendered, ungendered, multi-gendered? All-powerful or limited in power? Does anything in the world reflect your god, seem to be created in his, her, its, their image? Does your god intrude into the affairs of the world or stand apart from them? Write a god that would serve you (or that you would serve) on your worst days.

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

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