Week 30, Whitman and the Civil War

The original publication of “I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ” (then called “Little Bells Last Night”) in the New York Leader (October 12, 1861). Courtesy Walt Whitman Archive.
The original publication of “I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ” (then called “Little Bells Last Night”) in the New York Leader (October 12, 1861). Courtesy Walt Whitman Archive.


This week's text is "“I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ."

Like the poem we looked at last week (“Chanting the Square Deific”), this quiet little poem initially strikes us as an odd inclusion in a book of Civil War poems. When it originally appeared in the New York Leader in October 1861, however, it was much more obviously a war poem—it opened with three lines that Whitman later removed before including the poem in his Sequel to Drum-Taps: “War-suggesting trumpets, I heard you; / And you I heard beating, you chorus of small and large drums; / You round-lipp’d cannons!—you I heard, thunder-cracking, saluting the frigate from France. . . .” The poem as originally published, then, began very much in the tone of “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” which had appeared in Harper’s just weeks earlier. But what makes this poem so powerful is the way that it moves from the beating drums and thunderous cannons and “war-suggesting trumpets” to a much different set of sounds, sounds that persisted during the war even if they were often drowned out by the noise and news of incessant battle. By the time Whitman included it in his Sequel to Drum-Taps, this poem was just five lines, with each of the first four offering a distinct new sound before the final line dwells on the sound that appears in line four and then rests there.

The poet James Wright called this a great poem because of “the almost perfect delicacy of its form.” Five lines, four sounds, as the “I” moves from the church to the lover’s bed via the woods and the opera house, from the sound of the “solemn-sweet pipes of the organ” of the church to the much quieter but more riveting sounds of another organ—the “heart of my love!”—that can be heard in the pulsing of the blood through the pipes of the lover’s arteries out to the wrist, which carries the “little bells” of the heartbeat to yet another organ—“my ear”—which rests on the lover’s wrist. The repeated “I heard” (echoing five times in the first four lines) gives way to the near-identity of the words “Heart” and “Heard” which open the final two lines as the “I” disappears in the final line into the act of hearing the heart of the lover. And at the heart of both words—“Heart,” “Heard”—is the word “ear,” the core of the poem’s sensual evocation, the little word that ends the poem and reminds us (in the orthographic accident of one word being contained in another) how the “ear” is so intimately attached to the lover’s “heart.” Even the exclamation—“Heart of my love!” (which initially sounds like a romantic metaphor, evoking the common association of “heart” and “love”)—actually captures the excited moment of realization that this little “murmuring” in the ear is in fact the actual beating heart of my love.

Coming, as it does, immediately after “Chanting the Square Deific,” this poem underscores the necessity of the intimacy of reconciliation that becomes, in Whitman’s formulation, the Holy Spirit of America’s always forming godhead. As the sounds of war recede (or, as happens in the revision of this poem, simply vanish), what is left behind are the sounds of devotion, the sounds of nature, the sounds of voices soaring (“the quartet” is “singing,” perhaps the North, South, East, and West discovering a new harmony), the sounds of intimacy. The poems of Sequel to Drum-Taps turn more and more now toward reconciliation, toward a call for intense renewed camaraderie across what had been deep and seemingly irreconcilable regional and ideological divides.


“I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ”

I HEARD you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last
Sunday morn I pass'd the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walk'd the woods at dusk, I
heard your long-stretch'd sighs, up above, so
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I
heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
…Heart of my love!—you too I heard, murmuring low,
through one of the wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little
bells last night under my ear.


Fitted with hearing aids, a writer noted in a recent Facebook post that after a few days she realized “there are definitely things (people) I don’t care about hearing, but the most wonderful thing I can now hear ringing loud and clear and pure: bird song!” She wrote this during a contentious political season, which may explain both her scorn for humankind and her delight in the sounds of nature. What she celebrates is the fact that she has adjusted her hearing, just as in the poem “I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ” Whitman registers his surroundings as if with new ears—music in the church he passes, the autumn wind in the woods at dusk, the singing of a tenor and a soprano, the heartbeat of his lover “ringing little bells last night under my ear.” After witnessing so much pain and suffering in the war, which surely blunted his senses and left him in despair, he found to his astonishment that he was capable of experiencing the world afresh.

The back history of this poem, the martial imagery and cacophony that Whitman cut from the original version (“War-suggesting trumpets,” a chorus of drums, “round-lipp’d cannons!”), is a study in the growth of the poet’s mind. For once the guns stopped firing he could hear what had always been there: the music of time, to which he was largely oblivious during his ministry to sick and wounded soldiers. In the silence after the signing of the armistice, though, he recognized that the true subject of his little poem was—had always been—love. What happens in the heat of battle and its immediate aftermath may be difficult, if not impossible, to gauge. What is certain is that the shock will reverberate for generations. Poetry can restore, however momentarily, a sense of proportion, first to the writer and then to the reader: “Heart of my love!”

Love and loss: these eternal themes of literature reveal new complexities in wartime, when social conventions are suspended and bloodletting rules the day. Exhausted as Whitman was from documenting the carnage and caring for the fallen, he nevertheless discovered within himself the spring that from time immemorial has nourished humankind: the touch of another. Whitman’s lover takes his head in his hands and, “murmuring low,” brings the poet back to himself. “He who has ears to hear,” Jesus said to his disciples, “let him hear.” Love conquers all.



Intimacy in the midst of the brutality of war is often a difficult thing to deal with, since passionate love can feel so out of place in a world where hatred seems to reign. Yet many writers and filmmakers have investigated how in fact intimacy may be experienced as more intense and more crucial during a time of war than during a time of peace. What factors could contribute to this sense of increased intensity of love during war? What are examples of this phenomenon that you can think of? Have you experienced it yourself?

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

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