Week 34, Whitman and the Civil War

Here’s my week 34 foreword. Below is a scan of the final page of Sequel to Drum-Taps, the perfect image for this week (courtesy Walt Whitman Archive).
Here’s my week 34 foreword. Below is a scan of the final page of Sequel to Drum-Taps, the perfect image for this week (courtesy Walt Whitman Archive).


This week's text is “To the Leaven’d Soil They Trod.”

Whitman decided to conclude his Sequel to Drum-Taps with this poem about the demobilization of the troops. Imagining himself again as a soldier, Whitman creates a speaker who comes “forth from my tent emerging for good—loosing, untying the tent-ropes,” an image of the final soldier putting away the accoutrements and implements of war to begin a postwar life. The haziness of the nation’s future at this moment can be felt in the almost inchoate syntax of the poem’s opening line: “To the leaven’d soil they trod, calling, I sing, for the last” (later Whitman would remove the commas in the line, creating even more of a syntactic mess). There are double or triple inversions, and it’s unclear who is “calling”—“they” who “trod,” or the “I” who “sings,” or the “soil” that “they trod”? It is difficult to undo the inversions and make a clear sentence emerge from the syntactical fog: I sing, calling to the leaven’d soil they trod, for the last [the last time? the last of the dead?].”

Whatever meaning we extract from the convoluted opening, one thing is clear. Whether we hear the “they” as the dead soldiers of the war who “leaven” the soil with their decaying bodies, or whether we hear the “they” as the living soldiers who now trod a soil they know has already been leavened with the corpses of their comrades and enemies, it is now a leaven’d soil that forms “the average earth, the wordless earth, witness of war and peace.” Leavening is a fermenting agent in dough that makes it rise, or, more generally, any agent introduced into something to initiate a change or transformation. The word comes from Latin roots meaning “to lift or to raise.” Leavening acquired a figurative meaning of a powerful invisible influence or force. As we have seen throughout Whitman’s Civil War writings, the invisible agent working through the soil of the war-torn earth was death itself, eternally composting through invisible and magical forces into new life, into the food that sustains us and the air we breathe. “The million dead” are now the leavening of a new nation, a new life: the postwar world must experience the literal raising of the dead.

Buried deep in leaven’d, too, is Whitman’s old play on one of his favorite words, leaves. Nature puts forth new leaves but always and only does so out of what Whitman calls the “leavings of many deaths.” His characteristic apostrophe turns the word “leaven’d” into both “leave” and “end.” Whitman’s preferred word of renewal—leaves—is conflated with the word of stoppage and conclusion. The horrors of the Civil War provide the ultimate test of the “leavings of many deaths”: can they once again (so many leavings) be turned into new leaves (new pages of the history of an emerging democracy), or do they mark the end of the democratic experiment that had barely gotten a start? This is why the speaker “sings” and “calls”—to find out if there’s a future.

The poem is a kind of call and response. It opens with the survivors calling to the leaven’d land, from north to south to west, from forests to prairies to mountains to the sea. The call goes to the Alleghenies and the “tireless Mississippi,” mountains and a river that join the North to the South, natural formations that refused to fracture when the South seceded from the North but instead served as geological reminders of union. The call reaches far and wide over the entire mourning, fragile, healing nation, over the injured landscape. And in the final five lines, the landscape answers the soldier’s call, “but not in words.” Instead, “the average earth”—the democratic land that now works to smooth away distinctions and discriminations and differences—responds by embracing, nourishing, and ripening, and the nourishment and ripening now come equally from the formerly divided North and South, drawing the soldiers close, like a father holding a son to his bosom. The “fiery fields” of the battles become “emanative” again, emanating now not destruction and endings but “endless vistas beyond”—what Whitman would a couple of years later call “Democratic Vistas,” the always hazy borders and boundaries that the democratizing nation would test and cross and re-set and violate again over and over (it was built into America’s “Square Deific”).

And so Whitman ends his volume with a Latin word, “Finis,” appearing in open space at the end of the poem. In English, finis is an unfinished finish, a conclusion that does not conclude. It’s an ancient word for boundaries, borders, things that divide. It sits there at the end of Whitman’s book, with the punctuating mark of conclusion—a period—and with two borderlines above and below. Much is finished, but now, certainly, the war is finished, as is Whitman’s book of the war, but the nation is not. Those borders above and below Finis are, after all, small (as if they are shrinking), easily crossed, and surrounded by space—a place for words yet to be written, words without end.


“To the Leaven’d Soil They Trod”

To the leaven'd soil they trod, calling, I sing, for the last;
(Not cities, nor man alone, nor war, nor the dead,
But forth from my tent emerging for good—loosing, unty-
ing the tent-ropes;)
In the freshness, the forenoon air, in the far-stretching cir-
cuits and vistas, again to peace restored,
To the fiery fields emanative, and the endless vistas beyond—
to the south and the north;
To the leaven'd soil of the general western world, to attest
my songs,
(To the average earth, the wordless earth, witness of war
and peace,)
To the Alleghanian hills, and the tireless Mississippi,
To the rocks I, calling, sing, and all the trees in the woods,
To the plain of the poems of heroes, to the prairie spreading
To the far-off sea, and the unseen winds, and the sane im-
palpable air;
…And responding, they answer all, (but not in words.)
The average earth, the witness of war and peace, acknowl-
edges mutely;
The prairie draws me close, as the father, to bosom broad,
the son;
The Northern ice and rain, that began me, nourish me
to the end;
But the hot sun of the South is to ripen my songs. FINIS.


“Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!” Whitman wrote in the 1872 edition of Leaves of Grass, invoking the future to justify his poetry, which in the wake of the Civil War had acquired graver tones. Song was as important a trope in his work as the grass under which his artistic heirs were advised to look for him. These unknown figures from the future would balance all the unknown dead decomposing in the earth; hence it is fitting that Drum-Taps concludes with a song of creation for a new America, “To the Leaven’d Soil They Trod,” which calls into being a people and a body politic suited to this bloody, “emanative” land. No small task.

A dark coda to “Song of Myself,” this poem is a leave-taking in sixteen disjointed lines, a song to accompany soldiers on their homeward journey, a benediction for the fallen who lie buried in “the average earth, the wordless earth, witness of war and peace,” a summons to peace and reconciliation, and a map to “the far-stretching circuits and vistas” that mark the boundaries of this westward-expanding country, all ripened by “the hot sun of the South” into the bitter fruits of a conflict that will henceforth define the character of its citizenry. As in the myth of Orpheus, he sings to rocks and trees, calling “the unseen winds and the sane impalpable air” to charm Creation; like Orpheus, he wants to lead his compatriots, his Eurydice, back from the underworld to which the war consigned them. We know how that worked out for Eurydice.

What Whitman achieved was closer to the ideal that Rainer Maria Rilke sang into being in the first of his Sonnets to Orpheus, an astonishing cycle of fifty-five poems composed in just three weeks in the aftermath of World War I, in what he called a “savage creative storm”:

A tree ascended there. Oh, pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.
(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Animals gather in Rilke’s poem to listen to the music of the Greek poet and prophet, who “built a temple deep inside their hearing.” Whitman built such a temple for his readers, drawing on the tragic knowledge he acquired during his journey to the underworld of Civil War hospitals, where all too many of his companions perished. His singing will rise like bread from “the leaven’d soil of the general western world” to nourish those in need, who will attest to them.



Perhaps the most important line in this poem is enclosed in parentheses, as crucial moments so often are in Whitman's work--"To the average earth, the wordless earth, witness of war and peace"--and then it is repeated six lines later with slight but significant variations: "The average earth, the witness of war and peace, acknowledges mutely." In what ways is the earth average? How does Whitman translate its silence into a form of mute acknowledgement--poetry, that is?

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

Languages and Selections