The American poet and Whitman’s contemporary Emily Dickinson was a master of exploring the darker side of victory and success, recognizing that “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed.” She realized that it is not the victors in a battle who “Can tell the definition / So clear of Victory,” but rather the victim, the one “defeated—dying— / On whose forbidden ear / The distant strains of triumph / Burst agonized and clear!” The sounds of victory never are more clear than they are to the defeated and dying, straining to hear the shouts of joy coming from the other side. In Section 18, Whitman shares something of Dickinson’s anatomy of victory, but he does so in a more measured and equalizing way: instead of heightening the agony, he offers a warm embrace of the defeated. He imagines the “music” of warfare—its “cornets” and “drums”—but reminds his reader that it is not just “good to gain the day,” to win, but equally “good to fall,” because “battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.” The losers fight as hard as the winners and may well have been the victors but for the vagaries of chance and the unpredictable aspects of any military encounter. So, like Dickinson, Whitman will “beat and pound” and “blow through my embouchure” “for the dead.” His drums and cornets, his martial music, will celebrate “those who have fail’d” as well as those who have succeeded, for the unknown and defeated dead in fact performed as many heroic deeds as the “greatest heroes known.” His poetry will speak for them all, not just for those history has deemed the victors.
This section gained greater resonance during and after the Civil War, as Whitman worked to heal the ruptured Union, to reconcile the victorious North with the defeated South, and to bring both sides back into the reunified nation. Whitman counseled forgiveness and reconciliation, not punishment, and he recognized the courage and bravery of both sides in the war. That attitude was apparent in “Song of Myself” long before the war occurred; Whitman’s search for an all-encompassing vision of equality had already led him to imagine absorbing the losers with the victors. This section thus sets the stage for Section 19, one of Whitman’s most sweeping statements of equality.
Reflecting on the American Constitution, Benjamin Franklin famously observed that nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes. But the true constants of the human condition are love and loss. (Many avoid paying taxes.) Nearly everyone experiences love; no one is exempt from loss. The laws of attraction and repulsion, which relentlessly bind and divide everything in the universe, are integral to Whitman’s poetic design, which in this section sounds a new note: “Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?/ I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.” Thus he composes music for the fallen, celebrating loss as much as victory, suggesting that we are defined more by what eludes us than by what we gain. “So the last will be first, and the first last,” Jesus said—a teaching translated by the poet into another order of wisdom for a country fated to be torn apart by war. Conquerors and conquered alike are imbued with a spirit of adventure, exhilaration, and terror—the same spirit that shapes the course of love, which is why war is often described in similarly intimate terms.
Franklin also observed that “There never was a good war or a bad peace”—wise counsel to remember when considering Whitman’s attempts to treat the wounds of the Civil War, psychic and physical, in person and on the page, that in some quarters have not healed one hundred and fifty years after the soldiers laid down their arms. It is said that history is written by the victors, and so it falls to poets to sing of defeat, the surge and ebb and flow of diminished life that marks the nights and days of those who lose in war and love—which in the end includes everyone.
How has history been rewritten in your nation in the past few decades? Have you encountered revisionist histories that have reversed our sense of who the “victors” and who the defeated were?