In this section, the narratives of war continue, this one telling of the Revolutionary War sea battle off the British coast between John Paul Jones’s BonHomme Richard and the British ship Serapis. Whitman’s great-grandfather served under Jones, and Whitman absorbs the account of the battle that his great-grandfather passed on to him through Whitman’s maternal grandmother (he also depends on Jones’s own account of the battle in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, a printed copy of which Whitman kept). Like the Battle of Coleto and the subsequent massacre at Goliad that is the subject of the previous section, this “old-time sea-fight” is part of the series of wars that expanded and unified the growing United States but did so, ironically, at the expense of unity itself, always resulting in death, division, fragmentation, and loss. The story here is of a captain (Jones) who has the courage to persevere when surrender seems the only possible option, but it is also a story of “killing all around”: both the British and the Americans lost over half their crews in the battle.
This section expands the ways that the poet absorbs experience into his poem. Now he is not just absorbing firsthand experience, what his bodily senses tell him, but he is absorbing stories that are told to him, and he demonstrates how to embrace these tales and make them every bit as much a part of the soul as the actual sensory experiences he has cataloged in earlier sections. Stories, after all, are sensory experiences too: they enter us through our ears and eyes, and, like a powerful sunset, they can change us forever. So in this section, Whitman narrates the story as if his great-grandfather were telling it directly to us. Things that happened before our birth can still effect us through the magic of stories, just as the vast record of the creation of the universe and the slow evolution of life forms that gradually have led to us are an essential part of what we are, even if we were not there to experience those endless eons through our senses. We weave the song of ourselves out of many strange, wondrous, and terrifying things.
Conflict generates stories, as combatants and war correspondents know. Division and destruction have been the principle means of redrawing borders and redefining societies throughout recorded history; stories of battles won and lost, of courage and cowardice, agony and exhilaration—these shape each new order. It is no accident that Homer laid the cornerstone of Western literature in his epics of war (The Iliad) and a warrior’s journey home (The Odyssey); for war tests the spirits of individuals and nations alike, laying the foundation for their future actions; the stories told and retold, personal and communal, dictate the character of a country’s customs, mores, and political institutions. War makes up a large part of our inheritance.
The centrality of war to the design of Whitman’s epic comes into focus in sections 34-36, in his account of a massacre, in his grandfather’s story of a sea battle fought in the Revolutionary War, and in his inventory of war’s human costs, respectively. If Homer sings in The Iliad of one man’s rage, balancing catalogues of ships and Greek contingents with infantry scenes, Whitman expands his song of the democratic self to include war—“the continuation of politics by other means,” in von Clausewitz’s words. Note the darkening tone of these narratives, which predate the Civil War—“the very centre, circumference, umbilicus of my whole career,” Whitman said. Indeed in his recollections of past victory and disaster he seemed to glimpse the looming tragedy that still informs American life. Note also that the captain’s heroism is wedged between scenes of terrible bloodshed. No one really escapes the ravages of war.
The hardest part of writing about it may be surviving to tell the story. Once, in Lebanon, I was explaining to a journalist my brief absence from the rooftop where we were monitoring a conflict in a refugee camp (I had gone for a walk toward the sea, soldiers at a checkpoint had fired rounds at my head, an officer had questioned me) when she put up her hand.
I envy you, she said. Now you have a story to tell.
To which Whitman might add: So do we all.
Think of a story told to you by someone much older, a story of something that happened long before you were born, but one that affected you every bit as much as actual events that happened directly to you. How much does that story change as you retell it over the years to others? How much of the story is an actual record of what happened in the past, and how much of it is what you have made of it in your present