Now the story of the “old-time sea-fight” continues but turns darker. It is night; the ship is sinking; “formless stacks of bodies” are all around, as is the gore of the battle itself—“dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars.” If the previous section seemed to celebrate the captain’s courage and the tenuous victory, this section emphasizes the awful bloody aftermath. There’s a corpse of a child who served in the ship’s cabin and the corpse of a beautiful old sailor. At the end, amid the “delicate sniffs of sea-breeze,” there are the ominous sounds of “the hiss of the surgeon’s knife” and “the gnawing teeth of his saw” as the grisly work of amputation occurs. A few years after “Song of Myself” was first published, the Civil War would become the war of amputation, with tens of thousands of soldiers returning home without arms or legs, and Whitman would reflect upon how war was after all primarily an attack upon the living body. Even those who survived often did so without the means of moving freely in the world or without the means to create, write, paint, make things. Amputation had the effect of cutting off the soul’s access to the world by taking away the body’s means of moving and expressing the soul. This section ends by looking unflinchingly at the “swash of falling blood” and listening to the screams and the groans as the amputations of the Revolutionary War prefigure those of the Civil War.
Whitman’s haunting final line, “These so, these irretrievable,” captures the blank horror of the loss: when a body is destroyed, it cannot be regained. It is as if the poet begins to describe the importance and vitality of what has been lost—“These so . . .” (so beautiful? so brave? so strong?)—but then stops in the moment of recognizing the futility of trying to reconstitute, even in words, that which has been forever taken away: “these irretrievable.” The “stacks of bodies” are now emptied of life, of souls that could animate the physicality and make it alive to the world. The amputated arms and legs are irretrievable, too, leaving dismembered bodies that become the very emblem of fragmentation and loss. The vast ocean moves all around this horrific scene of death and dismemberment, offering the beautiful and tender “slight shock of the soothe of the waves”—as if the survivors are stunned, with so much death around them, to realize that they are still aware of the rocking ocean and still able to sense the “delicate sniffs” of the sea, now mingled with the “strong scent” of the gunpowder. Whitman captures an unforgettable scene of loss, agony, and pain against the backdrop of the ultimate composter, the lapping ocean, awaiting the feast of death it is about to receive when it accepts the bodies and limbs that will be deposited there. The ocean will recycle them into other life but never again into the specific human forms that were lost in battle: those complete bodies are beyond retrieval, beyond experiencing whatever it is they thought they died for.
A sentence fragment spread over sixteen lines, distributing clauses that ebb and flow according to the tidal movements of the poet’s imagination, accumulating images of the casualties incurred in the sea battle celebrated in the previous section, invoking all the senses to give a vivid account of its aftermath (the sinking ship, flames and voices, the mingled odors of sedge grass, salt air, and gun powder), reckoning up the losses—a child, an old salt, “Formless stacks of bodies and bodies by themselves, dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars”—in a catalogue that darkens word by word—“Wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood, short wild scream, and long, dull, tapering groan”—before concluding with four terrible words: “These so, these irretrievable.”
Whitman loved the sea, the greatest battlefield of all, where at every moment the forces of life and death contend, in numberless encounters hidden from view, and here “on the breast of the darkness,” aboard the victorious ship, he acknowledges the limits of his song, which cannot save the dead or heal the wounded. He added one line to the original version—“A few large stars overhead, silent and mournful shining”—to suggest the cosmic scale of his undertaking; also the inadequacy of any human response to the carnage of war, including his foreshadowing of what was to come with the attack of the South Carolina militia on Fort Sumter and the Confederacy’s secession from the Union. The poet closes this section not with a verb, which would turn the fragment into a sentence, but with two phrases, which sound like the beginning of a sentence that will never be completed, leaving readers in a state of suspension, helpless before the spectacle of war. Homer knew that man was at the mercy of capricious gods. Who is to say this is not so?
The older we get, the more we sense that there are an increasing number of “irretrievable” events, sensations, and people in our past that now seem inaccessible to us. Whitman in this section offers a haunting line about that irretrievability, but how does his poetry itself set out to retrieve the irretrievable, to bring back in words what has been lost to our senses? What in our past is truly irretrievable?