This is a post I wrote that summarizes my reaction to Whitman’s book “Drum-Taps” . Fascinating stuff, I know.
The progression of the War, and Walt Whitman’s changing perception of it, is clearly depicted in Drum-Taps. The first several poems in the series are about the glory of the war to come, invoking the memories of an old Revolutionary War veteran even. “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” exemplifies this section, with the different voices privileged in different ways: the Father clinging to comfortable safety and unwilling to defend the country that provided this life to him, the Child that hears the call of the Banner, the Poet who intervenes on behalf of the Banner, and the Banner above all who symbolizes the glory of the Nation and reminds the citizens of their responsibilities towards Her. Also important in this moment are the poems that obviously see the Union as in the right and the Confederates in the wrong, mentioning often the manly blue of the soldiers.
The poems change as they progress, eventually bringing us to the quote in his poem “Year That Trembled and Reel’d Beneath Me” – “Must I change my triumphant songs?…/ Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?/ And sullen hymns of defeat?” (442). This is the darkest moment for Whitman, poetically speaking. He wonders whether his poetic vision can apply to the War and the world that will come after the war ends. He also has doubts as to the importance of poetry when more physical work is needed, as in the poem “The Wound-Dresser”.
He quickly rallies himself though, and reconstructs his vision to include the Southerners, the War, and his hospital work. A view in miniature of the arc of Drum-Taps can be seen in “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” in which he moves from desiring the peace and simplicity of the country to embracing the living, changing, and dangerous life he finds in Manhattan and south during the war. Whitman begins to equate his poetic quest with the war, claiming that when the war ends, his battles, which promise to be just as challenging and dangerous as the more physical battles of the war.
Although the series of poems in Drum-Taps suggest a resolution and a resolve following the horrors of war, Whitman’s treatment of the book suggests that he was not quite as certain as I would have thought he was from reading the poems alone. He could not decide initially whether the poems, and thus the Civil War itself, belonged to his life-work of Leaves of Grass. Arguably, he spends the rest of his life wrestling with this question, making his few weeks spent in Fredericksburg and the longer time spent in DC helping the wounded a formative part of his poetic life.