Monday, February 22, 2010
This post was inspired by a book I recently read, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. If you happen to be attending the AAHPM Annual Assembly next month, this is the book that will be talked about in the first ever AAHPM Book Club (link to AAHPM blog that talks about the book) (Saturday, March 6 from 12:15-1:15). I know from the Pallimed group Amy, Christian and I will all be in attendance, so read the book and come join us!
American poet, Walt Whitman, was born in 1819. He is perhaps best known for his collection of poetry Leaves of Grass which is perhaps best known for its controversial sexual themes. Whitman initially published this collection of poetry in 1855 but he continued working on it, adding more poetry until right before his death in 1892. What I didn't know about Whitman until reading Faust's book was his involvement in the American Civil War and how his experiences shaped his poetry.
Whitman's brother was a soldier in the Union Army. When Whitman heard that he had been wounded, he hurried to Virginia to be with him. His brother had only minor injuries but he found many who were much worse off. He began visiting the soldiers. He would spend time with them and write letters home for them. He would also write letters to soldiers family members to tell them of the soldier's death, providing reassurance that they had had a good death. His poetry reflected this experience.
Below is the poem "Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, I Heard the Mother of All", written after the end of the war.
Whitman was also very moved by the death of Abraham Lincoln. He wrote the famous poem "O Captain! My Captain" in response to his death.
O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
In Faust's book, she points out that Lincoln's grand funeral was like a surrogate funeral for all those who died in the war who did not have a "proper burial". Their families didn't have the opportunity to say goodbye in that way. Often they didn't even know the exact fate of their loved one. They were just presumed dead. Whenever I have read "O Captain! My Captain" in the past, I always read it pertaining just to Lincoln. Now I wonder if it doesn't have a broader meaning. Maybe Whitman wasn't just thinking about Lincoln, but about all the civil war dead.