Monday, February 22, 2010

Walt Whitman

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.

PENSIVE, on her dead gazing, I heard the Mother of All,
Desperate, on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battle-fields gazing;
(As the last gun ceased—but the scent of the powder-smoke linger'd;)
As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d:
Absorb them well, O my earth, she cried—I charge you, lose not my sons! lose not an atom;
And you streams, absorb them well, taking their dear blood;
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly,
And all you essences of soil and growth—and you, my rivers’ depths;
And you, mountain sides—and the woods where my dear children’s blood, trickling, redden’d;
And you trees, down in your roots, to bequeath to all future trees,
My dead absorb—my young men’s beautiful bodies absorb—and their precious, precious, precious blood;
Which holding in trust for me, faithfully back again give me, many a year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence;
In blowing airs from the fields, back again give me my darlings—give my immortal heroes;
Exhale me them centuries hence—breathe me their breath—let not an atom be lost;
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial, sweet death, years, centuries hence.

In this poem, Whitman hears the "Mother of All" mourning the loss of the fallen soldiers. She asks the earth to absorb them well and hold on to them for her so that they are part of the earth for centuries, immortal as part of the air and soil.

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.

3 Responses to “Walt Whitman”

Suzana Makowski MD said...
March 20, 2010 at 11:12 PM This comment has been removed by the author.

Suzana Makowski MD said...
March 20, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Amber,
I was so happy to see you bring Walt Whitman into the discussion about this year's AAHPM book - on the civil war. Having had a chance to weave his poetry into the book, even read a few extras as a "break" from the historical account of the horrors of the war added a new dimension to both poet and history.
Thanks!
Suzana


Suzana Makowski MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Amber,
I was so happy to see you bring Walt Whitman into the discussion about this year's AAHPM book - on the civil war. Having had a chance to weave his poetry into the book, even read a few extras as a "break" from the historical account of the horrors of the war added a new dimension to both poet and history.
Thanks!
Suzana