By Duane Soubirous
In celebration of National Poetry Month, History First recognizes Walt Whitman for crafting his observations into poetry, giving future generations of Americans the ability to see Whitman’s time period through his eyes.
Walt Whitman is best known for his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 with 12 poems. He continuously revised and added to Leaves of Grass throughout his life, and the final 1892 “deathbed” edition consists of almost 400 poems, including “Drum-Taps,” a collection of poems written about the Civil War, and “Memories of President Lincoln,” containing Whitman’s best-known poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”
In 1842 Whitman attended a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, where Emerson predicted that America would soon have its own poet who would write about the American experience in a uniquely American style. “When he lifts his great voice, men gather to him and forget all that is past, and then his words are to the hearers, pictures of all history,” Emerson said.
If Walt Whitman believed he could be the “genius of poetry” that Emerson prophesied, few others shared his confidence. The first edition of Leaves of Grass, where Whitman debuted his style, free of the forms that defined poetry, was met with scathing reviews. It sold fewer copies than Whitman had given away. One reviewer called Leaves of Grass “a mass of stupid filth,” and Whitman’s brother even said he “didn’t think it worth reading.” Emerson, however, wrote Whitman a letter of encouragement, praising Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
The 1850s were a time of unprecedented divisions in the United States. Northerners denounced pro-slavery laws of Congress and Supreme Court decisions, and Southerners threatened secession over Northerners’ hostility to slavery. Whitman hoped Leaves of Grass would unite the country. “I think that Whitman believed that Leaves of Grass was going to prevent a Civil War,” Whitman scholar Ed Folsom said in the Walt Whitman episode of PBS’s American Experience. “Leaves of Grass is really a book about preserving the Union. It’s a book about holding things together, being able to absorb contradictions and still maintain a single identity.”
Whitman’s poetry couldn’t keep the country together, and the ensuing Civil War hit especially close to home. Whitman read in the papers that his younger brother was a casualty in the Battle of Fredericksburg, where the Union was badly defeated. Whitman rushed to the battlefield, only to find that his brother was minimally injured. Whitman stayed with his brother for over a week and witnessed the realities of war. “Living so close to the front, to the dressing stations and the hospital tents pitched on the frozen ground, the fresh barrel-stave markers in the burial field, the vexed Rappahannock, and the ruins of Fredericksburg, he saw ‘what well men and sick men and mangled men endure,’” Justin Kaplan wrote in Walt Whitman: A Life. Whitman began writing down these observations, later using them for his “Drum-Taps” poems.
After his experience on the battlefield, Whitman, too old to fight, became a dedicated volunteer in army hospitals. He served the non-medical needs of wounded soldiers, providing them with items like food, linens, stationery, and money. He often wrote letters informing families of a loved one’s death. “In his poem ‘Come Up from the Fields Father,’ Whitman imagined the family that received a letter like those he wrote,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in This Republic of Suffering. “It reports his gunshot wound but does not yet communicate the more terrible truth that ‘he is dead already’ by the time the letter arrives. It is a letter that will destroy the mother, as a rifle has already destroyed the son.”
Whitman captured the widespread grief after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He wrote “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day” on the day of Lincoln’s funeral. “Whitman speaks as one of the people, leading the soldiers in mourning and urging common men to whom he is so devoted to join him in tribute to ‘our dear commander,’” Faust wrote. Another poem commemorating Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” was written with a rhythm so uncommon to Whitman’s poetry, a democratic style that is accessible to common people. In this poem, Whitman represents “the searing grief of a single man, in a representation of the individual pain of which the cumulative loss is constituted.”
If Irish folklore is to be believed, Irish clans fighting in the old wars had an agreement to spare the poets. “Don’t kill the poets, because the poets had to be left to tell the story,” historian David Blight said. Through Walt Whitman’s poetry, the modern reader can see the total devastation of war and pain of losing a leader and a hero.