Walt Whitman, Drum-Taps
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(New York, 1865)
Born on Long Island, New York, the second of nine children to parents of modest means and Quaker leanings, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) seemed an unlikely candidate to become the great American poet that he is known as today. Indeed, Walt Whitman (as he was known since boyhood) had very little formal education, worked at a number of odd jobs—from office boy to typesetter to teacher to journalist to editor—none for very long, and published a variety of articles, short stories, and a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842), before publishing the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855).
While Whitman did publish prose pieces during his lifetime—Democratic Vistas (1870), Specimen Days (1882), and November Boughs (1888) are all lengthy prose projects—he was known then and is known now as the poet of democracy and the father of free verse. He published his poems in the ever-expanding editions of Leaves of Grass that came out every few years between 1855 and his death. Nine editions were published during Whitman’s life. With each edition Whitman altered the poems from the previous one (sometimes even omitting some entirely), shifting their order and layout, and incorporating new poems. Although Whitman had published three editions by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the war brought with it what was, momentarily, a new project: a stand-alone book of fifty-three poems about the war that he titled Drum-Taps and that he published in 1865.
Some of the poems in Drum-Taps had been drafted before Whitman had any direct contact with the war (“Beat! Beat! Drums!” and “First O Songs for Prelude” in particular), but the poems at the heart of this book describe and were inspired by the war he saw firsthand. Unlike two of his brothers, who enlisted in the Union army, Whitman did not go to war. His contact with the war came through the wounded soldiers whom he met first during his visits to New York hospitals and later during his work as a volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C. He had made his way to Washington in search of his brother George, whom he feared had been wounded, but upon seeing the makeshift hospital and the injured soldiers from all over the nation, he stayed to help. Many of the poems in Drum-Taps grew out of the interactions Whitman had with these soldiers and were informed by the stories they told him and the deep attachment he felt to them.
After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman wrote eighteen more poems, many of which were tributes to the late president (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” are the most famous of these), but because Drum-Taps had already gone to press, he incorporated them into the next edition, which he published under the title Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-1866). Whitman absorbed these poems into the next edition of Leaves of Grass (1867) with their original order rearranged. When people refer to “Drum-Taps” today, they are usually referring to the forty-three poems that make up the section by that title in the final three editions of Leaves of Grass.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. “Drum-Taps” is often read as a sequence in which the poems move from one outlook, perspective, or interest in the war to another. Some of these moves can be characterized as a shift from a hopeful call to arms to an awareness of the deaths that the call produces, or, put another way, from an interest in the more abstract issues to those of individual existence and suffering. Reading “DrumTaps” as a sequence whose movements can be mapped in these ways not only allows students to identify the themes and issues that recur, but exposes them to Whitman’s use of a wide variety of formal and stylistic strategies. In other words, while all of these poems are in some way about the Civil War, each one approaches the problem of representing the war differently. What are some of the different narratives about the war that are embedded in this sequence? What poems rupture those narratives? Michael Warner’s essay discusses the narrative strategy of “Drum-Taps.”
- 2. When dealing with the poems individually, there is a group of five at the center that look closely at the lives and deaths of the soldiers. These are particularly accessible poems because in them Whitman renders his own attachment to these men in deeply emotional ways. Looking closely at these poems—“Come Up from the Fields Father,” “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown,” “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” and “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods”—allows you to identify and characterize both the different ways that Whitman tells these men’s stories and the similarity of sentiment that runs through all of them. You might, for instance, identify what the relationship is between the poem’s level of remove from the battlefield and the kind of story it tells. Even more specifically, how does the setting of each poem affect the syntax Whitman uses? With every poem Whitman attempts a new way to see these soldiers, and if students can characterize the various relationships that he establishes in these poems, they can come to understand the complex strategies he uses for making the soldiers’ deaths real. In other words, how does Whitman balance his desire to represent the horrors of mass death and retain the humanity and individuality of the dead soldiers? He tells the story of a letter arriving to a soldier’s home, describes in lush language the fields that his parents work in, and renders, in jagged syntax, the worry they register on receiving a letter that is not in their son’s handwriting. The poem navigates knowledge of the soldier’s state carefully, as the omniscient poet-speaker is the only one who knows of his death, yet the mother has intuitive knowledge of this fact. In “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” the people in the poem are no longer at one remove from the war, but are the soldiers themselves. The setting now is in a field, and the speaker is a soldier holding a vigil in the night for one of his fallen comrades. This is a scene of both death and romance. Michael Moon will be a useful resource as you begin to consider the physicality of Whitman’s poetry.
- 3. In “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown” the soldierspeaker comes upon a makeshift hospital during a night march. He lingers on the sight of such a place that contains so much suffering, a place described as “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” In “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” the seeing takes place in the morning, but the wounded are still present and he views three bodies—those of an old man, a child, and a young man. It is as if with every poem Whitman attempts a new way to see these people, and it is in this poem that he turns the anonymous dead into a deeply meaningful figure: “Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, / Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods” is the last in this set of poems and here readers are not faced with the dying or the dead, but instead with the sign that a solder has died in this spot: “a tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave.” The words written in haste on that tablet are haunting in what they say and cannot say: “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.” After consulting Davis’s book, which analyzes the effect of Whitman’s experiences as a nurse during the war, consider whether the different perspectives in these poems are related to experience or narrative strategy.
- 4. Whereas all of these poems are narrated by the poet, who brings himself as close as possible to these different situations and then describes them in all their complexity, some of the more challenging poems employ different voices. “Song of the Banner at Daybreak,” “The Centenarian’s Song,” and “The Wound-Dresser,” for instance, are at least more than one level removed from the lives of the young boys on the battlefield. What is the effect of having so many different kinds of poems about the war in this sequence? Erkkila may help clarify your approach to this topic.
- 5. Although it is not the last poem in the section, “Reconciliation”—a six-line poem that can easily be memorized and recited—reads like a finale. A perfect combination of the best of Whitman’s sounds and rhythms, and of his long and short lines, this poem magnifies the emotions expressed in the individual poems as its speaker looks at his dead enemy and slowly and deliberately narrates his move of reconciliation. What does Whitman mean by “reconciliation” and how does he imagine the country might get there?
David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995).
Presents the details of Whitman’s biography in relation to the shifts in the social and political climates of nineteenth-century America, telling the stories of the man and the nation simultaneously.
Robert Leigh Davis, Whitman and the Romance of Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
Analyzes the influence of Whitman’s experience as a nurse during the Civil War on his writing, arguing that it is in those poems that he develops his fullest sense of the democratic experience.
Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Explores a number of nineteenth-century political struggles (including the Civil War), Whitman’s own political ideology, and the effect of both on Whitman’s ongoing poetic project.
Ted Genoways, “Civil War Poems in ‘Drum-Taps’ and ‘Memories of President Lincoln,’” in A Companion to Walt Whitman, edited by Donald D. Kummings (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 522-538.
Offers one way through the sequence by characterizing the poems in each stage by the following terms: “Recruiting Poems,” “Journalistic Poems,” “Soldier Poems,” “Hospital Poems,” and “Memories of President Lincoln.”
Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).
Analyzes the first four editions of Leaves of Grass in relation to issues of the body, desire, and homosexuality that Moon argues guides Whitman’s “revisions.”
M. Wynn Thomas, The Lunar Light of Whitman’s Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).
Analyzes the social and political contexts within which Whitman was working—capitalism and the Civil War, in particular—and argues that his poems were directly affected by them.
Michael Warner, “Civil War Religion and Whitman’s Drum-Taps,” in Walt Whitman: Where the Future Becomes the Present, edited by David Haven Blake and Michael Robertson (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008), pp. 81-90.
Suggests that “Drum-Taps” does not tell the narrative of this particular war but instead is preoccupied with larger issues of history, time, and mortality and often casts those issues in religious language and tone.