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  • The Irony of National Union: Violence and Compassion in “Drum-Taps”*
  • John Snyder (bio)
John Snyder

john snyder is a member of the Humanities Division of Southampton College, Long Island University.


* In The Dear Love of Man: Tragic and Lyric Communion in Walt Whitman (to be published in 1974 by Mouton in the series Studies in American Literature), I make an argument about Whitman’s tragic attitude toward the Civil War that expands the thesis in this article.

1. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”, “Leaves of Grass”: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York, 1965). All citations of poems in Leaves of Grass will be from this edition.

2. Richard Chase, Walt Whitman Reconsidered (New York, 1955); F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York, 1941); Roy Harvey Pearce, “Introduction”, “Leaves of Grass”, 1860: Facsimile Edition (Ithaca, N.Y., 1961).

3. In his “Introduction” to “Leaves of Grass”, 1860: Facsimile Edition, Pearce argues that it is impossible to believe in the “visionary” Whitman, who urges us to accept what he says in total faith, without offering even a semi-objective “myth” that one might at least “assent to” (xv–xvi). Instead, Pearce places his trust in the self-doubting poet, struggling with the problems of experience, rather than uttering prophecy, and achieving a kind of admirable “humanism” (xxxix–xi). Still, he sees this vulnerable Whitman surface only briefly, in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass; thereafter, he claims, the poet returns to the visionary world of “Song of Myself” and finishes his career by merely repeating his prophecies, but without the early vitality.

4. Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”, Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall, II (New York, 1964), 392.

5. Walt Whitman, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”, Ibid., 714.

6. In Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1923), D. H. Lawrence does not allow that Whitman makes this important distinction (but not dichotomy) between merging love and restrained sympathy: “He didn’t follow his Sympathy. Try as he might, he kept on automatically interpreting it as Love, as Charity. Merging!” (173). Instead, Lawrence pursues his entire thesis condescendingly, as if he knows this distinction but Whitman does not.

7. Edmund Wilson, in Patriotic Gore (New York, 1962), analyzes Lincoln’s “spiritual” feeling for history, his almost mystical yearning for the consummation of the “irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces” that issued in national union.

8. Blodgett and Bradley, ed., “Leaves of Crass”: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition, pp. 292–93.

9. Roger Asselineau, The Evolution of Walt Whitman, Eng. trans., 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960, 1962) and Frederik Schyberg, Walt Whitman, Eng. trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951).

10. Blodgett and Bradley, ed., “Leaves of Grass”: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition, p. 285.

11. Whitman’s essay in Collect, “Origins of the Attempted Secession” (1876), with its insight into the guilt of both North and South and its sense of the lesson of a civil war that had to be fought – and with a kind of exultation at the opportunity – because of inherent national rot, but should never have had to be fought because of all the suffering, would serve as an enlightening supplement to “Song of the Banner.”

12. Whitman’s ironic view that civil war is the consummation of America’s loftiest ideal is remarkably similar to Freud’s interpretation of World War I as the tragic crisis of civilization’s unavoidable repression of instinctual life: Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”, On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), pp. 206–35. Both men place supreme value on “civilization”, but insist that it can never transcend man’s psychological ambivalence (Freud and Whitman) or historical ambiguity (Whitman).

13. Whitman’s complex ironic sense of obligatory patriotic vehemence in “Rise O Days” is comparable to Thomas Mann’s, in the conclusion to The Magic Mountain, where Hans Castorp charges across no-man’s-land out of hysterical “Love” for the botched Europe he finally comes down off the mountain to embrace as it disintegrates...


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