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WALT WHITMAN’S CIVIL WAR POETRY An Online Professional Development Seminar Walt Whitman c. 1860
Television’s most-watched history series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE brings to life, on air and online, the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Online premiered in November 1995 and has won accolades from viewers and critics alike. To date, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Online has produced over 130 feature sites. These sites enable viewers to watch films online and encourage in-depth exploration of each film beyond the television screen.
TEACH WITH AMERICAN EXPERIENCE ONLINE Alexander Hamilton The story of a founding father who laid the groundwork for the nation's modern economy -- including the banking system and Wall Street. He was also a primary author of the Federalist Papers. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln Just days after the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre. As a fractured nation mourned, a manhunt closed in on his assassin, the twenty- six-year-old actor, John Wilkes Booth. The Crash of 1929 The unbounded optimism of the Jazz Age and the shocking consequences when reality finally hit on October 29th, ultimately leading to the Great Depression. The Bombing of Germany During the defining months of the offensive against Germany, American forces faced a moral and strategic dilemma. Buffalo Bill William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's legendary exploits helped create the myth of the American West that still endures today.
GOALS OF THE SEMINAR To deepen your understanding of Whitman’s Civil War poetry. To introduce new texts, including the American Experience documentary Walt Whitman. To illustrate how those texts can be used for instruction.
Franny Nudelman Associate Professor of English Carleton University Ottawa, Canada Nineteenth- and twentieth-century American culture, war and violence, African American literature, documentary studies. John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War 2004 “Trip to Hanoi: Anti-War Travel and Transnational Consciousness,” forthcoming in New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness
FRAMING QUESTIONS • How did the crisis of war transform Whitman’s poetry? How would you characterize the poems he wrote before the war began? By contrast, how would you characterize the poems in Drum-Taps? Can Whitman’s wartime experiences help us to account for these differences? • 2. While volunteering in Washington hospitals, Whitman observed the suffering of • wounded and dying soldiers firsthand. How do his wartime poems deal with • wounded and dead bodies? Does Whitman believe poetry can convey, and • perhaps alleviate, the physical suffering war entails? • 3. How did Whitman want his future readers to understand the Civil War? What did he want us to know about the war? What aspects of the war did he want us to remember? And what did he hope we would forget? • 4. By extension, how can we use Whitman’s poems to encourage our students to reflect on the relationship between war and literature?
Song of Myself (1855 edition) . . . There was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now; And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. . . . Billy Collins, poet: Here was the first truly American poet who broke out of the form of formal poetry. You know how in a sonnet you have these boundaries. Leaves of Grass is a poem without boundaries and so that everything can flood into it: People, professions, landscape, memories, engineering, water, children, Native Americans. There's no boundaries keeping anything out. . . . Ed Folsom: Whitman equates the human body and democracy in some radical and essential way: that the human body is what we all share. We all experience this world through the body. And if we can all begin to agree that the body itself is a sacred thing then we have the beginnings of democracy. TEACHER’S GUIDE
Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat (1856) Now I am terrified at the earth! it is that calm and patient, It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions, It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseased corpses, It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor, It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops, It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.
Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (from section 3) (1855) . . . It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not; I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is. Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt; Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd; Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d; Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried; Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d. . . . Ed Folsom: Whitman publishes a new poem called Sun-down Poem in this edition eventually called Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. He writes: "It avails not neither time or place. Distance avails not. I am with you, you men and women of a generation or ever so many generations hence. I project myself. Also I return. I am with you and know how it is." Whitman places his "I," the "I" that's been speaking in the present tense, puts it into the past. And he puts himself in a past now that's so far past that he's not alive anymore. And gives over the present tense of the poem to you and me, to us, the readers. Whitman in 1856 was not only imagining us in 2008 reading this poem, but projecting us into 2008 to read this poem. It's as if he is creating us as a character in the poem. . . . Ed Folsom: What all the preaching in the world, what all the religions in the world have been telling you to have faith about: that there is some sort of life after death, that it's possible to communicate across time and across space. We've just proved it, haven't we? That we can talk beyond death. That we can have affection for one another beyond death. TEACHER’S GUIDE
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1891-92 edition. CAVALRY CROSSING A FORD A LINE in long array where they wind betwixt green islands, They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark to the musical clank, Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink, Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles, Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the ford—while, Scarlet and blue and snowy white, The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1891-92 edition. Come Up from the Fields Father . . . Open the envelope quickly; O this is not our son's writing, yet his name is sign'd; O a strange hand writes for our dear son—O stricken mother's soul! All swims before her eyes—flashes with black—she catches the main words only; Sentences broken— gun-shot wound in the breast, cavalryskirmish, taken to hospital,At present low, but will soon be better . . . .
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1891-92 edition. Vigil Strange. . . . My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form, Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and care- fully under feet, And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited, Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim, Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,) Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd, I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, And buried him where he fell.
A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown . . . These I resume as I chant—I see again the forms, I smell the odor; Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men,Fall in;But first I bend to the dying lad—his eyes open—a half-smile gives he me; Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness, Resuming, marching, as ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks, The unknown road still marching.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1891-92 edition. The Wound-Dresser . . . Thus in silence in dreams' projections, Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad, (Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested, Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.) . . . Ed Folsom: The intensity of that sense of encountering the strangers again and feeling tremendous affection for them, demonstrating that affection. Many of the soldiers as they were dying the last kiss they would have, the last moment of affection they would have would be from this bearded poet who had taken time to stop with them. There were these again moments of what he had learned in New York to be those moments of urban affection. That in the hospital became national affection — all of these soldiers from all over the country, southern soldiers as well as northern soldiers. There really was a sense in those hospital wards of Whitman encountering the country, the entire nation in a way that he never would in any other form in any other setting. They were all there and he would absorb it all, show affection for them all. TEACHER’S GUIDE
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1891-92 edition. LOOK DOWN FAIR MOON. Look down fair moon and bathe this scene, Pour softly down night's nimbus floods on faces ghastly, swollen, purple, On the dead on their backs with arms toss'd wide, Pour down your unstinted nimbus sacred moon.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1891-92 edition. RECONCILIATION. Word over all, beautiful as the sky, Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world; For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead, I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin -- I draw near, Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin. David Reynolds: Walt Whitman, who above all had been searching for unity, comradeship, togetherness, feels that in the death of Abraham Lincoln we finally have that kind of unity that America had lacked before that. The unity that is finally achieved and that Whitman's early poetry could, couldn't, tried to achieve but never could. TEACHER’S GUIDE
To a Certain Civilian Did you ask dulcet rhymes from me? Did you seek the civilian's peaceful and languishing rhymes? Did you find what I sang erewhile so hard to follow? Why I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to understand - nor am I now; (I have been born of the same as the war was born, The drum-corps' rattle is ever to me sweet music, I love well the martial dirge, With slow wail and convulsive throb leading the officer's funeral;) What to such as you anyhow such a poet as I? therefore leave my works, And go lull yourself with what you can understand, and with piano-tunes, For I lull nobody, and you will never understand me.
Specimen Days THE MILLION DEAD, TOO, SUMM'D UP The dead in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill'd in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown'd—15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover'd by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere . . . the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes' exhalation in Nature's chemistry distill'd, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.
ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDINGS • Confronted by a contemporary audience that was indifferent, and at times downright hostile to his poems, Whitman wrote with future audiences in mind. He felt most at home in conversation with future readers, who he imagined would share his reverence for bodily experience, strong emotion, and poetic excess. • During the Civil War, Whitman abandoned the experimentalism and exuberance of his antebellum poetry. His wartime poems are less personal, and more conventional, than the poetry he wrote before the war began. Rather than celebrating an easy (and wholly subjective) relationship between self and world, Whitman’s wartime poems labor to express the “realities” of war. 3. Whitman was intensely ambivalent about the violence of war. He lamented the suffering and death of Civil War soldiers on both sides of the conflict. At the same time, he believed that war produced national identity, and that the United States would be unified and strengthened by the ordeal.
WALT WHITMAN’S CIVIL WAR POETRY An Online Professional Development Seminar Final Slide. Thank you. Walt Whitman c. 1860