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Walt Whitman is one of America’s most popular and most influential poets. The first edition of Whitman’s well-known Leaves of Grass first appeared in July of the poet’s thirty-sixth year. A subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass (of which there were many) incorporated a collection of Whitman’s poems that had been offered readers in 1865. The sequence added for the 1867 edition was Drum-Taps, which poetically recounts the author’s experiences of the American Civil War.
Walt Whitman was born May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Long Island. His early years included much contact with words and writing; he worked as an office boy as a pre-teen, then later as a printer, journalist, and, briefly, a teacher, returning eventually to his first love and life’s work—writing. Despite the lack of extensive formal education, Whitman experienced literature, “reading voraciously from the literary classics and the Bible, and was deeply influenced by Goethe, Carlyle, Emerson, and Sir Walter Scott” (Introduction vii).
Whitman was drawn to the nations capital roughly a year after the Civil War began, at the age of forty-three. The wounding of his brother, George Washington Whitman, who served in the Union Army, precipitated his contact with the carnage of the war. Reading the notice of his brother’s injury in the New York Herald, Whitman went immediately to Falmouth, Virginia, where he found his brotherly only slightly wounded. Perpetually short-handed, Army officials asked the poet to help transport injured soldiers to field hospitals in Washington. Whitman agreed, and began a mission of mercy that would occupy him from 1862 until the war’s end in 1865 (Murray).
Drum-Taps is the personal-historical record of Whitman’s wartime occupation. Drum-Taps’ early poems were written prior to Whitman’s contact with wounded soldiers, and betray a starkly different attitude toward the war than one finds later in the sequence. The chronologically earlier poems celebrate the coming hostilities, expressing Whitman’s “early near-mindless jingoism” (Norton 2130). As one progresses through the work, he finds a less energetic, sorrowful, jaded narrator who seems little like the exuberant youth who began. Understandable so, “[Whitman] estimated that over the course of the war, he had made ‘over 600 visits or tours, and went … among from some 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need’” (Murray).
What follows is a contemporaneous review of his work that speaks of the esteem that much of the world extended Whitman as patriot and poet of Drum-Taps:
New York Times, 22 November 1865, p. 4.
Mr. Whitman has strong aspirations toward poetry, but he is wanting entirely in the qualities that Praed possessed in such large measure. He has no ear, no sense of the melody of verse. His poems only differ from prose in the lines being cut into length, instead of continuously pointed. As prose, they must be gauged by the sense they contain, the mechanism of verse being either despised by, or out of the reach of the writer. Considered as prose, then, we find in them a poverty of thought, paraded forth with a hubbub of stray words, and accompanied with a vehement self-assertion in the author that betrays an absence of true and calm confidence in himself and his impulses. Mr. Whitman has fortunately better claims on the gratitude of his countrymen than any he will ever derive from his vocation as a poet. What a man does, is of far greater consequence than what he says or prints, and his devotion to the most painful of duties in the hospitals at Washington during the war, will confer honor on his memory when Leaves of Grass are withered and Drum Taps have ceased to vibrate. (New York)
Timely assessments of Whitman’s Drum-Taps largely concur with the Times. Whitman shared their outlooks; Whitman himself thought not of Drum-Taps as particularly literary, but human, “[poetry with] no dress put on anywhere to complicate or beautify it” (Lowenfels x).
The most celebrated poem of the sequence comes near the end, in what is a sequel to the original collection of war poems and the events that provoked them. That sequel, Memories of President Lincoln, delayed the publication of Drum-Taps, and includes “his masterpiece of the 1860s,” “When Lilacs Last on the Dooryard Bloomed” (Walt 2130), as well as the much celebrated and anthologized, “O Captain, My Captain” (Price). Whitman’s feelings toward Lincoln ran deep; his “sense of sadness over the death of Lincoln was profound” (Price).
After the war Whitman worked in the Office of Indian Affairs. Upon his supervisor’s discovering that he was the author of Leaves of Grass, he was summarily released. “Friends [then] secured for Whitman a post at the attorney general’s office, where he remained until suffering the first of a series of strokes in 1873, which left him a partial invalid” (Introduction). In March of 1892, Walt Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey.
As Whitman’s life was nearing its end, his esteemed positions in literature and society were rising to the heights one finds them today: “American public opinion was gradually swayed by new evidences that the invalid at Camden could command the respect of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet Laureate, and many other famous British writers” (Walt 2131).