Join us for a community-read of Whitman's Drum-Taps, a powerful collection of poems written as witness to the devastation of the Civil War.The poems of "Drum Taps" are immediate, sharp, even impressionistic - and carry the palpable grief of having seen 80,000 wounded, and in those bodies the understanding of what war does to the human body and soul.
Markedly different from Whitman’s usual romantic, celebratory, and expansive poems about the individual and the collective in America, Drum-Taps contained poems that bore witness to the violence of war with a sense of intimacy and fear. In Whitman’s account of what he called the “red business” of the war, there’s his usual sense of compassion, but there’s rage and hopelessness too, as can be read in the first section of “The Wound-Dresser,” in which the speaker says, “Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war, / But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself / To sit by the wounded and sooth them, or silently watch the dead.” The dead are numerous in these poems, and dutifully accounted for, as in his poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” in which the speaker spends time lovingly addressing each of the three dead soldiers in the poem: “And who are you my child and darling? / Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?”
Six months after his original publication of Drum-Taps, Whitman republished the book with a “sequel,” a series of poems responding to the end of the war, including the death of Lincoln. This edition included Whitman’s famous elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” which shares the elegiac, anaphoric “O” exclamations also present in his other famous poem about Lincoln: “O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; / Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills.”
Ultimately Whitman included an edited version of Drum-Taps in his next edition of Leaves of Grass, published that same year—though only thirty-eight of the original seventy-one poems in the collection appeared in later editions of Leaves of Grass.
In the end, Whitman, who was so resolute in his aim to publish Drum-Taps—going so far as to publish the first edition on his own dime—was at least pleased that he was able to accomplish his goal: to put to words all that he had seen during the war. In another letter he sent to O’Connor, on January 6, 1865, Whitman said, “Drum-Taps delivers my ambition of the task that has haunted me, namely, to express in a poem...the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in, with all their large conflicting fluctuations of despair & hope, the shiftings, masses, & the whirl & deafening din...& then an undertone of sweetest comradeship and human love, threading its steady thread inside the chaos.”
May 31st is the 199th anniversary of Whitman's birth, and we're marking that date with two community reads: "Drum-Taps" on Memorial Day, and the 1855 Edition of "Leaves of Grass" on Sunday June 3rd at Awbury Aboretum.