Thursday, 17 September 2009
Walt Whitman c. 1860
Here is an extract from John Keegan's latest book, The American Civil War. Its subject is the medical response to the battlefields' carnage, and Walt Whitman's role in nursing the casualties. And here is a strong essay on the same subject by Angel Price.
Whitman was not a soldier, and did not witness any fighting, but his experiences in the field hospitals inspired him to write some of the most important and influential poetry of the nineteenth century. Kipling called him his favourite poet; Gurney was overwhelmed by the 'flood' of his work, and spent years studying, rewriting, and setting to music Whitman's poetry; Rosenberg argued that Shakespeare had 'paved the way for Whitman', with the Bard's 'freedom', 'daring' and 'inspiration' becoming 'in Whitman's hands... a roadway right through humanity'. Those poets' emphasis on experience and witness was already found in Whitman: 'I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is... without some such experience as this I am having.' Whitman's influence was also felt in prose writings of the Great War. The nurses' memoirs of Vera Brittain and Mary Borden are noble variations on Specimen Days.
Drum Taps (1865), Whitman's poems of the war, became incorporated into the 1867 edition of that greatest and most protean of 19th-century poetry volumes, Leaves of Grass. The war poems are, among other things, an attempt to do justice to the dying: 'every case', Whitman noted, 'is a tragic poem, an epic, a romance, a pensive and absorbing book, if it were only written.' Here is the final poem of the section, 'Not Youth Pertains to Me':
NOT youth pertains to me,
Nor delicatesse—I cannot beguile the time with talk;
Awkward in the parlor, neither a dancer nor elegant;
In the learn'd coterie sitting constrain'd and still—for learning inures not to me;
Beauty, knowledge, fortune, inure not to me—yet there are two things inure to me;
I have nourish'd the wounded, and sooth'd many a dying soldier;
And at intervals I have strung together a few songs,
Fit for war, and the life of the camp.