An Essential Human Respect: Reading Walt Whitman During Troubled Times

September 20, 2016 | 18 7 min read


We live in contentious times.  In these frenzied days, it’s worth returning to Walt Whitman’s book of Civil War poetry, Drum-Taps.  First published in 1865, Drum-Taps reflects on the confrontation of grand visions and the human costs of realizing them.  It suggests the importance of empathy in the face of significant ideological disagreement.

coverThe Civil War was in part a great clash of ideas and of visions for what the American republic would be.  Abraham Lincoln underlined the stakes of this disagreement in the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

What the “new birth of freedom” called for in Gettysburg meant might have evolved over time; for instance, the abolition of slavery became increasingly central to the Union’s rhetorical self-defense as the war continued.

But, whatever the evolving notion of the Union, it certainly differed in major ways from how many top Confederates saw secession.  In March 1861, in Savannah, Ga., Confederate Vice-President Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a former congressional colleague of Lincoln, outlined his vision for the stakes of the war.  Stephens argued that many of those who founded the nation believed that slavery was “in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.”  According to Stephens, Thomas Jefferson and others believed that slavery would, eventually, end because it violated the principle of equality among men and women.  Stephens claimed the Confederacy offered a corrective to this belief in human equality:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Stephens found that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy was the commitment to racial inequality, and this radical philosophical principle justified, in his view, the dissolution of the Union.

covercoverWhitman took the side of the Union, the vision of which played a major role in both his poetic and political thinking. In his original preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman called the United States “essentially the greatest poem,” and the visionary project of a poet for Whitman involved the creation of a broader fellowship that transcended the conventional boundaries of society.  He viewed the United States as a vehicle for this enterprise of fellowship.

In its record of the Civil War, Drum-Taps homes in on the juxtaposition of vision and the flesh, of aspiration and suffering.  For all the great ambition of the antebellum United States, it contained great pain, and the carnage of the Civil War painted in red, white, and gangrene the price of maintaining the hope of the Union.  Ideas clashed in the Civil War, but men and women bled.  Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 study This Republic of Suffering argues that the magnitude of suffering and death during the Civil War sent shockwaves through American culture; the equivalent of over 600,000 war deaths in 1861-1865 would be over 6 million deaths in 2016.

The horror of this legacy of pain influenced Whitman’s life and poetry. His brother George served in the Union army throughout the war, and Whitman himself had a front-row-seat for the carnage of the Civil War during his time as a medical orderly.  He spent countless hours comforting the wounded and sick soldiers in Washington D.C. and elsewhere.  In an 1863 report, he reflected on visiting the wounded at the capital’s Patent Office, which had been converted to a hospital:

A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings, the Patent Office, was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there several times. It was a strange, solemn and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight.

Whitman attended to that magnitude of suffering in Drum-Taps.  In one of his notebooks, he claimed that “the expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for…in the hospitals, among the wounded.”  In many respects, the poems of Drum-Taps are songs for and of the wounded.

One of the most famous poems of the collection, “The Dresser” (later titled “The Wound-Dresser”), narrates the experience of tending to those injured in battle:

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in;
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground;
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital;
To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return;
To each and all, one after another, I draw near — not one do I miss;
An attendant follows, holding a tray — he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

That refuse pail, ever filling and emptying, implies the seemingly endlessness of tending to bodies and spirits ravaged by war.  The figures of these soldiers are sacred and exalted — that “priceless blood” — but still they suffer.

Whitman’s verse does not hide that suffering, or the price it exacts:

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood;
Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head;
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet looked on it.

With grim irony, these lines attend to amputations suffered in the name of preserving the Union.  Beyond the specific details of this wound-dressing, we see also the signs of the psychological pain of the amputee, who cannot even bear to look at the site of his dismemberment.  In “The Dresser” and elsewhere, the poetic speaker does not profess an ability to end this suffering or nullify the pain of the sufferers.  Instead, he can only act as a witness to this suffering.

While a book of poetry about war, Drum-Taps offers relatively few presentations of battles.  Rather than versifying military maneuvers, Whitman offers a broader catalogue of perspectives — of mourning parents, thriving cities, moonlit nights, and ford crossings.  This catalogue presents the greater context within which the violence of the war occurs.

Short poems — like sudden perspectival knives — cut in between many of the longer poems of Drum-Taps.  Some of these poems might not even seem to be about the war at first:

Solid, ironical, rolling orb!
Master of all, and matter of fact! — at last I accept your terms;
Bringing to practical, vulgar tests, of all my ideal dreams,
And of me, as lover and hero.

But this sudden flourish of reflection has clear connections to the war.  The ideal dreams and fancies of Whitman and his fellow Americans have become subject to the hard trials of gunpowder, bayonet, and surgeon’s saw.  And these tests of dreams pierce human hearts.

Some of Whitman’s early poems about the Civil War at times adopt a triumphalist, celebratory mode.  Written in 1861, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” conjures the explosive excitement of the coming war.  The poem opens with the exhortations “Beat! beat! drums! — Blow! bugles! blow! / Through the windows — through doors — burst like a force of ruthless men.”  With the force of blaring trumpets, tidings of war come to disrupt the conventional comforts of civilian life in peace.

We risk simplifying this poem, however, if we view it only as a gilded celebration of war.  The diction of the final stanza, for example, suggests an undercurrent of horror in the thrill of the pounding drums.

Beat! beat! drums! — Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley — stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid — mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties;
Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump, O terrible drums — so loud you bugles blow.

The drums and bugles have no time for argument or sorrow or prayer.  They break up families — splintering old from young, parents from children — and seem a prelude to a multitude of bodies, which lie awaiting hearses to bear them away.

Near the end of the book, especially with the “sequel” tacked on like a mournful suffix in October 1865, Whitman reflected in depth on the devastation of the war.  After the electric pounding of the visionary drums, the verse surveys a battlefield littered with broken bodies, severed limbs, and pale corpses.  Abraham Lincoln — especially in a poem such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” — becomes a representative figure: an emblem of the Union’s cost.  Whitman, though, did not stop with Lincoln.  Many of the poems of Drum-Taps reflect on the suffering of the simultaneously anonymous (because unnamed) and personalized (because shown as people with essential dignity) soldiers.  In part through this assertion of common suffering, Drum-Taps aims to unite a divided nation.

“Reconcilitation,” the penultimate poem of the original 1865 version of Drum-Taps, offers a meeting of North and South, of living and dead:

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;
I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

In this moment, Whitman’s verse presents a scene of recognition of an essential humanity across radical differences: that enemy is “a man divine as myself.”  Whatever the differences of cause between these two men — and these differences may yawn chasm-wide — they have a common human fellowship.

Rather than succumbing to self-righteous demonization, Whitman illustrated the power of a human empathy that transcends ideological bellicosity.  This empathy does not ultimately nullify ideological difference — Drum-Taps does not call for the defeat of the Union in order to end the war — but empathy does situate this difference in a more complicated context.

There were huge differences between the visions of the Union and the Confederacy, but those differences did not nullify the fact that partisans of both sides were human beings, with the inherent worth shared by all men and women.  Though he opposed the Confederacy, Whitman also sought to show the dignity of the Confederate soldiers not because he believed in their cause but because they were human beings.  In his time nursing wounded soldiers, Whitman cared for both Union and Confederate men.  He wrote, for instance, of watching over a Confederate prisoner of war whose leg was amputated.  Whitman’s empathy as both an artist and a man was not only a gift for those with whom he agreed or whose cause he applauded.  Whitman’s project in Drum-Taps reminds us of the way that poetry (and literature in general) can strive to keep us alert to our deeper bonds.

Whitman’s poetry chose the harder path of empathy.  In its portrayal of human suffering, Drum-Taps notes the price exacted by grand — even noble — visions in this “soil’d world.”  The collection suggests the importance of leavening a thirsty idealism with an essential human respect.

Previously:Embracing The Other I Am; or, How Walt Whitman Saved My Life

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

teaches at Boston University. He is the author of The Other Side and has published in The Atlantic, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.


  1. You know, it is so sad that there are no comments here at all. Have been tweeting a link to this wonderful article, and am about to again.

    Given the endless, draining election, the violence, the high water, and everything else, I wish our whole population could take a few hours out some day to read this article, recite some Whitman, and take a good long walk.

    Congratulations on a beautiful and moving piece, Mr. Finan.

    Maureen Murphy
    (Moe Murph)

  2. What Moe said — exactly! “For my enemy is dead — a man divine as myself is dead” — could we even write this today, divided as we are? So discouraged by the long, irrevocable swan dive we seem to be taking but I had a frisson of — what? hope?– reading this beautiful and beautifully reasoned call for human empathy. Thank you for this! And Moe, for directing me here.

  3. A beautiful, brief essay about the great Walt Whitman and the agony of war with lovely, insightful comments from moemurph and priskill. Your comments matter. This essay matters.

  4. For all the carnage, Whitman’s war had something of the meeting of equals about it: an Anglo Saxon war, in leadership, if not in infantry.

    The rampage and loss of the Civil War created the need for a poet to acknowledge the pain, bury the dead and praise the cause – even ascribing noble thoughts where sometimes baser motives drove the hand. There was little room in his story for the rising economic supremacy of America’s east coast where the ship owners counted their profits from the same source as the South.

    In Classical times poets saw their role as praising the good (or gods) but it also required them to stare evil in the face. The poets of The Great War did the same. They refused to sing peans to the grand visions when so many had blindly, incompetently, criminally and venally put their own interest before the lives of millions. The soldiers knew it, as did the soldier poets. Back in the home countries people soon grasped with horror the proofs and wickedness of what they came to call the meat grinder: the trenches, the weaponry, the bone-headed decisions and the pointless loss of even the most brave.

    Ideology is logic gone wrong. I’m not sure it deserves empathy any more than we should empathize with those for whom a grand vision meant war. Unlike Whitman, Ezra Pound was contentious: he knew we must contend with evil, stupidity and the collective madness that grips political elites even more strongly than it grips the common man or woman.

    Pound, too, has a message for our time.

  5. “Stephens found that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy was the commitment to racial inequality…”

    The proto-Third Reich, in other words. Would we argue for “empathy” (either when it was a contemporary issue, or in retrospect) towards the Nazis? Sometimes, “bellicosity” is the only way. The fallacy revealed here is our tendency to treat talented writers as Sages, but talent and sagacity are two distinctly different attributes. Not to mention the fact that quite a bit of Walt’s famous “empathy” was homoerotic, which is linked to a force (sexuality) that too often quite easily (or even violently) supervenes the course of the Fair or the Reasonable.

    One intellectual danger in Modern America is the Liberal longing for Niceness, vs the Right Wing longing to crush the Left. Leaving us with not much counter-force to all the tireless and successful Left-crushing.

    Worse: do we know or understand our favorite writers well enough to live by their principles? And is it true, for example, that Walt “called African Americans baboons” …?

    “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not” (With Walt Whitman 2:283).

    So, nah. Sorry. Fuck Walt and his “empathy”, thanks.

  6. Well, you got me, Steven. It is a damned shame that the talented aren’t necessarily the greatest thinkers — or human beings. Look at Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, jeez, every writer from the 19th century. Brilliant works replete with racism, sexism, anti-semitism. And my god, the Russians! I have to wince my way through some of the greatest writing of the last 200 years. ( Not clear, HG, why we would follow Pound’s politically curious and antisemitic ravings? “Usura! Usura!” — hard to take).

    It is disturbing and so disappointing to know that, despite his gifts, Walt was horribly and squarely stuck in the muck of his time, like so many others — his ugliness backed up by specious tangles of so called “History” and racially deterministic “Laws.” It’s a shock to read this stuff, particularly from someone whose work we admire.

    And yet,his poetry seems the gift of his better angels. Yeah, he began by beating the drum for civil war because that was the “liberal” and only morally defensible position of those years. And yes, the war between the states was all about commerce, the fate of the Union, the great fortunes of the few against the blood of the many, northern aggrandizement vs. a failing southern economy — sure, it was not simple . It never is. But was there any other solution? We can give ourselves knowing looks across 150 years of revised history but the fact remains that millions of plain, poor citizens willingly sacrificed for a luminous ideal, the still-elusive ideal of equality. Were they all perfect avatars of evolved thinking and harmonious empathy for their fellow man (never mind their fellow woman)? Uh, no. And neither was war the blithe, ennobling encounter of valiant souls conjured in so much war literature across millenia. If Walt fell sway to the trumpets and flag waving prior to battle, well, he wasn’t the first.

    But — we see in the quoted poems a kind of sea change. The man who looks at his dead enemy and perceives someone as divine as himself, that man has something to tell me. Even if we have him on record being a dick. I guess I am saying that trying to judge every artist throughout history in light of perceived moral and personal failings — especially after history has dragged us lucky moderns across centuries of hard won enlightenment — well, it seems ham- fisted and reductive.

    I say this knowing full well you are all wiser than me (I’ve been following the MacArthur thread and humbly bow my head.) But I am a fan of far too many un-evolved authors from the bad old days, whom I have to put into historical context. I can’t can’t can’t won’t give them up. But I can read them with the wider understanding that comes of simply being born later. I can use them to question my own baggage and assumptions.

    Now, off to pour a very tall one and settle in for the debacle I mean debate. Cheers!.

  7. @Priskill

    ” I can’t can’t can’t won’t give them up.”

    Oh, hell no! Neither will I! That racist Papist, Flannery O’Connor, is one of my favorite short-story geniuses! And amateur rapist Roman Polanski is on my top-five fave Auteurs list! Read the first pages in the bizarre “Opus Pistorum” and you’ll recoil from that supposedly-sagacious literary genius, Henry Miller, too! But I love (most of) Miller’s work, despite the fact that I probably would have ended up in a fist-fight with him if we’d been acquainted.

    I’m just saying we need to stop looking for “friends” and gurus and angels among the ranks of the Talented… we need to see all that late-Capitalist, smiley-faced, post-Disney hagiography for what it is: BS or BS with an agenda. If we can stop seeing Walt W. with rose-tinted lullaby goggles, we can then use our new-found clarity to look at the politicians, too. Because, for example, I just can’t believe how many people were fooled by the crypto-Rightwing Clintons (even that evil puppet-dolt, GW Bush, must be impressed)! But that’s another rant! laugh

    Now, on the flip-side: I also believe we have to stop excusing arse-nozzles like Walt with the “that was the 19th century” alibi (either that or we start excusing Roman with an offensive “that was the 70s!” riff). There were plenty of non-racists in the 19th century… there was a populist movement of them! Here’s one notable who deserves our admiration for her personal qualities, which should deeply shame that talented, kaffir-flogging, Walt, by comparison:

    “As with the abolitionist movements in the United States, British Quakers led the movement for greater understanding between the races and fighting racial inequality, and one woman stood above the rest in her fight: Catherine Impey. Impey was born in 1847 to ardently abolitionist parents who boycotted slave-grown sugar and cotton and hosted William Wells Brown as a guest when the latter escaped to England. Impey was an extraordinary woman for her time; her interests spanned anti-slavery, environmentalism, racism, the humane treatment of animals, etc. Her career against racism and lynching began when she visited the United States in 1886 to attend a national convention of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was disgusted by its practice of segregation. Her stance attracted notice, and when African-American activists visited England to drum up support against America’s racist laws and the horrors of lynching, Impey was a must-see on that side of the Atlantic. Impey’s meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1887 inspired her to launch Anti-Caste, a magazine “devoted to the interests of the coloured race.” She contributed heavily to this magazine, but found articles written by people of color around the world who supplied her with first-hand accounts of racism against non-whites as practiced by whites.”

    PS If you were too shocked by Walt’s outing as a proto-Nazi, don’t do any deeper reading on good old Abe Lincoln’s views… or Gandhi’s, for that matter. But it stands to reason that an Inherently Racist Culture will have Racists for Idols. It’s just confusing that so many of these Racists are sold to us as the very opposite, no? And that, in and of itself, should lead us toward excavating deeper Truths about the World we think we already know. It’s a long and painful process but nobody said the Tree of Knowledge was all fun and games…

  8. @Steve “I’m just saying we need to stop looking for “friends” and gurus and angels among the ranks of the Talented — agreed! I may have gone off-point but that was what I wanted to convey. We could wish they were are as good as they were talented but alas they, too, are flawed.

    And while Impey is a wonderful and new (to me) figure, head and shoulders above the rank and file of her time, I would still argue for the relative scarcity of such people in 1847. Truly, I’m not trying to excuse “arse-nozzles” in any epoch. Just trying to square the stinkin’ morass of history with the honking great weight of genius and beauty that is the canon. I guess I never expect literary figures to be morally superior. Brilliant, yes. Lovable and good — not so much.

    I do get your point — a clear eye is preferable to rose-colored glasses any day. Kids may need simple heroes but adults surely don’t.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond — cheers!

  9. There are an awful lot of new comments here, and I am looking forward to reading them, but I think I’ll stick to the sentiments of my first comment.

    I doubt Marcus Aurelius would have had a very high opinion of my female self and its brain (given I would have been some anonymous Hibernian, probably mucking about in the mud, he may not have considered me quite human), but I still find his writing inspirational and transcendent.

  10. @Moe Murph: I feel the same way. I certainly learned a lot from this thread (Steve! Mark HG! Heather Curran!) and am questioning some of my assumptions about my literary “heroes” (and I use the term very loosely). But I believe I will still derive sustenance from literary lights, past and present, despite their feet of clay.

    I WILL think long and hard about my enthusiasms, and whether they reflect state agendas. That said, I do think that, while not an excuse or free-pass for ugliness of thought, the historical context, reassembled to the best of our ability, allows us to continue the conversation with great minds of the past. I actually think we all agreed here kind of.

    And I still love this piece of writing. So I guess its a win all around. Always good to hear from you, Moe, and thanks again for directing me here.

  11. One last thing. Pound, extolled by Mark HG, was an antisemite. So should all these authors be blacklisted, censored? Maybe censure will do: all books by Faulkner et al should come with a warning blurb (like cigarettes do). A simple line should do it, say like: the author you are about to read was a racist so it is probably best that you put the book down and choose something from our less offensive author section.

  12. @Heather

    “So should all these authors be blacklisted, censored?”

    I think talented writers should be read and enjoyed whenever possible… and pictured as mere mortals whenever necessary.

    What I expect out of batshit Ezra and catty Walt and woman-beating Bob (Lowell) is interesting, occasionally great, verse… not life-lessons. I find it works best! I also find the modern Kultcha industry sells books to us with the subliminal suggestion that books are good because writers are good and we will tank up on goodness by reading! And it just ain’t so. I think you’ll find more good Plumbers, proportionally, than Writers! Laugh

  13. @stevenaugustine Picasso just came to mind here. No use even attempting to reconcile vision of his “Guernica” with some of his loutish comments about the women in his life.

  14. @Moe

    Totally! For some reason, though, it’s Writers to whom we too often (mistakenly) turn for “wisdom”… possibly because quite a few (too many?) novels resemble sermons…?

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