A WASHINGTON POST, Style section feature today--Let Slip the Poets of War--manages to completely misrepresent the work of Walt Whitman, recasting The Good, Gray Poet as a patron of the antiwar constituency among versifiers.
Such an outcome was predictable. The vast horde of lousy poets who pullulate in America today have annexed Whitman, based on his innovative meters, his populism, and his alleged sexual ambivalence. Thus Wil Haygood, the Post staff writer, describes Whitman as "seared" by the Civil War and as "writ[ing] of dazed soldiers returning to the nation's capital." He cites:
I see behind that mask the wonder of a kindred soul,
O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
Nor the bayonet stab what you really are.
Haygood goes on to quote an academic, David Citino of Ohio State, who asserts, "Whitman would identify with the soldier who was wounded, who was dying."
What hooey. Whitman was not only not the 19th century equivalent of a peacenik, he was an unapologetic warmonger who saw America as a triumphant, liberating power, using its military might to bring freedom to the world. At the beginning of "Drum-Taps," he wrote,
War! An arm'd race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning way,
War! be it weeks, months, or years, an arm'd race is advancing to welcome it.
One of Whitman's greatest poems, "Rise O Days From Your Fathomless Deeps," includes the lines,
Thunder on! Stride on, Democracy! strike with vengeful stroke! . . .
I have lived to behold man burst forth and warlike America rise
In his "Song of the Banner at Daybreak," Whitman averred,
No longer let our children deem us riches and peace alone,
We may be terror and carnage, and we are so now
Whitman was, to emphasize, an eloquent partisan of America at war. He wrote, in lines taken from various works,
You shall yet scorn the attacks of all the remainder of the earth . . .
. . . Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?
RACE of veterans! Race of victors!
Race of the soil, ready for conflict! race of the conquering march!
(No more credulity's race, abiding-temper'd race;)
Race henceforth owning no law but the law of itself;
Race of passion and the storm.
Nor did Whitman concern himself alone with the suffering of soldiers. Here is the final stanza of his magnificent "Beat! Beat! Drums!," written at the beginning of the Civil War:
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.
Here is how Whitman wrote "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' harsh rattle is 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.
These lines apply to today's poetasters, with unparalleled accuracy. But even more relevant to our nation, today, are Whitman's immortal lines, "Long, Too Long America:"
LONG, too long, O land,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful, you learn'd from joys and prosperity only;
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish--advancing, grappling with direst fate, and recoiling not;
And now to conceive, and show to the world, what your children en-masse really are;
(For who except myself has yet conceiv'd what your children en-masse really are?)
And finally, the Civil War ended, he wrote his classic "Turn O Libertad," in which he foresaw new wars for freedom, across the globe:
TURN, O Libertad, for the war is over,
(From it and all henceforth expanding, doubting no more, resolute, sweeping the world . . .
Turn to the world, the triumphs reserv'd and to come--give up that backward world . . .
But what remains, remains for singers for you--wars to come are for you . . .
--Then turn, and be not alarm'd, O Libertad--turn your undying face,
To where the future, greater than all the past,
Is swiftly, surely preparing for you.
That is the authentic voice of the Walt Whitman we should love, our Poet, in the Washington from which the great wars for freedom are fought, no less than in the Manhattan to which he was devoted--and whom we need to restore to an exalted position in our schools, and in our hearts.
Stephen Schwartz is a San Francisco-nurtured poet, translator, and writer on many things.