Rutgers University - Camden
Rutgers University - Camden
It is no surprise that for the first year of the Civil War Whitman
expressed his staunch support for the Union’s cause and his
faith in the preservation of the Union--he had believed
his entire life that
Although he had no intention of traveling to Washington,
DC, Whitman would be moved to go on December 16, 1862; the
New York Tribune
reported a list of New York volunteers who had been injured
or killed in the line of duty--there were no specific accounts
of the injuries reported with the names--and Walt’s brother
George was on the list. When he received the news, Whitman left immediately
The sudden change of place forced Whitman to view
A fuller understanding of the nature of place and its effects can help us see more clearly the development and import of Drum-Taps. Yi-Fu Tuan makes this distinction between “place” and “space”: “Space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world. Space lies open; it suggests the future and invites action . . . open space has no trodden paths and signposts. It has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is like a blank sheet upon which meaning may be imposed” (54). On the other hand, place is an area a person knows well; as Tuan states, “place is permanent and hence reassuring to man who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere” (154). It is “enclosed and humanized space,” a “calm center of established values” (54). Place requires an interpreting consciousness. Therefore, once a person enters space--an area that has no paths or signposts--it gradually acquires elements of place as the interpreting consciousness writes his or her values upon the area. Conversely, place can gradually become space if the “calm center of established values” upon which the place rests is brought into question, with uncertainty replacing the reassurance place offers.
The narrator’s ideas about the war, initially, are shaped under this reassurance that the city provides. Take, for instance, this passage:
Forty years had I in my city seen
this teeming and turbulent city,
Before the city was forced to take action, before she “struck with clinch’d hand the pavement” upon hearing “news from the south,” it was merely another “teeming and turbulent city;” the sight of “soldiers parading” was pure “pageant” (416). Neither the soldiers nor the city’s inhabitants (the “mechanics,” the “blacksmiths,” the “lawyer,” the “driver” the “salesman”) would become anything more than a spectacle had the city itself not released a “shock electric” to rouse them (416). Everyone willingly accepts their matron’s call “with common consent and arm” (417). The city is the secure place--the established center of values--upon which the narrator draws strength.
However, by the middle of Drum-Taps, in the poem “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame,” we sense a shift in point of view, as the speaker finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings. Because he is enveloped in an unknown area, a “space,” as a result of being closer to the realities of the war and the flux it represents, the narrator must struggle to reassure himself, with chance and change everywhere. When describing the “shrubs and trees,” the speaker observes, “as I lift my eyes, they seem to be / stealthily watching me” (436). The place is suspect in some way, and the description of the bivouac’s flame as “fitful” suggests the “shifting, changing, capricious” nature of this landscape. Through the lens of the fitful flame, then, the narrator’s perception cannot be steadfast and certain because the area in which he finds himself is constantly shifting shape--it is still a “space,” not yet a “place.”
It has been asserted that “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame” is the moment in Drum-Taps “when the poet’s physical presence first clearly emerges,” and, as a result, “his tone changes from glorification of war to a sorrowing acceptance of its miseries” (McWilliams 196). I would argue further that the poet’s physical presence emerges as it does because he cannot hide behind the protected wall of a city he knows well, a place of shelter. Being in the space of the battlefield requires him to assert himself on the landscape, upon the blank canvas in which he is situated, as he tries to harness the flux of war. The “welcome for battle” and the “manly life in the camp” that the narrator in “First O Songs” joyfully anticipates is replaced with quiet reflection, which occurs as he “sits on the ground,” quite literally a strategy to emplace himself.
Whitman’s attempts to ground himself continue in the mid-section of the book. In the poem “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown,” there is no center of established values; instead, the narrator is lost in a maze of dense woods, the road ahead unknown. Once he is confronted with the scene of an “impromptu hospital,” he is shocked by the “surgeons operating,” the “smell of ether, the odor of blood . . . an occasional scream or cry” (440). The smells, the sights, and the sounds all play horribly upon the speaker’s mind. He admits his inability to know where the path of the war is truly headed: “Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching . . . / the unknown road still marching” (440). Nothing reassures here. The narrator states, “before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to / absorb it all” (440). His conscious efforts to “absorb” the scene represent his attempt to turn this American space into an American place, a place loaded with his democratic, conciliatory principles.
Finally, in the poem “To the Leaven’d
Soil They Trod,” Whitman has succeeded in converting the space
of war into a place that he can find solace in.
The American soil has been permanently
changed by the blood of both Northerners and Southerners who
fought for the ideals in which they believed. The speaker is not afraid of his surroundings
any longer, but instead accepts “the freshness of the forenoon
air, in the far-stretching / circuits.”
He is jubilant because the “vistas” are “again to peace
restored.” The “fiery fields emanative and the endless
vistas beyond,” “the leaven’d soil
of the general Western world,” “attest” the narrator’s beliefs
(458). Indeed, the narrator can understand
The poet gains the ability to fill the blank canvas,
to sing of what
Whitman states in Specimen Days that the “land entire [is] saturated, perfumed with
[soldiers’] impalpable ashes’ exhalation, in Nature’s chemistry
distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain
of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and
every breath we draw” (801).
As long as there is an
Kennedy, J. Gerald. Imagining
P. “Drum Taps and
American Quarterly 23:2 (1971): 181-201.
Merrifield, Andrew. “Place and Space: A Lefebvrian Reconciliation.” Transactions of
Thomas, M. Wynn. “Walt Whitman and Mannahatta--
34:4 (1982): 362-378.
Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective
Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman: Poetry and