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Love, Art, and Mayhem: Walt Whitman’s Journey from Long Island Poet to War Hospital Observer

By Tara Mae

During times of struggle, uncertainty, and strife, art is a way to create order out of the senseless. April is National Poetry Month, and in celebration, TVHS recognizes the incredible life and times of one of Long Island’s most prolific and revered poets, Walt Whitman. While Leaves of Grass is his best-known work, Whitman was a prolific writer whose life and career intersected with one of the most turbulent eras in American history: the Civil War. This period had a profound influence on him personally and a meaningful effect professionally. Drum-Taps, the poetry collection inspired by the war, was published in October of 1865, a mere six months after its conclusion and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

In late 1862, Whitman left the Long Island home of his mother to seek out his brother George, who had been wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg. Following days of searching, Whitman found him largely unscathed minus a wound to his cheek. After visiting with George for two weeks in Virginia, Whitman was asked to accompany injured soldiers to hospitals in Washington D.C. He remained in Washington for the rest of the war, serving as a hospital nurse, and documenting what he saw and lived.

By this point, Whitman had been writing for years. He published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Updated versions were published in 1856 and 1860. Before and after its initial publication, he worked as a newspaper writer and editor. The work born of his triumphs and travails during the Civil War seamlessly blend journalistic observation and artistic attention to detail.

In Leaves of Grass, Whitman posits that all people are connected, and the human body is to revered: “The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth/them...The expression of the body of man or woman balks account,/The male is perfect and that of the female is perfect.” His belief that all persons are emotionally joined and physically perfect by virtue of existence were tested by what he encountered and observed during his work in the field hospitals. As Leaves of Grass develops from a celebration of self to a meditation on nature, individual relationships with it, and explorations of the soul, Drum-Taps undergoes its own evolution.

From passionate rallying cry to precise, vivid descriptions of nature and soldiers observing and absorbing war, with painstaking reflections of the resulting jagged and invisible scars, Whitman’s words bring the reader with him on his journey into a world that is submerged in conflict yet buoyed by nature: 

“Look Down Fair Moon”

Look down fair moon and bathe this scene,

Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods on faces ghastly,

swollen, purple,

On the dead on their backs with arms toss’d wide,

Pour down your unstinted nimbus sacred moon.

Whitman is entreating the moon, requesting that it not only act as witness to death, but fully illuminate it. He has transformed the moon from besought observer to active participant; as an instrument of nature, it is baring the cost of war for all to see. Just as Whitman, through the power of his words, transports the reader from impassive viewer to engaged audience. 

Walt Whitman believed in the universality of humankind. He felt that people’s connection to themselves and each other was enhanced by their relationship with the natural world. This innate kindredness therefore renders both joy and sorrow shared experiences that influence not just a person but the population. 

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