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While Whitman was at home, during the latter part of 1864, he doubtless put the finishing touches to Drum-taps, which was printed at New York early in the following summer. Several of the poems in this collection had been written in that city during the two years which had elapsed since the last publication of Leaves of Grass, before he set out for Washington. The manuscript had remained at home, tied up in its square, spotted, stone-colour covers,[418] but was sent on to him, to be discussed in the Washington circle. Early in 1864 a friend seems to have taken it the round of the Boston publishers, but without success.[419]

If we are to understand Whitman’s attitude towards the war, we must glance at the little brown volume of seventy-two pages, Walt Whitman’s Drum-taps. Among the poems which preceded his visit to the capital were probably the song of “Pioneers,”[420] with its cry of the West, and the poem of the “Broadway Pageant,”[421] of 1860, celebrating the Japanese Embassy, and forming a complementary tribute to the maternal East. To these one may add the lines to “Old Ireland”[422] and the noble “Years of the Modern”.[423]

In this last he proclaims the growing consciousness of solidarity among the peoples of the world. Artificial boundaries seem to be breaking down in Europe, and the people are making their own landmarks—witness[Pg 206] the rise of a new Italy. Everywhere men among the people are awaking to ask pregnant questions, and to link all lands together with steam and electricity.
Are all nations communing? Is there going to be but one heart to the globe?
Is humanity forming en-masse? for lo, tyrants tremble, crowns grow dim,
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war,
No one knows what will happen next, such portents fill the days and nights;
Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to pierce it, is full of phantoms,
Unborn deeds, things soon to be, project their shapes around me,
This incredible rush and heat, this strange ecstatic fever of dreams, O years!
Your dreams, O years, how they penetrate through me! (I know not whether I sleep or wake);
The perform’d America and Europe grow dim, retiring in shadow behind me,
The unperform’d, more gigantic than ever, advance, advance upon me.[424]

The war poems follow.

Whitman’s attitude towards war is not obvious, but it is, I believe, logical and consistent. On one side it approximated to the Quaker position, but only on one side. Or rather, perhaps, the Quaker position approximates to one side of Whitman’s. He was devoted to a social order, or republic, which could not be realised by deeds of arms. He had no hatred for any of his fellows, and recognised in his political enemy a man divine as himself—one cannot say that he had any personal enemies, though there were men who would like to have been accounted such.

The fat years of peace had, however, awakened doubts in him of the average American’s capacity for great passions.[425] These seemed to be rare among them, and Whitman had been driven to seek them in nature and her storms. It was with exultation, then, that he felt the response of New York and of the whole of America to the call of the trumpet.[426]

Men of peace are accustomed to lament the contagion[Pg 207] of the war-fever, and with a large measure of justice. But so long as civilisation tends to render the common lives of men cheap or calculating, there will remain a divine necessity for those hours of fierce enthusiasm which, like a forest fire or religious revival, sweep irresistibly over a nation. Whitman shared the rhythmic answer of the blood, and of the soul which is involved therewith, to the imperious throbbing of the drums.[427] He knew that it represented in some, perhaps barbaric, way the throbbing of the nation’s heart, and that the cry “To Arms!” called forth much that was best in men.

The call to arms is one thing; the actual fighting, which converts men, to use his own phrase, into “devils and butchers,” is another. The call to arms awakes something in a man more heroic than the life he ordinarily lives; he seems to hear in it the voice of the Nation calling him by name, and when he answers he feels the joy of the Nation in his heart. He becomes consciously one with a great host in the hour of peril. He hears the voice of a Cause in the bugles and the drums. He shares in a new emotion, which is his glory because it is not his alone. He finds a fuller liberty than he has ever known in the discipline of the ranks; he accepts the petty tyrannies to which he is subjected, feeling that behind the officers is the will of the Nation to which he has yielded his own.

This, for better and worse, we may call the mysticism of war, and it appealed forcibly to Whitman. For him, war was illuminated by the idea of solidarity; an idea which was constantly present to him from this time forward. He no longer saw the great personalities only, nor only their divine comradeship in the life of God; all that remained as vivid as of old; but now he was being constantly reminded of the way in which individuals share consciously in the life of the nation; and this suggested to him how, presently, they will come to be conscious of their part in the life of the Race.

[Pg 208]

He recognised how essential was the sense of citizenship to fuller soul-life. The barriers in which our individual lives are isolated must be broken, if liberty is to be brought to the soul. If we are to live fully, we must feel the tides of being sweep through our emotional natures. Hence his welcome to war, which, in spite of all the fiendish spirits which follow in its wake, does thrill a chord of national consciousness in the individual heart.

We may well ask whether there is no errand worthier of this sense of solidarity than that of slaughter. Surely the affirmation of such an errand underlies the whole thought of Drum-taps, with its call to a “divine war”.[428]

The hour has come when the Social Passion is about to rouse the peoples to a nobler crusade against oppression than any yet; when the nations shall be purged by revolutions wholesomer than those of 1789 or 1861. Whitman’s whole life, throbbing in every page he wrote, proclaims it.

He regarded the Civil War as a sort of fever in the body politic, caused by anterior conditions of congestion. War had become necessary for the life of that body, and only after a war could health re-assert itself. To compromise continually, as we boast in England that we do, may sustain a sort of social peace, but it is almost certain to drive the disease deeper into the very heart of our national life, and there to sap the sheer ability for any kind of noble enthusiasm. You may purchase a sort of peace with the price of a life more sacred than even that of individual citizens. Whitman demanded national health, without which he could see no real peace.

He did not suppose, indeed, that war could of itself[Pg 209] effect a cure. Health could only return in so far as the aroused conscience of the nation—which had lived in its soldiers and in the wives and families who had shared in their devotion—was carried forward into the civil life. Peace itself must be rendered sentient of that heroic national purpose which had for a moment flashed across the fields of battle.[429] Peace, indeed, is only priceless when it has become more truly and wisely heroical than war; when it has become affirmative where war is cruelly negative; when it creates where war destroys, quickening the heart of each citizen to fulfil a sacred duty.

Whitman well knew that in order to have such a peace we must set before the peoples a mission, a sublime national task. What party is there to-day, either in England or America, which dares to hold up for achievement any programme of heroism?

Read in this light, and only so, I believe, will Drum-taps yield up its essential meaning. It is a Song of the Broad-axe, not a scream of the war-eagle.[430]

In alluding to Drum-taps, I have somewhat anticipated the natural course of the story, to which we must now return. Even at home on furlough, Whitman could not wholly relinquish the occupation which he had assumed, and became a frequent visitor at the hospitals of Brooklyn and New York.

Early in December, 1864, he was back again at his post, suffering from the added anxiety for his brother’s welfare; for George was a prisoner in the hands of the Confederates, enduring the almost inconceivable horrors of a winter imprisonment at Dannville. At the beginning of February Walt made an application to General Grant, through a friend in the office of the New York Times,[431] for the release of his brother, together with another officer of the 51st New York Volunteers; alleging, as an urgent reason, the deep distress of his aged mother whose health[Pg 210] was breaking. The application appears to have been successful, and George, who had been captured early in the preceding summer, and upon whom fever, starvation, exposure and cold had wreaked their worst for many months, returned alive to Brooklyn, his excellent constitution triumphant over all hardships.

In the same month Whitman obtained a clerkship in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior, and thoroughly enjoyed the contact into which he was thus brought with the aboriginal Americans. They on their side appear to have distinguished him as a real man among the host of colourless officials, and to have responded to his advances.[432]

This was the early spring of Lincoln’s death; and Walt was at the President’s last levee.[433] He looked in also at the Inauguration Ball held in the Patent Office—strangely converted from its recent uses as a hospital. There he remarked the worn and weary expression of the beloved brown face; for still the great tragedy dragged on.

Five or six weeks later, a young Irish-Virginian, one of Walt’s Washington friends,[434] was up in the second gallery of the crowded theatre upon the tragic night of the assassination, and saw the whole action passing before his bewildered eyes. Whitman was at home again in Brooklyn: seeing George, we may presume, and making final arrangements for his Drum-taps; on his return he seems to have heard the whole graphic story from his friend.

It is doubtful whether Whitman and the dead President had ever spoken to one another, beyond the ordinary greeting of street acquaintances. They had met perhaps a score of times, and it is recorded that once, when Walt passed the President’s window, Lincoln had remarked significantly—“Well, he looks like a man”.[435] It seems possible that at first Whitman may have felt something of the public uncertainty about the character of the new President.[436]

[Pg 211]

How deep-rooted in the average American mind was the distrust or dislike of his policy is seen in the fact that, only six months before the death that was mourned by the whole nation, the opposition to his re-election was represented by a formidable popular vote. The South was in revolt, and therefore of course disfranchised; but even so, McClellan polled as large a total as had the President at the previous election; though Lincoln himself increased his former vote by a little more than one-fifth. So strong ran popular feeling against the whole policy of interference with the seceding States even in the fourth year of the war.

But Lincoln’s death revealed his true worth to America. And the sense of the almost sacramental nature of that death, as sealing for ever the million others of the war, and finally consecrating the re-established union of North and South, grew upon Whitman, who long before had realised that Lincoln was the father of his country and the captain of her course.

A sense of some impending tragedy seems to have accompanied Whitman upon his walks at the time of the assassination. It was early spring and the lilac was in blossom; a strange association, deeper than mere fancy,[437] seemed to the poet to establish itself between the scent of the lilac, the solitary night-song of the hermit-thrush, the fulness of the evening star at this time, and the passing of “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands”. It was out of this deeply realised association that he built up the mystical symphony which he afterwards called “President Lincoln’s Burial Hymn,” a poem in many respects similar to his other great chant of death, “Out of the Cradle”.

Mystical and symbolic, it is charged with a vast national emotion; and this gives a certain vagueness to its solemnity, better befitting its theme than a more concrete treatment. The poet was not writing of “him I love,” but rather attempting to express the feeling of[Pg 212] lonely loss which thousands experienced on that dark April day. Hence his poem is the hymn of a nation’s bereavement rather than the elegy of a great man dead. Whitman, in his attitude toward Lincoln, had come to regard him as an incarnation of America. He thought of him as he thought of the Flag; and his personal reverence for the man took almost the form of devotion to an ideal.

The President’s death had been already noted in Drum-taps, but when he conceived the longer poem, Whitman seems to have recalled the edition,[438] in order to add this and certain other verses as a sequel, thus delaying its publication till about the end of the year.

Another of the new poems calls for a word in passing. “Chanting the Square Deific”[439] is an attempt to express his theory of ultimate reality, that is to say, of the soul. Four elements go to the making of this, and these he calls respectively, Jehovah, Christ, Satan and Santa Spirita—adopting, as he sometimes would, a formula of his own inventing, that was of no known language. In other words, he conceived of the soul’s reality,[440] as characterised by four essential qualities; first, its obedience to the remorseless general laws of being; second, its capacity for attraction to and absorption into others—its love-quality; third, its lawless defiance of everything but its own will; fourth, its sense of identity with the whole.

Condemnation, compassion, defiance, harmony, these he says are final and essential qualities of the Divine; only as they are united can our idea of God or of the Soul, which is the Son of God, be complete. In the traditional Satan of revolt and pride, he saw an element without which the harmony was immaterial and unreal. Evil and perilous in itself, in its relation to the rest it is the solid ballast of the soaring soul. In this, he[Pg 213] suggests much of the attitude which Nietzsche was afterwards to make his own.

During the composition of some of these poems a crisis occurred in his new official career. The war was over, but the hospitals still were full, and Walt was busy there as usual in his leisure hours; and at his desk in the Indian Bureau, whenever his duties were not pressing, he was at work upon his manuscripts,[441] when some hostile fellow-clerk seems to have called the attention of the newly appointed chief of the department to the character of these private documents.

Whitman had been a favourite with the chief clerk in the bureau, and had been given a good deal of latitude; perhaps the hostile person had observed this with a jealous eye. The manuscript proved to be not the innocuous Drum-taps, but an annotated copy of Leaves of Grass preparing for a new edition. A reading of the volume decided the chief upon a prompt dismissal of its author, and this is not surprising when we remember that Mr. Harlan had been appointed through the pressure of the powerful Methodist interest which he commanded. The Methodist eye in him must have regarded many of these pages with suspicion and not a few with disgust.

The dismissal itself was perfectly colourless; it ran:—

    “Department of the Interior,

    “Washington, D.C., June 30th, 1865.

    “The services of Walter Whitman, of New York, as a clerk in the Indian Office, will be dispensed with from and after this date.

    “Jas. Harlan,

    “Secretary of the Interior.”[442]

It is obvious that the chief had no right to open his clerk’s desk and examine what he knew to be private papers; but having done so, and being presumably of[Pg 214] an unimaginative, narrowly pious and over-conscientious character, we cannot wonder at his action. From Whitman’s point of view the matter was serious; he could ill-afford a peremptory dismissal from the public service. And to his friends the dismissal appeared not so much unjust as enormous.

O’Connor, hearing the news, went straight to Hubley Ashton, in the fiery heat of that generous and righteous wrath which scintillates and flashes with perfervid splendour through the pages of his Good Grey Poet.[443] Mr. Ashton was not so fierce, but he was indignant. He was a member of the Administration, and used his power to Whitman’s advantage. Finding all remonstrance with Mr. Harlan to be vain, he yet induced him to make some sort of exchange by which Whitman was not actually dismissed from the service, but only transferred to his own department—the Attorney-General’s.

Painful at the time, the affair did Whitman little injury. When Harlan’s action became known it was far from popular in Washington, where every one knew Walt, and where next to nobody had read his Leaves. A section at least of the local press supported the claims of a fellow-pressman;[444] while in the Civil Service he was a favourite with the clerks. In literary circles, also, O’Connor’s slashing attack upon the Secretary for the Interior turned the tables in Walt’s favour.

In later years assaults of the same character were not infrequent, both upon Leaves of Grass and its author; but, however annoying, they always resulted in arousing curiosity, and thus in extending the circle of readers. Probably the fear of this consequence prevented their further multiplication, for average American opinion was then undisguisedly hostile, as, of course, it still remains.

On the whole, Whitman seems to have been happy in his new office. He never tired of the view from his[Pg 215] window[445] in the second storey of the Treasury Building, overlooking miles of river reaches with white sails upon them, and the range of wooded Virginian hills. He liked his companions, and he relished the green tea which came in every afternoon from a girl in an adjacent office;[446] not, indeed, intended for him, but resigned to him by its recipient, who was scornful of the cup.

He went on great walks, especially by night, and enjoyed his jaunts on the cars. One Thanksgiving Day we find him picnicing by the falls of the Potomac, and on another occasion he is visiting Washington’s old mansion at Mount Vernon.[447] Every Sunday till the close of 1866 he was in the hospitals, and frequently called at one or other during the week. He was a regular visitor at the homes of several friends, and his acquaintance with Mr. Peter Doyle, which seems to have begun during the last winter of the war, had ripened into a close comradeship.

Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs had always to keep Sunday breakfast waiting for him; there was a regularity in his lateness.[448] After a chat with them, and a glance through the Sunday papers, he would stroll over to the office for his letters on his way to some hospital, and during the course of the afternoon he dropped in at the O’Connors’ for tea. In the winter he spent much of his leisure by the fire in the comfortable Library of the Treasury Building reading novels, philosophy and what he would.

He boarded at a pleasant house on M Street, near Twelfth.[449] It stood back from the road, with a long sweep of sward in front of it, and an arbour under a great cherry tree, which became in spring a hill of snowy blossom. As the evenings grew warmer, Whitman and his fellow-boarders would draw their chairs out on to the grass and sit under the trees talking or silently watching the passers-by, or listening to occasional strolling players.

To his companions and to casual visitors he seemed[Pg 216] as strong as ever. He ate well, avoiding excess, and, still adhering to his resolution, partaking but sparingly of meat. He went to bed and rose early. Always affable and courteous, he contrived to take his part in the general conversation without saying much.

Such a life was easy, and passably comfortable; he was earning a fair salary, and making new friends constantly. But he was without a home; and Washington, after all, as the seat of officialism, shows the seamy side of democracy. The cynic declares that its population consists exclusively of negroes, mean whites and officials; thus presenting a melancholy contrast to the metropolis of the fifties with its large class of vigorous-minded, independent artisans, the backbone of a city democracy as the yeoman-farmers are of a nation.

The routine also of the work he was doing must often have been irksome to him.[450] It is one of the enigmas of Whitman’s life that he should have been content to continue in Washington six years at least after the hospitals had ceased to claim him; sitting before a Government desk as third clerk and earning his regular pay of rather more than three hundred pounds a year.[451] How great the change from his old Bohemian days! The question obtrudes, was Walt becoming “respectable”?

Whether he were or no, at least he had become noticeably better clad and less aggressive, a gentler seeming man than of old.[452] And yet there was always something illusive about this apparent change. He could still turn the face of a rock to impertinent intruders;[453] he could still blaze out in sudden anger upon a rare occasion.

But he was near fifty now, and for several years the strong sympathies of his nature had been fully and continually exercised in the wards. His individuality was as marked as ever; but with the war he had experienced a deeper sense of his membership in the life of the Race. The word “en-masse,” now so often on his lips, expresses[Pg 217] this constant consciousness. It was not new to him, but its dominance was new.

Again, while he had seen before that, in general, every soul is divine, it was the days and nights which he spent in the wards which made him understand how divine it actually is. The meaning of love grows richer in its exercise, and this was doubtless true in the case of Walt Whitman.

The experience of recent years had cleansed his self-assertion of qualities which were merely fortuitous. Never intentionally eccentric, he had previously perhaps exaggerated the traits which were peculiar to a stage in the development of his own personality. But the crucible heat of the wards rid him of that, while integrating his nature more perfectly. Living more intensely than ever, he was living more than ever in the lives of others; and this inevitably made him more catholic.

Other circumstances aided in the same direction. His manner of daily life had altered. He lived no longer among his own folk at home, but instead among professional men and clerks, at a middle-class Washington boarding-house. He worked now with a pen, not a hammer; and his book, written for the young American artisan, was being read and appreciated, not at all by him, but instead by students in Old and New England. He lost nothing of himself by becoming one of this other class in which for the time he lived with his book. A smaller man might have been seriously affected by such a change in environment; but while it could not be without effect upon Whitman, it never made him less true to his essential self.

In considering this period, I think we may say that the Whitman of the later sixties was still the large masculine man who wrote the first Leaves of Grass; but having in 1860 completed the first plan of the book, his task of self-assertion now became as it were a secondary matter. The suffering and sympathy of the war had developed the saviour in him; so that some of his portraits, taken at the time, have almost the air of a[Pg 218] “gentle shepherd”. His message became increasingly one of helpful love, newly adjusted to the individuals among whom he was thrown.

And with the rise of a group of able young champions and admirers, it became more necessary that he should guard his message and himself from anything that could encourage that habit of personal imitation which would have created a group of little Whitmanites, whose very ability must have limited the original inspiration which had bound them to him.

Thus it was in a sense true that, after the publication of the volume of 1860, the first Whitman was, as he prophesied he would be, “disembodied, triumphant, dead”.

So much on the matter of Whitman’s increased respectability: as to his prolonged stay in Washington, something further must be said.

It is evident that he was no longer the Titan of old days. In the spring of 1867 he writes home that he is well, but “getting old”;[454] and every year he seemed to feel the extremes of the Washington climate more and more. This is further evidence of decreasing vitality.

Had he returned to New York, it must probably have been to write for the press; and however physically robust he might suppose himself to be, something at least of the old force of initiative had left him. There was no longer any immediate need for his presence at home; for when Jeff went West to St. Louis, as engineer to the city waterworks, his brother George was there to take his place as the mother’s main support.

Walt was, moreover, earning a sufficient income in an easy fashion. The work itself was light; he was trusted, and little supervised. His chief seems to have recognised that he had spent himself unsparingly for America in the hospitals, without immediate reward; and now, in consequence, allowed him to arrange his duties as suited him best. He spent but little of his[Pg 219] income upon himself; though the penurious simplicity and discomfort of the early days was no longer desirable. He always sent something to his mother, and seems to have divided the remainder between any of his hospital boys who still lingered; the beggars whom he never refused; his friends, and the Savings Bank.

But one suspects that Whitman really stayed on in Washington for the same reason that he had previously remained in New York. He took root wherever he stood; and it required the tug of duty to remove him. Wherever he was, his life was full of incident and material for thought. Outward occupation or adventure counted for comparatively little in his experience. His present circumstances favoured the steady progress of his own writing and the prosecution of his friendships.

Not that he ever forgot his friends in the metropolis, or grew indifferent to the claims of his family. He contrived to spend at least a month every summer in his old haunts, living at home and making daily expeditions on the bay, bathing from the Coney Island beach, and sauntering along Broadway.[455] He often had business at the printers’, for he was now again his own publisher.

The Leaves had been out of print since the failure of his Boston friends, and in 1867 he was working on a new edition, completing the very copy which had roused the wrath of Mr. Harlan. He seems to have spent a few days with his friend Mrs. Price;[456] and coming down late to tea one evening, after working on his manuscripts, one of the daughters has recorded the extraordinary brightness and elation of his mien. “An almost irrepressible joyousness,” she says, “shone from his face and seemed to pervade his whole body. It was the more noticeable as his ordinary mood was one of quiet yet cheerful serenity. I knew he had been working at a new edition of his book, and I hoped if he had an opportunity he would say something to let us into the[Pg 220] secret of his mysterious joy. Unfortunately, most of those at the table were occupied with some subject of conversation; at every pause I waited eagerly for him to speak; but no, some one else would begin again, until I grew almost wild with impatience and vexation. He appeared to listen, and would even laugh at some of the remarks that were made, yet he did not utter a single word during the meal; and his face still wore that singular brightness and delight, as though he had partaken of some divine elixir.”

But it was not always in joy that he wrote. Other friends have told how they have noted him turning aside from the street into some door or alleyway to take out a slip of paper and write, with the tears running fast across his face.[457] Whether in tears or in ecstasy, it is certain that he composed his poems under the stress of actual feeling; and of emotions which shook his whole being and thrilled its heavy, slow-vibrating chords to music.


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