Civil War as Depicted in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman is every man's poet because he felt a deep connection to his fellow man. Part of this experience includes Whitman's real connection to the Civil War. Whitman not only witnessed the ravages of war, he saw what war did to humanity. Whitman had tasted success before the war but it was the war itself that drew Whitman closer to the collective soul of every man in the universe. The poet's eyes saw what terrible events led up to the war and they saw the suffering of each and every soul. The poems "Song of Myself," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and "So Long!" allow us to see how the art does indeed imitate life. The war was not something that Whitman saw from a distance - it was something he touched with his hands and felt with his heart and, as a result, related with his pen.
Whitman saw himself as a "spokesman for the party of the plain people" (Spiller 473) and was active in acting as a voice for these people. The Mexican War was the first war to open the poet's eyes to how devastating war can be but it was the Civil War that projected the poet into becoming a voice for all that lived and died during this tumultuous time. The war proved to be a great influence in Whitman's life and poetry. He was already known as a poet for the people and, in February 1860, William Thayer and Charles Eldridge whose publishing house specialized in abolitionist literature, wanted to publish Leaves of Grass. A year later, Whitman found out that Fort Sumter had been fired upon. Like Lincoln and many others, Whitman thought the fighting would be over within days. Whitman resolved, "to inaugurate for myself a pure perfect sweet, cleanblooded robust body by ignoring all drinks but water and pure milk -- and all fat meats late suppers -- a great body -- a purged, cleansed, spiritualised invigorated body'" (Whitman qtd. In Folsom). Ed Folsom notes, "It was as if he sensed the need to break out of his newfound complacency... And to prepare himself for the challenges that faced the divided nation" (Folsom). Robert Spiller notes that while Leaves of Grass is a collection of poetical works, Whitman was also "collecting an intellectual arsenal for democracy" (474). When the country became divided over slavery in 1949, Whitman vowed to capture the "emotions and the imaginations of the American people" (474). As a nurse in the war, Whitman felt that his purpose was:
Just to help cheer and change a little the monotony of their sickness and confinement,' though he found that the soldiers' effect on him was as rewarding as his on them: the wounded and maimed young men aroused in him 'friendly interest and sympathy,' and he said some of 'the most agreeable evenings of my life' were spent in hospitals. (Folsom)
Leaves of Grass is more than a collection of poems; it is a collection of human experiences.
One of the most popular and significant poems that illustrate Whitman's human reaction to war and life is "Song of Myself." In this poem, we see bits of human history as well as pieces of the poet. Through a celebration of life, "Song of Myself" exposes the damage of war. Whitman allows us to see his appreciation of life through his intimate experience of being alive. He brings attention to something as simple as a blade of grass and he connects it to the human experience. He writes about the "grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers" (Whitman Song of Myself 108) and he wishes he could "translate the hints about the dead young men and women" (114). This poem touches on every aspect of life from soldiers of every color, men and women old and young, people forgotten and people remembered, and humans slave or free. Whitman sees the human connection and expresses it in this poem. The idea of interconnectedness also includes the vast universe. Spiller notes that everyone is "kin to the grass that grows wherever the land is, the common air that bathes the globe" (Spiller 478). Whitman is alluding to the idea that we are smaller parts of something larger. This is…