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           Walt Whitman
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Drum-Taps: The Complete 1865 Edition

  WALT WHITMAN (1819–1892) revolutionized American poetry through the eleven editions of his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, a celebration of the dynamism and diversity of a still-young America. Drum-Taps, first published in 1865, was written out of his experience as a nurse during the Civil War. It is a collection, he once wrote in a letter to a friend, “put together by fits and starts, on the field, in the hospitals as I worked with the soldier boys.”

  LAWRENCE KRAMER is an author and composer who has often addressed Whitman’s poetry in both capacities. He has set several of the poems from Drum-Taps to music and edited the essay collection Walt Whitman and Modern Music. Kramer is Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University.

  Walt Whitman


  The Complete 1865 Edition



  New York



  435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014


  Copyright © 2015 by NYREV, Inc.

  Introduction and notes copyright © 2015 by Lawrence Kramer

  All rights reserved.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Whitman, Walt, 1819–1892.

  [Poems. Selections]

  Drum-taps : the complete 1865 edition / by Walt Whitman ; edited, annotated, and with an introduction by Lawrence Kramer.

  1 online resource. — (New York Review Books poets)

  Description based on print version record and CIP data provided by publisher; resource not viewed.

  ISBN 978-1-59017-863-8 () — ISBN 978-1-59017-862-1 (alk. paper)

  I. Kramer, Lawrence, 1946- editor. II. Title.




  Cover design by Emily Singer

  ISBN 978-1-59017-863-8


  For a complete list of books in the NYRB/Poets series, visit www.nyrb.com or write to:

  Catalog Requests, NYRB, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014



  A Note on the Text


  Shut not your doors to me proud Libraries

  Cavalry crossing a ford

  Song of the Banner at Day-Break

  By the bivouac’s fitful flame


  From Paumanok starting I fly like a bird

  Beginning my studies

  The Centenarian’s Story

  Pioneers! O Pioneers

  Quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither

  The Dresser

  When I heard the learn’d Astronomer

  Rise O Days from your fathomless deeps

  A child’s amaze

  Beat! beat! drums!

  Come up from the fields, father

  City of ships

  Mother and babe

  Vigil strange I kept on the field one night

  Bathed in war’s perfume

  A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown

  Long, too long, O land

  A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim

  A farm picture

  Give me the splendid silent sun

  Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice

  Did you ask dulcet rhymes from me?

  Year of meteors

  The Torch

  Years of the unperform’d

  Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me

  The Veteran’s vision

  O tan-faced Prairie-boy

  Camps of green

  As toilsome I wander’d Virginia’s woods

  Hymn of dead soldiers

  The ship

  A Broadway pageant

  Flag of stars, thick-sprinkled bunting

  Old Ireland

  Look down fair moon

  Out of the rolling ocean, the crowd

  World, take good notice

  I saw old General at bay

  Others may praise what they like

  Solid, ironical, rolling orb

  Hush’d be the camps to-day

  Weave in, weave in, my hardy soul [sic]i

  Turn, O Libertad

  Bivouac on a mountain side

  Pensive on her dead gazing, I heard the mother of all

  Not youth pertains to me


  When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d

  Race of Veterans

  O Captain! my Captain!

  Spirit whose work is done

  Chanting the Square Deific

  I heard you, solemn sweet pipes of the Organ

  Not my Enemies ever invade me

  O me! O life!

  Ah poverties, wincings, and sulky retreats

  As I lay with my head in your lap, Camerado

  This day, O Soul

  In clouds descending, in midnight sleep

  An Army on the march

  Dirge for Two Veterans

  How solemn, as one by one

  Lo! Victress on the Peaks!


  To the leaven’d Soil they trod



  Drum-Taps, Leaves of Grass, and the Civil War

  WALT WHITMAN’S Drum-Taps occupies a unique place in American literature. It is by common consent the only enduring literary work about the Civil War based on firsthand experience, in Whitman’s case his work in the field hospitals in and around Washington where he tended the sick and the dying. Most of the poems composed in immediate response to the war have faded away; the poems of Drum-Taps are still widely read and taught. They include some of Whitman’s most celebrated lyrics. Many have also been set to music by both American and European composers.

  Yet Drum-Taps has essentially disappeared as a literary work. There has been no modern edition of the book Whitman published under that title in 1865, first in April and again in October, the latter expanded by the addition of a Sequel beginning with the magnificent elegy for the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Whitman published these books apart from his ongoing magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, which at the time was already in its third edition. He clearly conceived of Drum-Taps as a poetic monument to a unique historical event and therefore as a work that needed and deserved a place apart. After finishing the manuscript, he wrote to a friend that he was “perhaps mainly satisfied with Drum-Taps because it delivers my ambition of the task that has haunted me, namely to express in a poem...the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in, with all their large conflicting fluctuations of despair & hope...with the unprecedented anguish and suffering, the beautiful young men, in wholesale death & agony.”* But then, regrettably, Whitman changed his mind. And having done so he took Drum-Taps in hand and tore it apart.

  Into Leaves of Grass the poems went. Starting as early as 1867 they were deployed to the larger whole, as if Whitman had decided that a single ever-expanding nation should find its mirror in a single ever-expanding book. By the time the contents of Leaves reached their final form in 1881, Drum-Taps was a torso. It was shorter, less explicit, and no longer special—just one of the master volume’s numerous subdivisions. Many of the poems involved were outsourced to other sections of the big book; some were revised and/or retitled; a few were thrown out; a few extraneous poems were dragged in; those that remained were reshuffled. Most of the texts displaced from the original volumes are still “there,” somewhere in Leaves, but they have been housed in artificial contexts that obscure their real imp

  The statistics are telling. According to Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley, whose Norton Critical Edition of Leaves (since revised by Michael Moon) traces the complex publication history of these poems and the stages of their revision, Drum-Taps ultimately shrank almost by half. “Of the 53 Drum-Taps poems of 1865,” the editors write, “only 29 are retained in the final 1881 grouping; and of the 18 poems of the Sequel, only nine are retained.” The retained poems do not include the “Lilacs” elegy, which appears with three other, much briefer poems in “Memories of President Lincoln.” Blodgett and Bradley continue by observing that, “Because of the subject-matter, Drum-Taps preserved more autonomy through the successive editions of LG than most of the groups, despite many changes...In his final arrangement, the poet attained a concentration not before achieved.”*

  But the concentration came at a cost. Given the stakes explicitly raised by the 1865 work itself, the best one could say for its redacted incorporation into Leaves is that the results are equivocal. Admittedly, the Drum-Taps section of Leaves remains Whitman’s largest poetic statement on the war, and its overall narrative arc—from martial fever to regret and mourning—remains intact. But a great deal is lost on various fronts, both public and personal, historical and emotional. Ironically for a volume written in passionate support of the idea of union, the force of a unitary statement is the foremost casualty. Once folded into Leaves, Drum-Taps ceases to exist as a work—not just as an intact whole but as a considered effort that requires its own context to be read in a considered way. In some respects, the Leaves version of the original book is a retraction. It is certainly a simpler, less candid, and in some ways less courageous text than the work from which it was hewn.

  This difference holds good even though the original Drum-Taps itself was not quite the book Whitman wanted. Because he paid for publication out of pocket, the high cost of paper forced him to cut some poems and reorder others to save space.* But he took pains to preserve the underlying narrative and to frame it within a larger narrative of the nation’s past and future history. Even somewhat damaged, the original Drum-Taps, especially in its expanded version, is richer, more complex, and more challenging than its later abridgment.

  The expanded text probably has the best claim to be considered the “original” Drum-Taps; the book remained a work in progress up to and beyond the publication of the first version. The latter was already in press in early April when the end of the war in a Union victory was imminent but not yet accomplished. Events quickly overtook Whitman’s plans: Robert E. Lee’s surrender of his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House came on April 9, followed only a week later by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 15. In hurried response, Whitman wrote the brief funeral elegy “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day,” squeezed it in near the end of his text, and brought the book out. But the actual end of the war had plainly rendered the first Drum-Taps obsolete in advance of its publication, which led Whitman (who had a hundred or so unbound copies at his disposal) to compile a sequel that would both commemorate the saving of the Union and give Lincoln, its savior, an elegy worthy of him. The Sequel that Whitman devised is dominated by the elegiac mode, which makes it a strong, albeit almost accidental, counterweight to the rough narrative of the preceding Drum-Taps sequence.

  The primary aim of the present volume is to undo the damage Whitman did to his own legacy when he dismantled the expanded Drum-Taps. The restored original should be able to take its place beside the original 1855 version of Leaves as a text of independent interest and value. The annotations to that text should help make it readily comprehensible to twenty-first-century readers and students as a work rich in both historical and aesthetic importance. For Drum-Taps is just that. It is a coherent but problematical interpretation of the Civil War; it is a record of the emotional as well as the political world in which the war was fought; and it is the origin of modern war poetry. Each of these features deserves separate comment.

  First, the war for Whitman was neither a regional conflict nor a narrowly national one. It was a war over the future of democracy, for which the American experiment was supposed to be the prototype. For Whitman in particular, the democratic compact was a quasi-sacred trust that thrived on the confluence of differences, the teeming of multitudes, and the play of antagonistic as well as collaborative forces. This concept lay at the core of the original 1855 Leaves of Grass (hence the volume’s panoramic form), and it continued to shape everything that followed. Its political expression—its political basis—was the union of the American states. Drum-Taps names the states repeatedly, almost obsessively, representing them as the multifarious elements of a grand “idea of all” (“From Paumanok Starting”). Whitman understood their union—“the identity formed out of thirty-six spacious and haughty States, (and many more to come;)” (“Song of the Banner at Day-Break”)—not as a byproduct of democracy but as its historical foundation. Secession would not create two democracies where there had formerly been one; it would mean that democracy had failed once and for all. The Civil War thus put at risk not just the fact of democracy in America but the very essence of democracy itself.

  Drum-Taps implies that democracy had three fundamental requirements, all of which depended on a Union victory. It required a guarantee of individual liberty; it required a universal feeling of emotional solidarity that we might call political affectionateness; and it required the ever-expanding growth of commerce and industry. Implicitly it also required the disappearance of slavery, but that issue was so fraught that Drum-Taps chose to leave it in the background: obviously a poor choice, and one we will come back to.

  Second, during his lifetime Whitman was a scandalously erotic poet, especially for his celebration of what he called “adhesiveness”: erotically charged and physically expressive masculine companionship. This “manly love,” as he also called it, was both an end in itself and a means to a larger end. It not only offered physical and spiritual gratification but also provided the libidinal underpinning of political and social order. For Whitman, personal union was the basis of the Union. Many of the poems in Drum-Taps celebrate this principle, notably in the candid and candidly physical affection they express for the soldiers of the war.

  Adhesiveness, however, goes further than the “hardy life” of the camp; it extends into the primary substance of Whitman’s own war experience, his nursing of the wounded and mourning of the dead. Adhesiveness endows these inevitable outcomes of war with a sensuous resonance that overlaps the erotic. And it is not eccentric in doing so: not in the culture of feeling that surrounded the war. Probably in response to the unprecedented scale of the dying—the war claimed at least 620,000 lives, perhaps as many as 750,000, either way more than all other American wars combined*—the caretakers and mourners of the time fostered a culture of mournful sensibility that elevated care and grief into forms of self-reflective consolation. Lament fostered its own forms of pleasure. Several of the poems in Drum-Taps represent the resulting state of mind as a mystical communion approaching the ecstatic. The book, Whitman wrote, emits “an undertone of sweetest comradeship & human love, threading its steady thread inside the chaos, & heard at every lull & interstice thereof.”*

  Third, Whitman’s war poems mark so sharp a break with their genre that they establish a new one. Seemingly at odds with the cultivation of mournful sensibility, Drum-Taps contains numerous poems that meticulously detail the experience of soldiering during the war. These are texts given over to observation, not celebration; their import is documentary, not heroic. They are closer to the photographic archive of the war—the first war captured by the camera in detail, including the detail of wreckage and carnage—than to literary fictions. They abandon the age-old Western tradition of war poetry, derived primarily from Homer and Virgil, which represents battle in epic terms as a majestic if tragic exhibition of prowess and courage. Whitman in Drum-Taps initiates a tradition of grimly honest war poetry that would fin
d its fullest expression during the First World War, not surprisingly given the similarity in tactics: slaughter the enemy—then do it again. Whitman’s battle pieces may admire and sympathize, but they do not glorify, they do not idealize, and they do not make up heroes. They describe, and when what they describe is appalling, they say so.

  This descriptive imperative is not an end in itself. Its immediate aim is to fix the war in cultural memory not as a historical narrative but as a mosaic of particular sensations and emotions. Whitman famously wrote that “The real war will never get in the books,” but Drum-Taps gathers such fragments of that real war as it can find. Only “a few stray glimpses,” “[a] few scraps and distortions,”* are recoverable, but Drum-Taps resolves to recover them despite having no illusions about their sufficiency. The effort is irregular, in part because the book does have a narrative arc of its own, from war fever to chastened conciliation. But the most concrete poems and passages work toward bearing witness to details in which the force of the war’s reality seemed momentarily to become incarnate. When that happens, the volume’s attitude to the scenes it records becomes quasi-sacramental.

  The key term here is quasi. Drum-Taps is full of religious allusions, more by far than Whitman’s norm. The book is both a chronicle and a spiritual exercise. But the religious allusions in Drum-Taps serve no religious ends. On the contrary, they represent the Civil War as a series of secular Calvaries, scenes of Christ-like sacrifice played out in the absence of any reference to salvation or resurrection. The suffering recorded by the poetry is neither redeemed nor alleviated. Instead it becomes the occasion for a compassionate intimacy that is necessarily momentary. For the Whitman of Drum-Taps, empathy replaces transcendence.

  Two major differences divide the 1865 Drum-Taps from its reduction in Leaves of Grass.

  First, a difference of voice. Ignoring its annexations from the war volumes, Leaves, especially in its 1855 and 1860 editions, is written in the voice of the cosmic ego, the transcendentally particular personality, celebrated in Song of Myself: “Walt Whitman, a cosmos, of Manhattan the son, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, and breeding” (lines 497–98). Whitman’s refusal to disappear behind his poems is virtually his trademark; the poems are saturated with him. In print Whitman appears as if in the flesh, or so he tells us often: “Who touches this book touches a man.”

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