October 5, 2009

Ben B. for October 6th

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 9:15 am

The reading for this week marks the second time this weekend that I have read “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods”, the first time at Chatham house, beard bedecked and standing on the mansion steps.  There is video of this somewhere, I believe on the flipcam that Sam P was using, and I am sure it will end up on the blog as soon as we all finish slogging through the far to much video we took.  Now, previously I was guilty of accusing Whitman of grubbing for authorial authority, trying to paint himself firmly enough into each of his poems that the reader can look and say ‘look there is Whitman, he is in the picture, we aren’t, we should listen to what he says.’  Visiting Chatham, however, has completely thrown off my devotion to this cynical reading of Whitman, at least in relation to Drum Taps.  “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia Woods” indeed has a far more contemplative tone then much of Whitman’s work that we’ve seen so far.

“As Toilsome” is not a poem of lists, not a poem of the whole country and not this rolling tirade of actions that Whitman sees or imagines himself seeing or honors.  Instead, this poem is anchored to one specific place, Virginia, and one specific event, the finding of the gravestone.  Also of note here is the far more reactionary Whitman we see talking.  In fact, he is not even talking to ‘us’ or ‘we’, he is just relaying the poem, an act which gives the words far more gravity then they would have had without that inherent separation.  What we see here is Whitman running into an image so overwhelming that for once, he can do nothing but stop and look at it, and repeat it’s inscription to the reader twice, “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.”

Now, good blog readers, you must be saying to yourself, “But you are Ben, you take poets to task and are more likely to let the virtues stand on their own whilst you attack the weak points or question the underlying themes.”  Normally, you would have judged my character well, but having sat at Chatham and having read this poem within a few yards of the tree Whitman saw covered in body parts, I find my ability to question Whitman’s authority mongering minimal at best.  This poem lands purely in the realm of ‘Whitman as witness’.  He is merely a bystander to the horrid situations that are going on around him.  Standing at Chatham, this all gets put into amazingly clear focus.  The tour guide at Chatham said that sometimes people of a more sensitive nature tell them that the house still feels of death, and I do not find this all that far of a stretch to believe.  See, ghosts are fickle things and don’t always show up wearing white sheets and rattling chains, sometimes the haunt in the knowledge that one is standing in the same place that multitudes of soldiers died bloody, sometimes the haunt show up in a recurring line of a poem.

5 responses to “Ben B. for October 6th”

  1. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    I think that, in general, the Civil War saw Whitman being forced to embrace his ‘witness’ side, since there was (it seemed) so little that he could do as one person in the midst of such a huge conflict. I remember reading in one of our extra-LOA readings that the sparse nature of some of his Civil War poetry foreshadows the Imagist poetic style, and I like that thought. In the eyes of Whitman, the Civil War was only truly seen through the eyes of the foot soldier, and so their seemingly-mundane activities take on a significance so great that the image speaks best for itself.
    I feel like the speaker of “As Toilsome I Wander’d” mirrors the troops that buried the unknown soldier. His wandering through the woods can very easily been seen as a sort of retreat from the world around him and, like the grave-digging-soldiers, he too leaves a part of himself at the foot of that tree. Such an image would be especially meaningful for someone that had to write/think of so many informal epitaphs during the war. He may have seen many soldiers die friendless and far from home, but Whitman worked to give them each their own “inscription rude.”

  2. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Nice post and comment, fair-cheeked boys. Ben, I really like the way you are grappling not only with Whitman as text but with the relationship you as reader make/revise with Whitman and the way place is affecting that. I’d like to see you work some of this post into a fieldtrip post also, because it is a great reflection on how we find WW in our geographic space/time.

  3. Avatar of s-words s-words says:

    I agree that it is compelling to consider Whitman as a “witness,” a kind of subjective journalist that relays the factual experience of a field or road strewn with hasty graves. We need to remember, however, that Whitman greatly complicates such a role in his introcution to “Memoranda During the War,” insisting that only the soldiers can know their struggle but then claiming to offer a few “glimpses” into that soldier life. “As Toilsome…” places him decidedly within the realm of a passing outsider to the conflict, leaving his ‘witness” simply one of a person who passed the same way as the war’s combatants and marveled at their comradeship. However, he elsewhere insinuates himself into that comradeship, especially during “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” in which the poem’s speaker describes seeing a beloved comrade shot from next to him before he “onward… sped in the battle, the even-contested battle” (438). Whitman’s decision here and elsewhere in “Drum-Taps,” far more than in any other poem set, to actually inhabit the first-person voices of characters who cannot physically be him vastly reconfigures the nature of the “witness” he provides, provoking the question of appropriation even more dramatically than in his “Song of Myself” inclusion of slaves and prostitutes. The “I” in that poem drew far more attention to its shifting, unlocatable identity; in “Drum-Taps,” “I” moves into the comparatively more discrete control of specific non-Walt people, people who might not consider themselves the “Kosmos” that Whitman knew he was.

  4. Avatar of bmzreece bmzreece says:

    “See, ghosts are fickle things and don’t always show up wearing white sheets and rattling chains, sometimes the haunt in the knowledge that one is standing in the same place that multitudes of soldiers died bloody, sometimes the haunt show up in a recurring line of a poem.”

    I’ve heard more stories of ghosts and hauntings about Gettysburg, PA than about anywhere else. Gettysburg, where the dead lay by the thousands rotting in the hot sun, and over 3000 horse carcasses had to be burned [according to Stephen W. Sears].

  5. Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America is a great book about the Address, if you’re interested in getting a fuller picture. (I don’t think he talks about ghosts, but they don’t seem to be all you’re interested in either.)

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