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.