What struck me most while reading the Calder essay this week was her physical descriptions of Whitman, especially within the contexts of much of the photos of him that we have seen from after the war. The Whitman Calder describes is a young virile tree of a man, brash and cocky, the type of Whitman that would inflate his own crotch on the frontispiece and look at you with a confident glare in his eye the whole time. Yet this is certainly not the more reflective looking wrinkled sad face that is so common in the after war pictures of the good gray poet. We have already talked at length about the physical toll that war took on Whitman’s body, but I guess reading the firsthand accounts really made that hit home for me.
Where this becomes interesting though, is when his physical decline is tracked alongside trends in his work. A few weeks ago, I blogged about exactly how much the inherent arrogance of the workshop edition of Leaves of Grass bothered me. I was able to take Whitman’s cockiness up to a point, but the chapter verse style was a bit too heavy handed for me. Now, this was the Whitman that Calder describes in her essay, the loud boisterous man that would have arguments so heated that police would come and check to make sure the conversation was not getting violently out of hand. This is the Whitman as Apostle and Prophet, where his word is divine inspiration, and there is a poet coming that will save America, and it might just be Whitman.
In Drumtaps though, so much of this arrogance has been toned down significantly. In much of the work one of the most prominent tonal shifts is an incredibly subtle one, namely that Whitman switches from wanting everyone to see the world through his all-seeing eyes and to know what he has been shown to wanting to see through other people’s or things eyes to see what he has seen. In essence, he has scrapped all his previous trappings of God-like poet for just the omnipresence. This is the fulfillment of the Whitman I was contrasting against in my first post. It is in war that Walt Whitman finds his voice as a witness as opposed to a prophet.
My theory on this, upon comparing Drumtaps to the workshop addition of Leaves is that there is still an inherent naiveté to Leaves that allows Whitman to be the Prophet. He has yet to see anything to tone down the sound of how awesome he is in his own head. The Civil War though, was too big for him to be the loud speaking voice of the nation anymore. He saw to many horrifying things for that voice to work anymore, and thus he had to find a new one.