Whitman at War

The best of American poets and the worst of American wars met head-on 150 years ago this summer in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his reflections on nursing the wounded and dying soldiers of Union and Confederacy. This is not the Whitman who celebrated himself and working people in Leaves of Grass ten years earlier, though he is more than ever “the poet of the body and of the soul.” This is Whitman in his mid-forties, crossing like Dante into a mass-murdering inferno of screaming pain, and finding also in the despair an astonishing measure of beauty and love.

The audacious young composer Matt Aucoin, at 25, three years out of Harvard, sets his new Whitman opera in the battlefield hospital where Whitman served as a nurse. Aucoin hears Whitman in a mid-life crisis. He’s gone South in a hurry to find his brother, who’s been wounded at Fredericksburg, Virginia. But Whitman is crossing, with a purpose, not just into a war zone but into an oozing “bloody, black and blue” pit of amputation and agony after battle: 18,000 men had been killed or wounded in the Confederate victory over three days at Fredericksburg. In this setting, Whitman took on his last big mission in poetry: to see and describe what no one, back to Homer, had described before. That is, the comradeship, kindness, generosity, the “adhesiveness”—inescapably the love—that surfaces among men at war.

Lisa New, who teaches American poetry at Harvard, is going to remind us of the Whitman who wandered Brooklyn leading up to the Civil War. And throughout the hour, Ben Evett—actor and artistic director at the newly revived Poets’ Theatre—summons the Whitman of key poems like “The Wound-Dresser.” Here’s an excerpt:

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
The literary critic Harold Bloom chimes in with his ranking of Whitman: great American or greatest American? And finally Lawrence Kramer, the musician and cultural musicologist at Fordham University who edited the 150th anniversary edition of Drum-Taps from the New York Review of Books, will examine the sonic dimension of Whitman’s words.
Guest List
Matthew Aucoin
Composer, conductor, poet and pianist, whose opera Crossing premieres this week in Boston.
Harold Boom
Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale, legendary critic and author, most recently, of The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime.
Elisa New
Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard, leader this year of a new massive, open online course bringing Whitman to the world.
Lawrence Kramer
Distinguished Professor of English at Fordham, musician and cultural musicologist.

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  • kglnyc

    Sounds like the opera is more about Matt Aucoin’s fantasy about Whitman than Walt Whitman himself, but still an interesting program.

  • Potter

    Whitman’s “Come Up From The Fields Father” read exquisitely by Ben Everett, set to perfect background music (Aucoin’s?) was well worth the price of admission. The show adds to my understanding and appreciation of Whitman if he is to be understood deeply at all. Whitman always impresses me because he has an expanded consciousness that he looks out from. His sensitive painting of a scene, the people in it,relationships, nature,always seems to come from that high viewpoint of time and space, and, as was said in so many words, with love.

    Thanks for the head’s up about “Drum-taps”.

    • Potter

      Just read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to my mother who is 101 years old and struggling. So we try to keep on keeping on because she loves poetry. She does not remember a time when there wasn’t a bridge though. But that essential Manhattan, yes. It was wonderful to read this to her. As well, I just signed up for the Whitman course (really over but I’ll take it anyway at my leisure) on Edx. Thanks for the push. It’s so wonderful that we can do this now!

  • Cambridge Forecast


    This masterful show on Whitman’s war experience and
    its operatic expression,

    raises several deep questions in the realm of “ramification
    structure” (ie how dies it all branch out?)

    1. The ROS tag
    line about Whitman and the “musicality of words” plus Matt Aucoin’s opera point
    to musicality and songs as a kind of at-tune-ment. One immediately thinks of
    Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and “I sing the body electric.” One thinks of the
    first line of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,””Sing in me,

    Interestingly in his best book “Les Mots” (“the Words”)
    Sartre reveals how he came to hear the “rustle of words” with words as leaves
    with a breeze blowing through them. This is a kind of musicality of words, but
    not Walt Whitman’s.

    2. Think of
    Whitman’s famous poetical questioning:

    “A child said, What is the grass?

    Whitman, 1819 – 1892

    child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full


    could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it

    is any more than he.

    guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful

    green stuff woven.

    I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

    scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

    the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we

    may see and remark, and say Whose?

    I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe

    of the vegetation.

    I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

    it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow



    1. Jacques Maritain the French thinker,
    in his “Existence and the Existent” says pointblank that we cannot know what a
    blade of grass “really” is in some ultimate sense via plant physiology, botany,
    physics and chemistry. There’s an ultimate mystery there and a “final knot of
    opacity” to use a Sartre phrase. Whitman senses this.

    2. When Whitman seqys, above, “Or Iguess it is a uniform hieroglyphic”, he’s unknowingly anticipating the whole
    field of semiotics, signs, which came generations later. (ie hieroglyphics watching)

    Sartre and his “rustle of words” type of “attunement” leads to his war trilogy “Roads
    to Freedom” which emphasizes “choose thyself” as a replacement for “know
    thyself” and is Cartesian cold and logical and unlike Whitman rhapsodic and
    ecstatic attunement via sensuosness.

    Richard Melson