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.