Now the Drum of War—Part Three

Walt Whitman, circa 1854

Third in a series 

We continue Rob Couteau’s interview with Robert Roper, author of the new book Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War.

In today’s installment, the writers talk about Whitman’s groundbreaking Leaves of Grass, the tone of Whitman’s poetry, and the impact Whitman’s service in the army hospitals had on his work.

ROB COUTEAU: Let’s talk about the importance of the first and third editions of Leaves of Grass. I’ve always felt that the first edition was by far the best, followed by the third, of 1860, which introduces some of Walt’s last great poems. It seems you also feel this way. You write: “Of the poet of 1860, almost anything might have been expected. By no means conventional in thought, nor in the emotional colorations he introduced into poetry, the Whitman of 1860 was a wonder, an astonishment.” The third edition included “a few longer, more ambiguous poems … that gave evidence of a doubled, skeptical, half-despairing cast of thought. The great mystery of Walt’s poetry is that this new turn, this potent beginning to a process of promising change, finally came to little.”

ROBERT ROPER: Yeah, I agree with that guy you quoted. [Laughs] I took a little heat from Ed Folsom, who’s kind of the dean of Whitman scholarship. A very estimable man, and a remarkable scholar. He reviewed my book in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. He wrote a pretty long review, and he found a few things to praise; that was generous of him. But he’s kind of angry about my statement that, really, with the war, Whitman’s great poetry was over. Except for “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d.”

I mean, I looked at the poetry that was written after 1865; I just didn’t find any great poems. In the 1860, they’re knocking you down everywhere you go. I think nobody will ever know exactly. And certainly people will disagree with that: with your estimation or my estimation.

Walt Whitman and William Duckett, 1886

But I think the labor in the hospitals took something out of him. It was an exhausting life labor. Then he started to get sick. Too soon, he started having strokes, and it took other energies out of him. You know, it’s amazing how intact he was and how, after a long recuperation at George’s house, he really pulled himself together. And I was cheered to see him carrying on with good-looking young men, right up to the end. [Laughs] His letters are wonderful and witty, and he’s clearly a formidable guy, but the great poetry was over.

RC: Although the changes he made to “Song of Myself” in the deathbed edition are for the most part unsuccessful, I think it’s important to remember that this isn’t a completely black-and-white, absolute thing, and that, here and there, we can find improvements over the original edition.

RR: Yeah, I think so. I can’t remember any good examples now. But probably Gary Schmidgall,[1] or somebody like that… I’ve seen people show where he really clarifies things. But the preponderance of the changes is disheartening. And I’m so happy we still have the original: that he didn’t buy up all the 1855s, and 1860s, and burn them.

Since he seems so prophetic, I don’t put it past him to have thought: Well, all those texts are out there. Now I’m writing this deathbed edition, and maybe that will be part of my story. Somebody will put it together: as I aged, I made these changes. I mean, it sounds pretty fanciful, but he’s certainly a half step ahead of me as far as the largeness of his imagination of himself, and his soul, and what he might have meant.

RC: Around the time of Walt Sr.’s death, Whitman “became the poet of original ideas, expressed in Leaves in an idiom never heard before in the history of the world.” Perhaps you could talk about the nature of this originality and innovation.

RR: That’s the big mystery of his poetry: where did that intimate tone come from? I mean, there were good poets. Emerson was writing good poetry. And Longfellow. You know, they scanned; the diction was sophisticated. But it wasn’t like your friend grabbing you by your shirtfront and saying, “This terrible thing happened to me last night. I saw this drunk get run over in the street.” That’s the kind of intimacy Walt evokes. He doesn’t have it in every line of Leaves, but, gosh, he’s really got it there.

And it’s original in poetry. Maybe there’s some classical poetry that has it. I mean, Shakespeare doesn’t have it. Shakespeare has other fantastic things, but that originality, I don’t know. And, in all the scholarship about who he was trying to sound like, and who he was reading carefully – you know, they say he was reading Whittier! [Laughs]

RC: Although the point has been made that, in the nineteenth century, certain Eastern sacred texts were translated into English, and this may have been one of the primary sources of literary influence on Leaves.

RR: But what are those texts, and do they have this kind of intimacy?

RC: Specifically, Hindu texts, in which there’s a discussion of the Self, and the Self with a capital ‘S,’ not the personal self. And of how this higher Self comes through the personal self.[2] And after all, this is “Song of Myself.” When Whitman talks about himself, it’s an archetypal self; it’s not just the small ego. It’s what, in the East, they would call the Bigger Self. But on the other hand, those texts are certainly not written in an American idiom: of a guy from Brooklyn talking to you on a street corner and, as you say, grabbing you by the shirt – and even trying to kiss you! [Laughs] You know, there’s a section in the 1860 version where he ends it by trying to kiss the reader, which is just unimaginable for that time!

RR: [Laughs] Yeah. I mean, the tone of intimacy is independent of the subject, the subject matter being the Self. So, where the hell does that come from? I just don’t know. I find it somewhat persuasive that he was bowled over by opera: by these voices singing words, intelligible words, that were causing him to have near-orgasmic feelings in the theater. You know, an intimacy that went right into his soul.

And not everyone’s going to be responding that way. Already, there’s something in him that’s capable of being inspired that way. He tried to make a poetry, a verbal art, that could maybe have the same effect. Could go right into the heart, into the whole being of someone else. And having the ability to do that is one thing, but having the idea: that’s really original. That’s the start.

I was talking to a guy I just met who’s from Romania. His name is Voytec. For some reason, we talked about poetry. And he said, “Oh – Whitman! Whitman! Me and my friends, we all read Whitman!” You know, he’s read everywhere. Because he was the start of this poetry that could really talk to people.


In tomorrow’s installment, the authors will continue to look at Whitman’s influence on international poets.

[1] See Gary Schmidgall, Walt Whitman: Selected Poems 1855-1892 (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000).

[2] Emerson referred to Leaves of Grass as “a blend of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald.”

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