Weekly Whitman: Certain Civilians

Pfaffs Beer Cellar, NYC

No one is sure exactly who the “certain civilian” mentioned in the title of this poem might be, but my guess is that it was some young man who hung out at Pfaff’s Cellar on Broadway, near Bleeker Street. According to a New York correspondent from the Boston Saturday Express, this celebratory description of the bohemian scene at Pfaff’s depicts the bar as a sanctuary in an otherwise chaotic city. “This is the capital of BOHEMIA; this little room is the rallying-place of the subjects of King Devilmaycare; this is the anvil from which fly the brightest scintillations of the hour; this is the womb of the best things that society has heard for many-a-day; this is the trysting-place of the most careless, witty, and jovial spirits of New York,—journalists, artists, and poets.”[1] It clearly shows the impact the war had on Whitman, born of the same as the war was born. Whitman’s maturity as a writer began with politics and then his involvement in recruiting activities in both Brooklyn and New York City.

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To a Certain Civilian

Did you ask dulcet rhymes from me?

Did you seek the civilian’s peaceful and languishing rhymes?
Did you find what I sang erewhile so hard to follow?
Why I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to understand–nor
am I now;
(I have been born of the same as the war was born;
The drum-corps’ harsh rattle is to me sweet music–I love well the
martial dirge,
With slow wail, and convulsive throb, leading the officer’s funeral:)
–What to such as you, anyhow, such a poet as I?–therefore leave my
works,
And go lull yourself with what you can understand–and with piano-
tunes;
For I lull nobody–and you will never understand me.

Walt in the late 1850s

 

[1] https://pfaffs.web.lehigh.edu/node/57750

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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