Aug 17, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 5

This week's themes were silence and absence. The poems and writings we discussed this week had to do with the end of the war and where to go from there.

In "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice" Whitman describes men from the warring sides coming together. Whitman also advocated love between men. According to Professor Ed Folsom's introduction, he felt that women were allowed to express affection towards each other, but boys were taught to compete with each other and physical expressions of affection, as well as homosexual love, were taboo. When he saw the wounded soldiers express deep affection towards each other, he wanted to believe that affection would survive the war and help re-unite the nation.

 Whitman wrote many letters for soldiers who were wounded or otherwise incapable of writing to their families. Many times the soldier in question was dead by the time the family got the letter. In  "Come Up from the Fields Father" Whitman incorporated that shock of receiving a letter from a loved one written in someone else's hand into the poem. The setting of a farm in Ohio at harvest-time makes the poem feel even more poignant.

Whitman also wrote about PTSD long before the disorder was recognised. In "The Veteran's Vision" he describes a peaceful night, the former soldier lying in bed next to his wife with their infant asleep nearby and how the sounds and visions of battle, unwelcome, fill the veteran's mind. Also here the contrast is startling, and Professor Folsom pointed out how the events of ordinary life and war come together, like the child crawling and soldiers crawling, for example. Another "writer trick" to note: here, again, Whitman reverses two words, making the war long over into the war over long, overlong, still haunting the veteran.

We also studied a letter Whitman wrote to his mother in the final year of the war, and you can see how exhausted and heartbroken he is. He talks about a young soldier who arrived with hundreds more, shivering under rain-soaked blankets, and died before he could tell anyone who he was. That unknown soldier represents so many others, dying alone and their fate unknown to their families. It feels like Whitman is about to crack under the weight of it all.

The last poem we studied, "Pioneers, O Pioneers" looks into the future. After the war ended, the energy of the nation had to be directed towards some common goal, and colonising the West was it. The idea feels a bit cringe-worthy now, because we know what it led to, but if you look at it from the point of view of a nation tired of war, it must have felt like a call to adventure, a new beginning, something worth believing in.

For our assignment we wrote about the "phantom limb" left  behind after trauma or traumas, how they can still haunt us for years after the fact.

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