Aug 24, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 6

Here are more of my notes from the Whitman class. Bear with me, Just one week left after this! This week's theme was elegy and memorial, and we looked at Whitman's texts that he wrote after the assassination of President Lincoln.

Whitman heard the news of the death while staying at his mother's house in Washington. The lilacs were in bloom early that year, and the scent of the lilacs fused with the sorrow he felt at the news, and so came into being "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd," Whitman's elegy to Lincoln. He never names Lincoln, though, making the poem feel universal. Our professors also pointed out that the poem is composed of fragments, which reflects the world fallen to pieces. Whitman also uses a lot of participles, (-ing-words, the verbs that indicate ongoing action), maybe to indicate that the world goes on. Spring in itself is a hopeful time: everything is born again. Every year, spring comes. Does it bring us hope even in tragedy? Another interesting thing Professor Folsom pointed out was how Whitman uses the sprig of lilac, a broken fragment in itself, in a poem of fragments. That sprig is spring without the letter "n" is no accident.

We also read Whitman's newspaper piece on the assassination, which is powerful in a different way.

All this reading on loss can be wearying, so this little poem, so hopeful, is a welcome interlude:

I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ

I HEARD you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last
Sunday morn I pass'd the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walk'd the woods at dusk, I
heard your long-stretch'd sighs, up above, so
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I
heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
…Heart of my love!—you too I heard, murmuring low,
through one of the wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little
bells last night under my ear.
           -- Walt Whitman, Drum-taps.

A beautiful way to end the lesson.

This week's assignment was to write a piece on a trauma or conflict that encompasses two or three central sensations.


  1. To quote Captain Kirk to Mr. Sulu, " survives."

    I once heard a man speak, a mountaineer, who had lost his wife during a climb on a day with nice clouds. And rather than be unhappy now at the sight of those clouds he takes some comfort in them. He said with peace, "The clouds are still there."

  2. Yes, that's a nice way to look at it. Not always easy, but very true.


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