Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Woods" (1865)
Author:
Mulcaire, Terry
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In the fall of 1862, on a trip to the Union army camps in Falmouth, Virginia, in search of new about his wounded brother, George, Walt Whitman came as close as he ever would to the Civil War's front lines. A short but thematically dense lyric describing the poet's encounter with the grave and epitaph of a soldier buried on the march, "As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Woods" seems likely to be one of a handful among the poems in "Drum-Taps" that derive from Whitman's own experiences during this visit to the front.

The soldier's epitaph—"Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade"—is perfectly Whitmanesque, both in its free verse form and its masterfully dense and emotionally turbulent evocation of paradox. The first half of the line sets up a logic of antithesis—boldness matched by caution—that becomes a submerged echo, battling with the manifest meaning of the rest of the line. The latent meaning submerged within "my loving comrade" as the antithesis of "true," in other words, is falseness, inconstancy. Loving intimacy, the line suggests subtly, is founded in its opposite, in heartbreak and loss.

This paradoxical emotional logic, according to which death becomes the perfection of intimacy, is at the heart of Whitman's great elegiac masterpieces "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" (1860) and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865). Along with those poems, "Toilsome" suggests that the experience of profound loss, evoked in poetic form, can provide an enduring basis for a democratic community of feeling. "My book and the war are one," Whitman would assert in "To Thee Old Cause" (1871); in "Toilsome" that claim means that a certain poetic distance from the war—the distance of epitaph or elegy— can actually serve to produce an emotionally genuine experience of the war, where the effect of poetry is to make loss feel intimately present.

Bibliography

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Maslan, Mark. "Whitman's 'Strange Hand': Body as Text in Drum–Taps." ELH 58 (1991): 935–955.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Snyder, John. The Dear Love of Man: Tragic and Lyric Communion in Walt Whitman. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.


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