Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Ashes of Soldiers" (1865)
Author:
Rieke, Susan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Ashes of Soldiers" was written in 1865 and first appeared in Drum-Taps as "Hymn of Dead Soldiers." In 1871 Walt Whitman added the first two stanzas and placed it in the "Passage to India" annex, where it remained until its 1881 position in "Songs of Parting." The addition of this and other Civil War poems to "Songs of Parting" intensifies this cluster's emphasis on death.

In the poem, the speaker's retrospective musings call forth the metonymic ashes of the war's dead soldiers, and in his silent vision of them he moves among a vast army of the "Phantoms of countless lost." He commands no trumpets and drums as he merges in loving companionship with the ashes of the soldiers, whose dearness to him is signified by the repetition of the possessive "my." They are with him always, he says, and he mourns their loss in line 30: "Dearest comrades, all is over and long gone."

However, in line 31 the speaker turns sharply from his sorrow to consider the paradoxical notion that his companions still live. They live, he says, in his "immortal love" for them. He then constructs a metaphoric process which amounts to an idea of resurrection; the soldiers perdure in the "fœtor" he calls "Perfume" rising from the earth which holds their bodies. As he breathes this sweet perfume, the soldiers live in him; in fact, they "nourish and blossom" as he fills himself with them and almost becomes them. The speaker's voice rises to an ecstatic pitch as he prays to love, asking love to make him a fountain in order that he might exhale them from him, thus causing them to live "like a moist perennial dew," present forever on the earth, in the speaker's present time. Thus, the breathing process becomes a metaphor for resurrection and immortality.

In this interpretation, Whitman mourns naturally the loss of those he knew and nursed in the Civil War and laments the loss of their love for one another. But a political Whitman also grieves for the loss of his early democratic ideals and for the vision of the Union shattered by the Civil War. Perhaps the poet's carefully constructed idea of resurrection is a way to retain some hope in the American democratic experiment. The last line of the poem reveals both the poet's concern for the Union and his grief over dead comrades as it includes "the ashes of all dead soldiers South and North" in the poem's moving, elegiac vision.

Bibliography

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Hutchinson, George B. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.


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