Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Dirge for Two Veterans" (1865)
Author:
Ignoffo, Matthew
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem, first published in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), continued essentially unrevised through the remainder of its publication history. The poet's English biographer, John Bailey, called it "incomparably fine" (qtd. in Whitman 314n).

One of Whitman's few poems with a formal structure, each quatrain begins and ends with short lines of as few as four syllables, while the two middle lines are as long as fifteen syllables. This cadence echoes the short-long-long-short drum beats in the dirge that Whitman is listening to as he attends the funeral of a father and son who died in the Civil War.

The poem employs alliteration in its line endings ("sunbeam...Sabbath"), as well as iteration ("round moon...phantom moon...silent moon") and assonance ("moon...bugles...through...soothe...you"), yet the lack of true rhyme also creates a kind of dissonance. Whitman addresses the dead as "my soldiers" as if he himself embodies all America, thus expressing national gratitude as well as grief. He dramatizes the poem's theme by personifying the moon as a "sorrowful vast phantom" weeping for the children she has lost. The sound devices and imagery produce a powerful lament over the death of two generations that gave their blood to preserve the Union.

The final stanza hints at the healing which results from the tragedy: the war dead are memorialized by celestial light, martial music, and the poet's love. Preceding the more optimistic and mystical "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice," the mournful "Dirge" becomes an expression of America's hope that the extraordinary love epitomized in the sacrifice of the father and son will eventually conquer all hatred and division.

Bibliography

Bensko, John. "Narrating Position and Force in Whitman's Drum-Taps." Walt Whitman Centennial International Symposium. Ed. Manuel Villar Raso, Miguel Martinez Lopez, and Rona Morillas Sanchez. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1992. 33–43.

Burrison, William. "Whitman's Drum-Taps Reviewed: The Good, Gray, Tender Mother-Man and the Fierce, Red, Convulsive Rhythm of War." Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Ed. Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985. 157–169.

Davis, Robert Leigh. "Whitman's Tympanum: A Reading of Drum-Taps." ATQ 6 (1992): 163–175.

Ignoffo, Matthew. What the War Did to Whitman. New York: Vantage, 1975.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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