Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Drum-Taps (1865)
Author:
Eiselein, Gregory
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Drum-Taps (1865) is Walt Whitman's volume of poems about the Civil War, but the roots of this book predate the war. In 1860, Thayer and Eldridge advertised a forthcoming Whitman volume titled Banner at Day-Break (a foreshadowing of "Song of the Banner at Day-Break" from Drum-Taps). Thayer and Eldridge went bankrupt in 1861, however, and the volume never materialized. During the war's initial years, Whitman wrote several war poems. Later, while working as a hospital volunteer, he wrote several more. In 1863—after journeying to Washington, D.C., to find his wounded brother, and witnessing the sick and wounded soldiers convalescing there—Whitman resolved to publish a book of poems about the war. He could not find a publisher, however, in part because of a sluggish wartime book market. Eager to see his book published, Whitman made his own arrangements and, on 1 April 1865, signed a contract with Peter Eckler for five hundred copies of Drum-Taps.

Two weeks later, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Whitman quickly inserted a poem commemorating Lincoln's burial ("Hush'd be the Camps To-day"), and a few copies of the first issue, a seventy-two-page volume with fifty-three poems, were bound and distributed. Yet Whitman soon realized that Drum-Taps would be incomplete without significant testimony about Lincoln's death. In the autumn of 1865 Whitman contracted with Gibson Brothers, well-known Washington printers, to produce one thousand copies of Sequel to Drum-Taps, an appendix of poems about Lincoln and the war's end. Drum-Taps and its twenty-four-page Sequel containing eighteen additional poems were bound together, and Whitman arranged for Bunce and Huntington to market the book. Drum-Taps appeared in a simple brown cloth cover with the words DRUM TAPS on the front and back.

Whitman eventually integrated Drum-Taps into Leaves of Grass. In 1867 Drum-Taps and the Sequel appeared as appendices to Leaves of Grass. In 1871 Whitman began to incorporate the poems into Leaves of Grass proper: he placed many of them in a cluster titled "Drum-Taps" and distributed others throughout Leaves of Grass.

Drum-Taps begins with a patriotic call to arms and ends with "psalms of the dead" ("Lo, Victress on the Peaks"). The contrast between the early martial poems like "Drum-Taps" (later titled "First O Songs for a Prelude") and the later elegiac poems like "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" reflects an evolution in Whitman's attitude toward the war—a movement from enthusiasm to grief. Alluding (perhaps unintentionally) to both the percussion sound that calls soldiers into battle (drum taps) and the bugle call blown at military funerals (taps), the book's title suggests Drum-Taps's two very different rhetorics.

Nonetheless, patriotic pieces and elegies for the dead are not the only kinds of poems in Drum-Taps. There are several poems devoted to the vivid, realistic representation of a war scene such as "Bivouac on a Mountain Side" or "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" and others that portray humanitarian caretaking as in "The Dresser" (later "The Wound-Dresser") and "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown." Drum-Taps also contains poems that have no explicit connection to the war, poems like "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." Drum-Taps has no poems about slavery or African Americans, an omission that emphasizes Whitman's view that the war was about the Union, not slavery.

Whitman initially considered Drum-Taps a more controlled and artistic volume of poems, a departure from Leaves of Grass. Many of the Drum-Taps poems are sustained, formal efforts to control expression and emotion, and they often use military or mourning rituals and symbols to mask private feelings. Some of the poems—"O Captain! My Captain!" for example—are more conventional, more stylistically regular. The presentation of sexuality in Drum-Taps is less overt than in "Calamus" or "Children of Adam." Likewise, the handling of death in Drum-Taps tends to be less morbid-romantic and more immediate and realistic than in Leaves of Grass. Eventually, however, as he revised and rearranged his poems, Whitman began to see these war lyrics as central to Leaves of Grass. And the books do share many similar concerns. The homoerotic aspects of "Vigil Strange" or "The Dresser" are continuations of the "Calamus" project, just as "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" extends Whitman's meditation on death in ways similar to those in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

Critics and the reading public mostly ignored Drum-Taps. It sold fewer copies than the 1860 Leaves of Grass and received fewer reviews. Still, Franklin B. Sanborn gave Drum-Taps a mixed-to-favorable notice and championed Whitman as a patriot, and Whitman's friend John Burroughs wrote an important extended essay defending "Walt Whitman and His 'Drum-Taps'" for the Galaxy. Drum-Taps also garnered the attention of Henry James and William Dean Howells, both of whom disparaged the book as indefinite, prosaic, and artistically unseemly.

Individual poems from this volume became quite popular, however. "O Captain! My Captain!" and "Come Up from the Fields Father" were highly regarded and widely anthologized throughout the nineteenth century, just as "Lilacs" has been widely praised in the twentieth. In recent years, critics have devoted increasing attention to Drum-Taps, admiring it as Whitman's attempt to forge poetic meaning out of the war.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Myerson, Joel. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.

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

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Walt Whitman's "Drum-Taps" (1865) and "Sequel to Drum-Taps" (1865–6): A Facsimile Reproduction. Ed. F. DeWolfe Miller. Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959.


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