Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun" (1865)
Author:
Dougherty, James
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in Drum-Taps, "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun" remained almost unchanged through the later editions of Leaves of Grass. What little attention the poem has received concentrates on its even-handed celebrations of the "pastoral" world and of urban life. With its two opposing strophes, it is an equivocal poem, warring against itself, against the Copperheads (northern Democrats who supported the South), and against Whitman's own resources as a poet.

The 1865 Drum-Taps, like Whitman's earlier books, included poems of the countryside ("A Farm Picture" and "Pioneers! O Pioneers!") and of Manhattan ("First O Songs for a Prelude," "City of Ships," and "A Broadway Pageant"). In "Sun" the two are sharply contrasted. The farmer dwells with wife and child in a homey world; the city man moves through public spaces, watching people en masse, "new ones every day" (section 2). Whitman acknowledges the "primal sanities" of rural life, assigning to each a conventional epithet: "ripe and red" fruit, "odorous" and "beautiful" flowers (section 1). The city, on the other hand, is all ephemera, "shows" and "phantoms" (section 2), for which there are few ready-made descriptives. The country offers stability, quiet, and contentment; Manhattan, excitement, noise, and crowds.

Though this contrast seems to favor agrarian life, the poem endorses the city, ostensibly because it has enlisted in the war: one of its spectacles is the parade of embarking troops. "Sun," voicing Whitman's early bellicose Unionism, resembles "Song of the Banner at Daybreak" in its debate between a war party and a peace party. In linking the latter with a yearning for pastoral simplicity, and choosing a specifically western setting for the "peace" strophe, Whitman may be challenging the midwestern strength of the Copperheads (though, if the poem dates from 1862, he was striking early).

The second strophe subordinates the war and affirms Whitman's relish for the intense and varied pleasures of the street—"phantoms" though they be, and no less remote from the battlefield. Recognizing the urban illusion as well as the agrarian dream, "Sun" turns on the whole American panorama the skepticism of "Calamus" number 7, and thus joins "To a Certain Civilian" and "As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado" in extending the subversiveness of "Calamus" into this seemingly more conciliatory volume. Against the unreal city and the mythical farm, there are only the bivouac, the hospital, and the unconciliated poet with his doubts and his dirges.

Bibliography

Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.

Everett, Graham. "A Reading of Walt Whitman's 'Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun.'" West Hills Review 8 (1988): 105–111.

Machor, James L. Pastoral Cities. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.


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