Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice" (1865)
Author:
Graham, Rosemary
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice" appeared for the first time in the 1865 Drum-Taps collection, many of the poem's lines had been published in "Calamus" number 5 in the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Interested readers can get a glimpse of Whitman's revising process by consulting Walt Whitman's Blue Book, the facsimile edition of Whitman's personal copy of the 1860 text. Ultimately, "Over the Carnage" came to rest in the "Drum-Taps" cluster of Leaves.

"Calamus" number 5, or "States!," was an extremely optimistic, almost utopian celebration of the possibilities of American democracy. In it the bold poetic persona of the 1860 Leaves promises to inculcate "a new friendship" that will enable the states to be held together "as firmly as the earth itself is held together." "Affection," he declares, "shall solve every one of the problems of freedom"; "companionship thick as trees" will make legal agreements and armed struggle unnecessary.

In "Over the Carnage," Whitman's poetic persona looks out over a field full of dead young men, casualties of fratricidal war and irrefutable evidence of affection's failure. Out of this scene, over this carnage, he nonetheless attempts to conjure the optimism expressed in the earlier edition. Interestingly, though this poem again asserts the belief that affection could solve the problems of freedom, the speaker does not utter these words himself. Instead, he hears them pronounced by a "prophetic" voice. This externalized voice can at once comfort the poet's own despair, "Be not dishearten'd," and offer a mournful nation consolation by repeating what had been the now-silent poet's own formulation, "affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet" (emphasis added).

The only wholly new lines to appear in "Over the Carnage" are "Sons of the Mother of All, you shall yet be victorious, / You shall yet laugh to scorn the attacks of all the remainder of the earth." Twice repeating the anticipatory "yet," the prophetic voice promises the mournful, divided nation a united future as a world power. Though not as striking in its descriptions or its imagery as the strongest of the "Drum-Taps" poems, "Over the Carnage" demonstrates the tenacity of Whitman's hope.

Bibliography

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

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

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

____. Leaves of Grass: Facsimile of the 1860 Text. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1961.

____. Walt Whitman's Blue Book. Ed. Arthur Golden. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1968.


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