Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Pioneers! O Pioneers!" (1865)
Author:
Mignon, Charles W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Pioneers! O Pioneers!" first appeared in Drum-Taps (1865) and was then moved to the "Marches now the War is Over" cluster (1871), and finally appeared as the second poem in "Birds of Passage" (1881). In its position in Drum-Taps following "The Centenarian's Story" and preceding "Quicksand Years," "Pioneers" announced the more universal theme of the continuity of life in the midst of the suffering of the Civil War poems. In its placement in the section "Marches now the War is Over," "Pioneers" followed "As I sat Alone by Blue Ontario's Shore" and preceded "Respondez!," probably the most savage poem Whitman ever wrote. Between this early version of "By Blue Ontario's Shore," which concerns itself with the nation's destiny following the Civil War, and the deeply ironical "Respondez!," "Pioneers" seems a pallid assertion of amelioration.

In its final position in the "Birds of Passage" cluster (1881), "Pioneers" finds a happier place, following "Song of the Universal" and preceding "To You [Whoever you are...]." These three poems form a sequence on the general theme of the evolution of the human race. In all three poems we have the call to the soul: in "Song of the Universal" the idea of soul seeks the ideal; in "Pioneers" the idea of America seeks its destiny; and in "To You [Whoever you are...]" the idea of the individual seeks its true identity. The task of dramatizing the idea of America seeking its true identity is undertaken in the larger context of the soul of creation seeking the ideal. This is not another American "westering" poem; it describes a spiritual migration.

The main line of critical attention has been on this poem's themes, but the four-line trochaic stanza form has also received notice. Trochaic meter is suited not only to light, tripping tones, but also to a serious incantatory quality which Whitman attempts in this poem. The criticism recognizes that Drum-Taps is itself more conventional in form and style than earlier poems in Leaves and that the marching rhythms of "Pioneers" are among the most regular of all Whitman's poems.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Shapiro, Karl, and Robert Beum. A Prosody Handbook. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Stovall, Floyd. Introduction. Walt Whitman: Representative Selections. Ed. Stovall. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961. xi–lii.

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.


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