Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

By the time Drum-Taps was published in New York in May 1865, the Union had won the Civil War the previous month, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (abolishing slavery) had been floating in Congressional debates for over a year. Whitman began work on a "little book" to accompany Drum-Taps. This "little book" was completed later in 1865 and appended to Drum-Taps with the title page Sequel to Drum-Taps (Since the Preceding Came from the Press.) When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd. And Other Pieces. Washington. 1865–6. The Sequel gathered together eighteen poems in a twenty-four-page booklet, which was bound into some of the copies of Drum-Taps and included some of Whitman's most recognizable poetry: "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," "O Captain! My Captain!," and "Chanting the Square Deific." Little critical analysis has engaged the Sequel as a discrete cluster of poems, for, characteristically, Whitman later displaced several of the poems and dispersed them in the final edition (1881) of Leaves of Grass. Along the way, the Sequel was bound into the 1867 edition of Leaves, but such was its final appearance as a separate publication.

Given the evanescent moment of the publication of the Sequel in the unstable evolution of Leaves, it is not surprising that critics have largely ignored the Sequel as a unique artifact for critical scrutiny. Recently, this critical indifference has begun to be reversed. Betsy Erkkila has offered a historical reading of "Lilacs" and "O Captain! My Captain!" in the context of the national grief over Lincoln's assassination. Gregory Eiselein has persuasively argued that the Sequel offers an alternative, less coercive model of mourning practices than those practices in nineteenth-century popular culture, which exacted dutiful responses from the mourners. Luke Mancuso has argued that the Sequel, and "Lilacs" in particular, inaugurates the Reconstruction project of breaking the bonds of the inherited model of slave economics in favor of a model of federalized social solidarity, which includes civil liberties for African Americans.

As the centerpiece of the Sequel, "Lilacs" remains one of the most prolific sites of critical discourse in Whitman studies. Conventionally, "Lilacs" has been read biographically as the elegy written primarily for Lincoln which moves from the "black, black, black" aftermath of the assassination to the consolation present in its closing lines. Whitman never actually names Lincoln in this, or any, of his poems later clustered under the rubric "Memories of President Lincoln," though the unnamed subject of the historical Lincoln is never far from the poetic content. However, the natural images in the poem remain ambiguous enough to allow for embedding "Lilacs" in the cultural landscape as well. Which image of "Lincoln" is Whitman addressing in "Lilacs"? Arguably, because of the text's appearance in 1866, Whitman is writing from a Reconstruction (postwar) position, and therefore the unnamed Lincoln suggests the Reconstruction Lincoln, who had since 1863 inaugurated a dual purpose for reconstructing the Union: reunification and emancipation of slaves. While never an abolitionist himself, Whitman was adamantly opposed to the institution of slavery, and he never recorded any displeasure over Lincoln's reluctant but growing support for the abolition of slavery as a war aim. Later in his address, "Death of Abraham Lincoln" (1879), Whitman attributed the knitting together of "a Nationality" with emancipation as the dual qualities of Lincoln's lasting significance. This condensation of democratic nationality would evolve into Whitman's main preoccupation in his Reconstruction project, from 1865–1876, and "Lilacs"can be read as its preface. In such a case, the occasional poem of Lincoln's passing expands its ideological scope to include the image of the "coffin" of the nation's continuity with the sanctioning of slavery.

Another recognizable poem, "Chanting the Square Deific," makes its appearance in the 1865–1866 Sequel. Although the text finally settled in the "Whispers of Heavenly Death" cluster in Leaves (1881), George Fredrickson has persuasively argued that "Chanting" is Whitman's final word on the Civil War. Composed of four symmetrical sections, the poem represents a political allegory, though disguised in the form of theological conundrum. Each of these four sections enacts a verbal testimony by four persons in a fictional "divine quaternity": Jehovah, Christ, Satan, and Santa Spirita. Reading it as an allegory, Kerry C. Larson has interpreted "Chanting" as a narrative which reproduces in large gestures the unfolding of the history of American democracy—from the Founding Fathers (Jehovah) to the Founders' descendants (Christ) to the dissenters (Satan) to the larger ideology which holds these forces together (Santa Spirita). Such a historical reading embeds an identifiably theological text in the material social forces that produced the anxieties over the Civil War in its aftermath. Indeed, if the "Satan" persona represents the defiant Confederacy, then Whitman recognizes that such a threat of destabilization is always already present in American democratic politics.

Other poems in Whitman's Sequel deploy images that are suffused with a collage of consolatory, pessimistic, and defiant images. These dissonant images collide against each other, in much the same way that the survivors of the Civil War everywhere attempted to pick up the pieces and push ahead in reconstructing their lives, cities, states, and nation. In "Reconciliation," Whitman calls for a kind of amnesia through which to forget the carnage of the war, but in "Spirit whose Work is Done," the poet requires the convulsions of conflict to identify his songs to future readers. Likewise, in "As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado," Whitman employs a defiant persona who unsettles any social inertia embodied by "majorities" in favor of resistance to a quick forgetfulness of the revolutionary energies unleashed by the Civil War. In fact, "As I Lay" concludes on the uncertain note that the fruits of victory for the Union had hardly begun to ripen into a secure future for American democracy. The final poem, "To the Leaven'd Soil They Trod" appeals to the natural landscape as a mute witness to the reconciliation of the North and South, but the muteness also suggests that the vertigo of the Civil War's violence will never be fully recoverable.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. "Whitman's 'Lilacs' and the Grammars of Time." PMLA 97 (1982): 31–39.

Eiselein, Gregory. "Whitman and the Humanitarian Possibilities of Lilacs." Prospects. Ed. Jack Salzman. Vol. 18. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 51–79.

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

Fredrickson, George M. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Mancuso, Luke. "'The Strange Sad War Revolving': Reconstituting Walt Whitman's Reconstruction Texts in the Legislative Workshop, 1865–1876." Diss. U of Iowa, 1994.

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


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.