Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of the Banner at Daybreak" (1865)
Author:
Hatlen, Burton
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Song of the Banner at Daybreak" constitutes Whitman's longest poem on the Civil War, unless we count "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" as a war poem. "Song of the Banner" was probably written early in the war, for in 1861 Whitman's publishers, Thayer and Eldridge, advertised 'Banner at Day-Break' as the title poem of a book Whitman was preparing. However, the poem did not see print until 1865, when it was published in Drum-Taps. As Leaves of Grass evolved, Whitman redesigned several of the subsections so that they pivot on a long poem: "I Sing the Body Electric" in "Children of Adam," or "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" in "Sea-Drift." "Song of the Banner" plays a similar role in what eventually became the "Drum-Taps" cluster. (In the original Drum-Taps volume, it has a rival in "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," but Whitman later moved "Pioneers!" to the "Birds of Passage" section.) Any attempt to understand Whitman's response to the war must therefore pay close attention to "Song of the Banner."

"Song of the Banner " is structured as a masque or choric text, with five speakers: the Poet, the Child, the Father, the Pennant, and the Banner. At the beginning of the poem, the Pennant summons the Child to battle, while the Father, alarmed, tries to persuade his Child to stay home. Despite this apparently dialogic structure, however, there is no true debate within the poem. For the Poet gets both the first word and the last, and from the beginning the Poet greets the war with enthusiasm: "I'll pour the verse with streams of blood, full of volition, full of joy, / Then loosen, launch forth, to go and compete, / With the banner and pennant a-flapping." As for the Father, he is defined for us as simply a greedy materialist. Rather than inviting a dialogue between pro- and antiwar parties, Whitman suggests that all idealists are joyously committed to the war, while those opposed to it are motivated solely by selfishness. Not surprisingly, then, the Child adopts the Banner as his new soul-father; and although the poem breaks off before we know what the Child will do, it seems clear that he will plunge into the battle, to the applause of the Poet.

Tonally, "Song of the Banner" contrasts sharply with many of the other poems gathered in "Drum-Taps." The anguished tenderness toward the dead that we find in "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" or "A Sight in the Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim," the almost surrealist sense of the horror of war so striking in "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown"—these tonalities are entirely absent from "Song of the Banner." The strong probability that Whitman wrote this poem early in the war, before he had seen for himself the effects of combat, may in part explain its tone. Although as the struggle went on Whitman could not ignore the human costs of the war, at the start he greeted the idea of the war with a rush of euphoria, and "Song of the Banner" gives expression to this euphoria, which at times seems to shade into blood-lust. Despite the central position it occupies in the "Drum-Taps" cluster of Leaves of Grass, therefore, "Song of the Banner" has seemed to many readers less the thematic center of the group than an awkward, even embarrassing anomaly.

Bibliography

Hatlen, Burton. "The Many and/or the One: Poetics Versus Ideology in Whitman's 'Our Old Feuillage' and 'Song of the Banner at Daybreak.'" American Transcendentalist Quarterly ns 6 (1992): 189–211.

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

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Sweet, Timothy. Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

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

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


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