Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: [Review of Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps]

Creator: A. S. Hill [unsigned in original]

Date: January 1867

Publication information: The North American Review 104 (January 1867): 301-3.

Source: The original electronic text for this file was prepared for Walt Whitman, The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Kenneth M. Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and the transcription was completed by consulting a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, microfilm copy). Following publication of that volume, Price received an updated transcription file from Cambridge University Press, and the Whitman Archive has used the final file from the publisher as the basis for the electronic text presented here.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00062

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Nicole Gray, Sara Duke, Vanessa Steinroetter, and Todd Stabley


1. WALT WHITMAN's Drum-Taps New York. 1865. 12mo. pp. 72.

2. Sequel to Drum-Taps. (Since the preceding came from the Press.) When Lilacs last in the Dooryard bloomed, and Other Pieces

IT is fortunate that "Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps," unlike his "Leaves of Grass," is in point of propriety unexceptionable, so that it can be judged on its intrinsic merits.

The pieces of which "Drum-Taps" consists are in form, like those in "Leaves of Grass," neither blank verse nor rhythmical prose. A poet of genuine artistic power would suffer from the absence of those restraints which are to genius what its banks are to a river,—limitations that aid in the development of beauty and of force; and Mr. Whitman is so far from being an artist, that he boasts of his lack of culture, after the fashion of "self-made" men. Yet it is precisely this deficiency which disguises his real excellence, and stands between him and the fame he predicts for himself. A writer whose works are to live must have taste to discriminate between what is worth saying in a given poem, and what is not worth saying, and must have courage to excise the latter. The business of cataloguing the works of creation should be left to the auctioneer.

Poets of vastly more genius and culture than Mr. Whitman possesses have committed the error of thinking all objects and fancies equally worthy of a poem. Wordsworth, for example, patched his shining robes with homespun; but Wordsworth had the manners and speech of a gentleman, while Whitman has the characteristics, good and bad, of a Bowery boy. His love of New York City has more in common with Gavroche's1 love for Paris than with that of Victor Hugo, and more in common with Tony Weller's2 love for London than with that of Dr. Johnson, Lamb, or even Dickens. His glorification of America smacks of the "We can lick all creation" of Tammany Hall.3 But with the extravagance, coarseness, and general "loudness" of Bowery boys4, Mr. Whitman possesses in an unusual degree their better traits. He is not ashamed of the body he lives in, and he calls all things by plain names. His compositions, without being sentimental or pretty, show genuine sensibility to the beauty of nature and of man. His braggart patriotism evinced its genuineness during the war.

"Beauty, knowledge, fortune, inure not to me, yet there are two things inure to me.
I have nourished the wounded and soothed many a dying soldier;
And at intervals I have strung together a few songs,
Fit for war and the life of a camp."

The fact that the "songs" in Drum-Taps were written under such circumstances ought to have rebutted in the most fastidious minds whatever presumption may have been raised against the volume by previous publications.

But the claims of these productions to consideration rest upon a more solid basis than the author's personal services in the hospital. Mr. Whitman not only possesses an almost photographic accuracy of observation, a masculine directness of expression, and real tenderness of feeling, but he sometimes hits upon an original epithet which illuminates a page of prosaic details. He speaks of "the sturdy artillery…soon, unlimbered to begin the red business"; "the hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted, robust year" (1861); the "hinged knees and steady hand" of the dresser of wounds; the "elderly (sick) man, so gaunt and grim, with well-grayed hair and flesh all sunken about the eyes"; "million-footed, superb-faced Manhattan"; "the wind with girlish laughter"; the "gentle, soft-born, measureless light"; "the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air"; "the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty"; "the huge and thoughtful night." And in at least three places he shows more sustained, if not higher power. The effect of the news from Sumter5 upon New York is thus described:—

"The Lady of this teeming and turbulent city,
Sleepless, amid her ships, her houses, her incalculable wealth,
With her million children around her—suddenly
At dead of night, at news from the South,
Incensed , struck with clenched hand the pavement."

"Old Ireland" is personified as

"Crouching over a grave, an ancient, sorrowful mother,
Once a queen,now lean and tattered, seated on the ground,
Her old white hair drooping dishevelled round her shoulders;
At her feet fallen an unused royal harp."

But Mr. Whitman's faculty is, perhaps, most fully shown in the poem entitled, "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloomed"; in which the contrast of the beauty and life of the opening spring with the scenes presented and the thoughts awakened by the funeral of Abraham Lincoln is drawn with unexpected power. The poem is, as a whole, remarkable, but we must content ourselves with a brief quotation.

"Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities;
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes—passing the endless grass;
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown
fields uprising;
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave
Night and day journeys a coffin.
. . . . .
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, poured around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Notes:

1. Gavroche, a fictional character from Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862), is a mischievous Parisian street urchin. [back]

2. In Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1837), Tony Weller is the father of Sam Weller, who acted as servant and comic companion of main character Samuel Pickwick in his travels through the English countryside. [back]

3. Tammany Hall was both a place and the name of the Democratic Party political machine that often controlled New York City politics from 1789 to the 1960s. [back]

4. The Bowery Boys was a name that referred to a social type comprised of young, disaffected working-class New Yorkers in the nineteenth century. The name was also adopted by several New York street gangs who protested the actions of the political elite in the antebellum period. [back]

5. Fort Sumter, a military outpost near Charleston, South Carolina, was the location of the first battle of the American Civil War (April 12, 1861). [back]


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