Selected Criticism

"Reconciliation" (1865)
Mason-Browne, N.J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Reconciliation" is one of Whitman's short lyrics about the Civil War. It first appeared in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), but was later incorporated into Leaves of Grass. Whitman's first poems on the subject exhibited an attitude of factionalism and martial excitement, but this stance gave way to a more sober appreciation of what large-scale, fearsomely sanguinary battles such as Fredericksburg (1862) and Chancellorsville (1863) actually entailed. The muted and pensive realism of the work reflects this evolution of the poet's feelings, and it speaks to us in a way that most Victorian war poetry does not. "Reconciliation" deserves to be recognized as one of the first modern war poems.

The text evokes a small, wartime scene of the sort which Whitman, in his capacity as a nurse's aide, might well have observed. A Confederate soldier has died while in enemy hands. He is laid out in his coffin. Moved to pity, an onlooker bends down to kiss him. The moment, depicted with a few matter-of-fact strokes, is passionately felt, and its conciliatory spirit is like that of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural (which Whitman heard). But the poet himself had comforted the Confederate sick and wounded in the hospitals where he worked. He expressed great fondness and respect for them in his journals. In the end, their humanity mattered more to him than their politics, and it was this scale of priorities which was installed in the poem.

Concise in the extreme, "Reconciliation" comprises, in its revised form, a single, elaborate sentence. The poem begins with a lovely rhetorical gesture which invokes the concept of reconciliation by comparing it to the sky. In a series of rapid and imperceptible shifts, the poem descends thereafter from a realm of abstraction to the particularities of death and the physical immediacy of a kiss.


Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Hesford, Walter. "The Efficacy of the Word, the Futility of Words: Whitman's 'Reconciliation' and Melville's 'Magnanimity Baffled.'" Walt Whitman Review 27 (1981): 150–155.

Lowenfels, Walter, ed. Walt Whitman's Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1960.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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