Selected Criticism

"Return of the Heroes, The" (1867)
Freund, Julian B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

As part of the cluster entitled "Autumn Rivulets," this poem celebrates an important theme in Whitman's post-Civil War works, that of venerating the soldiers who gave their lives in that conflict.

These soldiers are seen as the one essential ingredient in America's defining moment. A terrible sacrifice has been offered. Now America must affirm this supreme sacrifice if these deaths are to have meaning. Viewing the nation with newly focused eyes, Whitman discovers a way to give eternal meaning to that slaughter of young men, many of whom he had nursed in their final hours. He provides perpetual significance as he suggests that the return of these "heroes" can be realized in a "fecund," or newly productive, America that will thrive and flourish as never before in the great democratic experiment (section 3).

Echoing the cyclical nature of the "parturient" earth that he had earlier described in his 1856 poem "This Compost," Whitman pays tribute to the miracle of nature found in God's "calm annual drama" as life eternally springs from death (section 2). He refers to America as a miracle and calls it the "envy of the globe" (section 3) as he carries this nostalgic reminiscence forward with a consideration of how he can discover a meaning in these "sad, unnatural shows of war" (section 4). He must find a means of synthesizing these memories of dead heroes with the awareness that America has survived and will now flourish in "these days of brightness" (section 5).

Whitman places the war heroes on a precarious pedestal. Only a prosperous and flourishing nation will provide affirmation of these heroic deaths that Whitman has insistently eulogized in countless poems and prose passages since the end of the war. Their triumphant return will be realized by a nation that will be able to rejoice in a larger victory—the saving of a prosperous and democratic Union. That victory will now culminate in a series of "saner," "sweet," and "life-giving" wars (section 6) when soldiers trade in their guns for their tools and work the fields of one nation with "boundless fertility" (section 7) that will become the envy of the world.

Whitman sees these productive fields as "the true arenas of my race" where heroes wield "better weapons" both North and South to harvest the products of a great nation (section 7). No longer will his cameradoes wield weapons of destruction. Now they will wield the "human-divine inventions" (section 8), powerful machines imbued with life-giving qualities that will dominate the earth under the eyes of an ever-observant world.

In states all over the nation, both North and South, farmers will harvest those crops unique to each state. This harvest will be a tribute and a vindication of the bloody sacrifice made by former soldiers to preserve the nation. The crops will grow and ripen "under the beaming sun and under thee" (section 8), Whitman concludes. The heroes have returned.


Bowers, Fredson. "The Manuscript of Walt Whitman's 'A Carol of Harvest, for 1867.'" Modern Philology 52 (1954): 29–51.

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


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