Selected Criticism

"Spirit whose Work is Done" (1865–1866)
Gilbert, Sheree L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Spirit whose Work is Done" is from Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), printed in Washington. Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps were first bound with Leaves of Grass in 1867. With only minor revisions, "Spirit" has remained in the "Drum-Taps" cluster through all editions. The title note, (Washington City, 1865.), was added in 1871.

"Spirit," which appears near the end of "Drum-Taps," was written after Whitman had witnessed the Grand Review in May of 1865. In this poem the speaker addresses the Spirit of War, remembering the "dreadful hours" of battle, now ended. As he watches the review, he sees the Spirit lingering on the bristling, slanted bayonets. The drum-taps are now "hollow and harsh," quite disparate from the "stretch'd tympanum" in the opening poem of "Drum-Taps" ("First O Songs for a Prelude"). The anticipatory excitement is gone; in its place stands the Spirit of "solemn day" and "savage scene." He entreats the Spirit to allow him to remember and record its "pulses of rage" and "currents convulsive." His words will identify the Spirit of War to future generations as a record and a warning of this precious American experience.

In the last four lines of "Spirit," the imperative has been read as an invocation for literary inspiration and a desire for the poet to become a disciple of strife, retaining and understanding the rage and convulsions of war. The poet wants to absorb the Spirit of War back into himself, leaving the world at peace, once again Wound-Dresser to the nation. Those lines are also visionary, the "chants" and "songs" serving as a warning to the future of the terrible powers of the Spirit of War. Through their re-creation and captivity within the text the speaker hopes to hold them there, allowing the nation to avoid their consequences and live in peace.

"Spirit" reveals a mature and sober speaker, well acquainted with the horrors of war. It is a poem of wisdom, revealing the painful reality behind the "beat and beat [of] the drum"; it is a poem of prophecy, identifying the scorch and blister of war as a warning for future generations. With the harsh and hollow drum beats all across the land, the nation is now immune to the glamour and spectacle of war. Even in its proudest moment, thoughts turn away from victory to reflect on the terrible price that has been paid. "Spirit whose Work is Done" is both a recollection of the conflict and a prayer that it is well and truly finished.


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

Askin, Denise T. "Retrievements Out of the Night: Prophetic and Private Voices in Whitman's Drum Taps." American Transcendental Quarterly 51 (1981): 211–223.

Cannon, Agnes Dicken. "Fervid Atmosphere and Typical Event: Autobiography in Drum-Taps." Walt Whitman Review 20 (1974): 79–96.

McWilliams, John P., Jr. "'Drum Taps' and Battle-Pieces: The Blossom of War." American Quarterly 23 (1971): 181–201.

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.


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