Selected Criticism

"To a Certain Civilian" (1865)
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.

One of the later poems in "Drum-Taps", this poem was written in 1865, revised in 1871 and included in the 1891–1892 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Perhaps harsher in tone than other Whitman poems addressed to the reader, this work presents a stern, unsympathetic Whitman whose admonition to the reader is to leave his work and go elsewhere if the subjects of his poems are not "dulcet," "languishing," and "peaceful" enough.

This intimacy in the relationship between Whitman and reader is best understood by a close reading of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856), wherein Whitman transcends the barriers of time to "approach" his reader and establish an intimate relationship by inquiring "What is it then between us?" and thereby suggesting a relationship that is compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. But as the reader approaches the end of the "Drum-Taps" cluster, Whitman is wearying of his theme much as he did the Civil War in its final years.

The interplay between Whitman and his reader in the poems preceding "To a Certain Civilian" shows a tired and forlorn Whitman, one reduced to a few short lines written at brief intervals as he continues his labors nursing in the various field hospitals, lamenting the carnage and suffering of the young men he cares for. Whitman sees himself urging onward his "cameradoes" to an unknown destiny much as the Union urged its young men forward to an uncertain future.

And now in "To a Certain Civilian," the poet explodes in quiet anger toward that reader who may be tiring of his message and his portraits of misery and tragedy. Whitman proclaims that he is not "singing" in order to comfort his reader with understanding or "dulcet" and "languishing" rhymes. His work is a dirge, an elegy to those who have paid the ultimate price, for it is they who have demonstrated understanding all along. In one line Whitman declares "I have been born of the same as the war was born," suggesting that from the agony of war the poet's maturity was assured.

Whitman explains in Specimen Days that in his youth the poet is charged with sunshine and optimism, but as dusk approaches he realizes there is greater truth in the "half-lights" of evening (Whitman 923). He then explains the soul's joy in capturing what cannot be defined by the intellect. To grasp these truths one must enter or contribute of one's own volition.

So it is with the reader who cannot identify with Whitman's "cameradoes" on the battlefields of the Civil War. He suggests these readers "lull" themselves with those piano tunes that they can comprehend. He then concludes "Drum-Taps" by returning to his tributes for the fallen soldiers and the sacred soil their blood saturates.


Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

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


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.