Selected Criticism

"Year That Trembled and Reel'd Beneath Me" (1865)
Fulton, Joe Boyd
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Year That Trembled and Reel'd Beneath Me" first appeared in 1865 in Drum-Taps and was later incorporated into the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. It was probably written earlier, however, and Betsy Erkkila hypothesizes that Whitman may be referring to 1863, a year of reverses for the Union Army that included the debacles at Charleston and Chancellorsville.

Whitman's fear in "Year" of having to relinquish his "triumphant songs" in favor of "cold dirges of the baffled" contrasts greatly with his earlier war poems, particularly the optimistic, quasi-recruiting poem "Beat! Beat! Drums!" (1861). All through the summer of 1863, as Gay Wilson Allen relates, Whitman and others residing in Washington feared invasion of the capital by Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. In addition to the military setbacks and fear of invasion that may have influenced the poem, it is also likely that Whitman's increased contact with the wounded during his regular visits to army hospitals in Washington contributed to the "thick gloom" pervading "Year." A dismayed Whitman faced the possibility of singing "dirges," both for the Union cause and for the soldiers suffering and dying every day in area hospitals.

"Year" holds a prominent position among the shorter of Whitman's Civil War poems. Its mixture of social, political, and personal concern mark it as a uniquely Whitmanesque production that, if it does not approach the heights of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865), vividly renders the effect of the American Civil War on its most eloquent poet.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.


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