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Review of Drum-Taps

WALT WHITMAN's DRUM TAPS New York, 1865. (Pp. 96.)

Such is the title of the latest volume of poems by a man of singular genius, Mr. Walter Whitman, of Brooklyn, N. Y. lately displaced from a humble clerkship in Washington by the husband of Mrs. Harlan. In it is included also a smaller collection of verses, called "Sequel to Drum Taps," and containing chiefly poems which relate to the death of President Lincoln and the close of the war. The poems called Drum Taps, as the name indicates, relate mostly to the beginning and the progress of the war. Before noticing at any length either these poems or their author, let us make a little comparison which is not without significance.

Mr. Whitman is a native of New York, a staunch patriot, and through the war, by his services to our soldiers in camp and hospital, has earned the gratitude of tens of thousands of the men who fought and died for their country. He has tenderly cared for the wounded, nursed the sick, consoled the dying and buried the dead. This he did not for pay or for glory—for he got neither—but for love of the sacred cause of freedom and of mankind. He had previously been known to many of his countrymen as a poet of original powers, occupied with the most important themes, which he did not always treat in conformity to the preconceived opinions of the multitude. Having served in his chosen work through the war, both before and after his appointment and dismissal from a clerkship at Washington, he sought in his native city a publisher for his patriotic verses, but he found none willing to put his name to the volume. Messrs. Bunce & Huntington finally printed it, but without their name, and without taking any of customary steps to introduce the book to the reading public. It is scarcely to be got at a bookstore, has hardly been noticed by a newspaper, and, though full of the noblest verses, is utterly unknown to the mass of readers.

Now, look at another fact. Mr. John Esten Cooke1 is a Virginian, who early joined the rebellion, in which his State played so prominent a part. He served in the army, and did his noble best to destroy the government and kill our brave soldiers. Being a writer, too, he aided his sword by his pen; and by what passes in Virginia for fine writing, he encouraged his fellow-traitors to prolong their treason. He had been known at the North, too, before the war, as a writer of trashy verses and sensational fiction.

Whether Mr. Cooke was pardoned by President Johnson at the urgency of Mrs. Cobb2, or whether he is still unpardoned, (if he ever rose to the rank which made a pardon necessary,) we do not know. But he has had the effrontery to come to New York with a fourth-rate novel, written in the style of Mrs. Henry Wood3, but full of the rankest treason and laudation of traitors, and he, too, has needed a publisher. But he did not wait long. Messrs. Bunce & Huntington, the same who treat Mr. Whitman so cavalierly, are eager to put his trash into the market. They announce it months in advance; they advertise it in all the newspapers; they send advance copies and secure long notices in the leading journals. The Advertiser devotes nearly a column to it; the Evening Post notices it at some length; the Round Table blows a trumpet before and behind it; and other journals pay it the courtesy of a serious review. Yet neither the author nor the book have any merit to be compared with Tupper4 and the Country Parson5, while both are full of the vilest political heresy and bad taste.

This is the way we encourage poets and patriots; this is the way we reward them, and make treason odious!

Yet this displaced and slighted poet has written the most touching dirge for Abraham Lincoln of all that have appeared. Here it is copied from [the] volume before us:—


O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; The ship has weathered every rock, the prize we sought  
 is won.
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all  
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim  
 and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart! Leave you not the little spot, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the  
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the  
 bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths—for you  
 the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager  
 faces turning;
O Captain! dear father! This arm I push beneath you; It is some dream that on the deck You've fallen cold and dead. My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and  
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse  
 nor will;
But the ship, the ship, is anchored safe, its voyage  
 closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship comes in with  
 object won.
Exult O shore, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread Walk the spot my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

Compare with this, for poetic or pathetic feeling, Brownell's long monody, and the other good verses, and how superior that man's suggestive treatment.

We have quoted perhaps the most effective [illegible] poem in the book; but there are lines or passages in nearly all which are very striking. In the first poem, for instance, which gives its name to the volume, he describes the arming of New York when the news came of the attack on Fort [illegible]. "The Lady of this teeming and turbulent city" calls forth her children as bees are called from the hive. She,

"At dead of night, at news from the South, Incensed, struck with clenched hand the pave- 
A shock electric—the night sustained it, Till with ominous hum, our hive at daybreak poured  
 out its myriads."

One of the longer poems opens thus, with a melodious verse which yet does not come under any of the rules for English prosody:—

"When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed, And the great star early drooped in the western  
 sky in the night,
I mourned—and yet shall mourn with ever retur- 
 ning spring."

In the "Dirge for Two Veterans" are these stanzas:—

"I see a sad procession, And I hear the sound of coming full-keyed bugles; All the channels of the city streets they're flooding As with voices and with tears. I hear the great drums pounding, And the small drums steady whirring; And every blow of the great convulsive drum Strikes me through and through. Now nearer blow the bugles, And the drums strike more convulsively; And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded, And the strong dead-march enwraps me."

We have quoted enough to show the power which this poet has to fix his thought in the mind at a single stroke. But what cannot so well be shown by quotations is the broad effect of his poems as a whole; as he says himself,

"The words of my book nothing, the life of it  

He has the power which Crawford had in sculpture, and which Church has in painting, of producing in his own way the feeling that the American landscape produces,—a vast and vague delight in the scope of existence on this western hemisphere. This was manifest in Leaves of Grass, but it is still more so here, where the sentiment is more concentrated by the national crisis in which the poems were written.

Like many of our best poets, however, he is too wilful, and does not conform himself with sufficient patience to the laws of rhythm and proportion in thought or expression. Consequently he is fitfully great, and pleases only at intervals in the details of his composition. He is often as tiresome as Wordsworth in his dull passages, and as rugged as an old English metrical romance. He is full of other faults, too, but they mostly spring from his wilfulness and impatience of rules.

The complaints made of his earlier poems, that they were coarse and immoral in passages, will not apply to this little volume, which is as free from reproach on this score as Mr. Harlan's hymn-book. It will do much, we are confident, to remove the prejudice against Mr. Whitman in many minds, and to secure him that place in literature during his lifetime which he is sure to hold in the next age.


1. John Esten Cooke (1830-1886) was an American novelist noted for his grandiloquent writings centered on his home state of Virginia. [back]

2. Possibly referring to Marion Lumpkin Cobb, wife of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb (1823-1862), an American lawyer, author, politician, and Confederate general, killed in the Battle of Fredericksburg. [back]

3. Mrs. Henry Wood (née Ellen Price) (1814-1887) was an English writer of the extremely popular 1861 novel, East Lynne, a sensational and melodramatic story of a woman's fall from grace. [back]

4. Refers to the English poet Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889), the author of Proverbial Philosophy, a series of didactic moral and religious verse. [back]

5. The Country Parson, or A Priest to the Temple, his Character and Rule of Life (1652), is a collection of practical advice to fellow country parsons by Welsh poet George Herbert (1593-1633). [back]

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