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Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps


SAID Thoreau: "The wisest definition of poetry the poet will instantly prove false by setting aside its requisitions."1 This acute observation has never been more strikingly proved than by the author of the volume before us. The curious and the metaphysical have frequently essayed a complete and accurate definition of the word poetry; but it would be impossible to locate within any of their survey-bills, the strange pastures into which Walt Whitman leads his flocks. And yet the author of "Leaves of Grass," is as unquestionably a true poet, as the greatest of his contemporaries. He seems to us more purely permeated with the subtile essence of poetry than almost any other. It is the air he breathes: the very blood of his arteries. With others there are wide vistas of unmitigated prose in their view of life; to this poet, everything in the world is glowing with poetic beauty. Objects which seem so insignificant—so homely and common-place to most of us, he weaves into his poems. We would not, of course, be understood to say that a simple photography of whatever objects pass before us answers the ends of art. The hand which holds the pencil is everything; and all must be so portrayed that we view them from the poet's own high stand-point. This answers the artistic end; and it is vain to deny artistic treatment in Walt Whitman's poems because they are not constructed in accordance with canons previously laid down. The true poet discovers new and unsuspected laws of art, and makes his own rules. If he touches the secret chords of poetry in our soul, that is the only test, whether we can explain it to our own understanding or not.

"Drum-Taps" contains but few strikingly different characteristics from the author's former volume. We are pleased to find that certain features of that are not introduced in this; for we are compelled to confess that there were certain pages of the "Leaves of Grass" which we regretted had been written. We have written upon the fly-leaf of our copy this passage from "The Essays:" "Osmand had a humanity so broad and deep, that although his speech was so bold and free with the Koran as to disgust all the dervishes, yet was there never a poor outcast, eccentric or insane man, some fool who had cut off his beard, or who had been mutilated under a vow, or had a pet madness in his brain, but fled at once to him: that great heart lay there so sunny and hospitable in the centre of the country, that it seemed as if the instinct of all sufferers drew them to his side."2

On looking through the pages of "Drum-Taps," and catching the soft and sweet strains of a sublime tenderness, much more than the martial music which the title indicates, certain scenes in Washington in the winter of '63 and '64 recur very vividly to memory; his meeting soldiers on the street whom he had nursed and tended—

"Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have crossed​ and rested—​ Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips",—​

walks with him through some of the hospitals, where he came a ministering spirit, daily. It was very affecting to witness the adoration which this divine love kindled. And it was somewhat amusing, too, to discover certain little myths which were afloat from bed to bed concerning him, for he was not known among them as writer or poet, and there seemed to be some mystery attached to his mission.

In this brief notice we have left little space for some extracts which we proposed to give. How striking a trope, for instance, is this!—

"One doubt,​ nauseous,​ undulating like a snake, crawl'd on the ground before me, Continually preceding my steps, turning upon me oft, ironically hissing low.​

In vivid word-painting our poet has few equals, as these scattered lines, from "The Veteran's​ Vision" show:

"The skirmishers begin—​ they crawl cautiously ahead—​ I hear the irregular  
 snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles—​ the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle  
…"I hear the great shells shrieking as they pass; The grape like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees."…. "And ever the sound of the cannon, far and near, (rousing, even in dreams, a  
 devilish exultation, and all the old mad joy, in the depths of my soul.)"
Published by the Author: New York.


1. This quotation is taken from Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). [back]

2. The line is taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Manners." [back]

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