Whitman found th[e] wholesale anonymity of the dead [in the Civil War] very disturbing. He returned to the subject repeatedly in Specimen Days after the war, noting, for instance, that in one particular war cemetery only eighty-five of the bodies were identified. It is against this background that a poem like "Vigil Strange" cries out to be read. Then it can perhaps be appreciated that the emotional impulse behind the poem is partly the desire to ensure that the battlefield dead are individually recognized, remembered, and mourned. . . . It’s noteworthy that in draft form the poem referred to the dead comrade in the third-person singular, so that in altering it to the second-person singular, Whitman increased both the sense of mystery and the sense of intimacy. . . . Whitman both felt drawn toward a rapt immersion in the soldiers’ experience (as expressed in the printed version of "Vigil Strange") and impelled to mediate their experience to the civilian world (hence the style of report of the original draft form).
[F]or Whitman, . . . the temptation was strong, even irresistible, to identify himself with the national collective, and his creative expression was often an attempt to devise ways to realize that ambition, whether indirectly, as in "Song of Myself," or directly, as in "I Hear America Singing." In the latter case, Whitman imagined the dynamic power of the nation not as a geographical entity spreading westward but as an activity—and one of his favorite ones, at that: singing. The poem consists of a vision of the various units of the country—the mechanic, the carpenter, the mason, the young wife, the boatman—each person separately "singing" his or her individual song. But where in [the poem] "Pictures" each person acts his or her role separately, this poem blends the individual acts of singing into a harmonious participial ensemble of America singing. The paradox from which the poem works, the empowerment of each element of the country individually but at the same time their merger in the collective empowerment of the nation as a whole, was one that Whitman saw as forming a fault line across American society. I believe, in fact, that the fear of the failure of the individual parts to conjoin as neatly and harmoniously as the seamless whole orchestrated by this poem was one that Whitman knew profoundly even before his development by the mid-1850s into the poet of Leaves of Grass.
The poem opens with one of the finest of Whitman's blocks of running rhythmic verse, all its mounting energy channeled into his poetic I -- or more precisely, into his I's performing the poetic act. That act, stripped of its modifiers, consists simply of a single grammatical statement: I sing a reminiscence. The reminiscence that he sings, whether recalled or invented, is of the singular experience in his childhood which made him the man-poet that he now is and that he expects always to be. By 1860, Whitman had already enough years of life and poetic experience behind him to know that his present and future would also have to take into consideration his past, and so he was now given to reviewing his personal and poetic history. That he was no longer a young man and that he realized it is plain to see in the engraving he used for the frontispiece to the third edition. It showed a man clearly grayer, heavier, and fleshier than the rugged workingman pose he had struck for the two previous editions, a sensitive, vulnerable, inward-looking man rather than the self-confident, assertive man of the people of 1855-6.
The primary direction of this poem, as of its like, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life, " is backward, a search for origins. The search takes him back to the most formative of all natural settings for Whitman, one referred to frequently but rarely utilized fully in previous poems: the seashore, the meeting line between his paternal island and the "savage old mother" of life and death. This was the greatest of all areas of intersection for Whitman, "that suggesting, dividing line, contact, junction, the solid marrying the liquid." It is in approaching this magic dividing line, always in flux, that the mature poet meets his boyhood self, as well as his final adversary, death.
Beginning with its opening stanza, the poem is a symphonic song of oneness and twoness. It opens in the preliminary strophe with a masterly display of Whitman's rhythmic control, all its force transferred late in the stanza into the word pair "boy" and "man" ("A man -- yet by these tears a little boy again"), and through their apposition, into the subject-I several lines later. Through this technique of rhythmic transference, Whitman immediately formulated the central issue of the poem, the identity of the poet, to whose making the various motifs of the poem all contribute. The poet's identity will be formed from the interplay of these motifs, introduced in this stanza and to figure prominently in the second part of the poem; but it will emerge even more directly through the mediacy of that element which is common both to them and to him: "the word." The word is to come to the man-child in several forms -- first from the song of the mockingbird and later from the "undertone" of the sea.
The mockingbirds come up from the South "two together" at springtime to establish their family. As they sing their song of union, "Singing all time, minding no time, / If we two but keep together," the young boy stations himself nearby, "cautiously peering, absorbing, translating" -- that is, performing the three-stage process by which the poet transforms experience into art. The harmonious union of the birds, their twoness as oneness, is disrupted by the disappearance of the female, leaving the distraught "he-bird" to sing its song of loneliness and solitude. The bird's song of desolation, written in 1860 with a two-beat apostrophe designed to reinforce the sense of two together, floats out over the water and in its sweep ties together the elements of the universe, worked up by Whitman's present progressive-dominated language into a state of natural generation, for its ultimate recipient, the enraptured boy.
The effect of the song and setting on the boy, the "outsetting bard," is complete and lasting: it awakens his "sleeping" tongue and arouses him to "the unknown want, the destiny of me." His destiny, it is clear, whatever it will be, will be in language and through language. So that when the mature man, reliving the scene in his mind, looks for the "clew" to the memory's final meaning, he looks for it--and finds it—in the form of "a word." That word is "death," brought to him--or more exactly, brought to his remembering consciousness--by the hissing waves, as they slithered up to his feet and rose up over him to the level of his ears. What Whitman had written earlier in another of his water poems--"That I was, I knew was of my body -- and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body" ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry")--is equally true of the scene here, as the body becomes the conduit to the formation of personality. It was always one of the sources of Whitman's strength as a poet that he thought and composed in closest quarters to his body; when "the word" comes to him here, it naturally comes with the contact of the waves on his body:
Answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whispered me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisped to me constantly the low and delicious word DEATH,
And again Death -- ever Death, Death, Death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my aroused child's heart,
But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,
And creeping thence steadily up to my ears,
Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of two together,
That was sung to me in the moonlight on Paumanok's gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs, at random,
My own songs, awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song, and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
The sea whispered me.
"The sea whispered me" -- the formulation is too striking not to draw attention to itself Whitman was to use rhyme with extreme infrequency during his Leaves of Grass career; but when he did, he tended to favor rhymes off of "me." The rhyme used so conspicuously here calls attention to the ambiguity of the line's phraseology, which in view of the phraseology of the previous stanza, I can interpret only as being deliberately ambiguous. Does the sea whisper "to me" (and/or "for me") or does it whisper "me"? The answer, I suppose, is both. The sea whispers to the boy-poet's ears, but it also whispers to his ears his identity (death). From his perspective, it whispers me to me. This is what I meant when I spoke of the closing circle of self in the poems of the 1860 Leaves of Grass composed latest. With no reader as intermediary, with no addressee outside of the poem, the lines of the poem are all self-contained. For this reason, Roy Harvey Pearce was right to stress the considerable artificiality on Whitman’s part of later interposing between the two last verses the lovely but misleading line, with its universalizing effect:
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
It draws attention away from the point where the force of the poem lay in its 1860 version: the vital connection between the "word" and "me." For it is here, in personal identity constructed through language, that the 1860 poem centered and that Whitman, even as he grew older, continued to locate the center of his existence.
I spoke of Whitman's heightened concern with time, the present moment, in connection with the Calamus poems; and I find a similar kind of concern here. This poem was composed with an awareness not only of the spread of his body but with the spread of his body over time. Whitman had not previously been so sensitive to the effect of the past pushing its way into the present, which is why in no other poem since "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" had he been so concerned to merge time schemes in the present moment of the poem. One can, of course, claim that Whitman's aim, in this regard, was transcendental, that the birds' song of "singing all time, minding no time" was one which Whitman's larger song, through the process of "fus[ion]," necessarily transformed from a specific song and moment into a thousand poems and moments. To this extent, this poem approximates the poetic position of process and potentiality Whitman had favored in his earlier poetry, allows him theoretically to point himself and his poetry toward the future. But this is so only in theory; in actuality, the thrust of the poem is toward consolidation, not expansion; its action, retrenchment, not progression. Particularly in its 1860 form, it was the expression of a man taking stock of his life and art.
Whitman was fond of [a] long-flowing poetic syntax, with the subject (normally, in the first person) stated first and its capabilities left unfolding via a string of participles. Conversely, he was also fond of precisely the opposite structure, delaying the appearance of the subject "I" until the end of a long-flowing sequence of participial, prepositional, or clausal expressions, thus creating the context out of which his "I" will be born. The best instance of this is one of the finest sustained pieces of verse he ever wrote: the opening strophe of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."
His most ambitious attempts to define his relations with the public, however, were in the various prefatory pieces he continued to attach to later editions of Leaves of Grass. With Whitman, the preface was designed to explain the purpose of his writing both to himself and to his reader. The logic of his authorial position had normally presupposed the mutuality of self-discovery. It was here, therefore, that Whitman was most particularly intent to put or keep the reader in the text, treating him or her to the one-to-one address he had used in his early poems. Often, the most important thoughts of his prefaces were those which could not have been expressed except as addresses to the reader reading: "The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine. I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought -- there to pursue your own flight."
He was to work away on and off throughout the rest of his life on the formulation of the supreme statement of his poetic purpose in Leaves of Grass but with particular urgency during the 1860s, by which time, the years of his most intense creativity already behind him, he was looking to define his achievement. The most sustained product of this ambition was the series of musings, alternately in prose and verse, which he unsuccessfully attempted over the course of the decade to cohere into the final preface to Leaves of Grass. The manuscripts in which he worked over these musings, one of the most revealing batches of his papers as to his method of work, offer an unobstructed view of Whitman's manner of thinking and composing at this stage of his life. One can see in them how the same thoughts and ideas, expressed in lines and stanzas which changed little except for their order or phraseology, were worked over and over in Whitman's mind for years, as Whitman punctiliously recombined parts in the search for the perfect whole. He appropriately thought of this preface as his "Inscription: To the Reader at the Entrance of Leaves of Grass," with himself stationed at the meeting point between life and literature, waiting to receive the reader with opened arms. This final address to the American reader became the "Inscription" to the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass:
Small is the theme of the following Chant, yet the greatest -- namely,
ONE'S SELF -- that wondrous thing, a simple, separate person.
That, for the use of the New World, I sing.
Man's physiology complete, from top to toe, I sing. Not
physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse; -- I
say the Form complete is worthier far. The female equally with the
male, I sing.
Nor cease at the theme of One's-Self. I speak the word of the
modern, the word EN-MASSE.
My Days I sing, and the Lands -- with interstice I knew of helpless
O friend, whoe'er you are, at last arriving hither to commence, I feel
through every leaf the pressure of your hand, which I return. And
thus upon our journey link'd together let us go.
The familiar Whitman motifs are all there: the individual and the collective, man and woman, body and soul, art and America. And so, too, is the familiar Whitman ploy of communicating these themes through reader involvement. But even the appearance of this statement in print did not satisfy Whitman, who eventually condensed this inscription into the short programmatic poem, "One's-Self I Sing," which was to become the lead poem to all later editions of Leaves of Grass. Slim as it was, it contained the kernel of his thinking about the dichotomy in his society between the individual (the "simple separate person") and the democratic whole (the "En-masse").
From its beginning, his Leaves of Grass career had been a contiguous attempt to provide a creative answer to this duality, to locate the individual -- himself -- in the national collective.