Kim Roberts on WALT WHITMAN (Page 4 of 4)


Whitman's legacy looms so large it is difficult for any American poet not to measure herself against him. Ezra Pound (who lived in DC from 1946 to 1958 while incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's Hospital) wrote famously: "I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman--/I have detested you long enough." He said he was finally old enough to accept their common bond, writing, "Let there be commerce between us." Langston Hughes, on the other hand, saw this influence not as a burden but as a model. Hughes (who also lived in DC, for two years in the 1920s) wrote, "Whitman's 'I' is...the cosmic 'I' of all peoples who seek freedom, decency, and dignity, friendship and equality between individuals and races all over the world." This influence led Hughes to declare, "I, too, sing America."

Walt Whitman in 1867 (Library of Congress)

Time does not diminish Walt Whitman; rather, he seems to grow ever larger and more malleable. He is embraced by feminists, gay rights activists, and radicals. He is a poet of the commonplace, of democracy, an experimentalist, a lover.

To me, he is the quintessential poet of loneliness. His yearning, still palpable on the page, is what makes me return to him again and again. Although his ability to connect to others in his lifetime was imperfect, he still reaches out of the grave, addressing the "Poets to come" to "Arouse! for you must justify me." In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" he asserts, "It avails not, neither time or place--distance avails not,/I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence..."

Whitman was able to take his loneliness, the great central sorrow of his life, and change it into something universal and encompassing. And there is that other great transformation that fascinates me as well: how a mediocre writer of sentimental, conventional verse could suddenly, at the mature age of 35 or 36 (bless the late bloomers), reinvent himself as a stylistic innovator who pushed the boundaries of how we define poetry--who, more than any other American writer, changed the course of our national letters.




Vigil strange I kept on the field one night,
When you, my son and my comrade, dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave, which your dear eyes return'd, with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine, O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
Till late in the night reliev'd, to the place at last again I made my way,
Found you in death so cold, dear comrade--found your body, son of responding
......kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight--curious the scene--cool blew the moderate
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet, there in the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh--long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining, sat by your side, leaning my chin in my
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you, dearest comrade--
......not a tear, not a word,
Vigil of silence, love and death--vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,
Vigil final for you, brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living--I think we shall surely meet again,)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head, and carefully under feet,
And there and then, and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his
......rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that--vigil of night and battle-field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain--vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground, and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.


Suggested Reading

The Essential Walt Whitman, selected by Galway Kinnell (The Ecco Press, 1987)
Walt Whitman: A Life, Justin Kaplan (Bantam Books/Simon & Schuster, 1980)
Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, Jerome Loving (University of California Press, 1999)
From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman, Philip Callow (Elephant Paperbacks, 1992)
Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, David Reynolds (Vintage Books, 1996)
The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War, Roy Morris, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 2000)
The Sacrificial Years: A Chronicle of Walt Whitman's Experiences in the Civil War, John Harmon McElroy, Ed. (David R. Godine, 1999)
Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, Eds. (Holy Cow! Press, 1998)
Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, Vols. I and II, Edwin Haviland Miller, ed. (New York University Press, 1961)
"Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals," Martin G. Murray (Washington History, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall/Winter, 1996-97)

I also highly recommend the following web sites:

The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review:
The Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman and American Culture, sponsored by the US Dept. of Education:
The Walt Whitman Archive, sponsored by the University of Virginia:




Thanks are due to the following people for their generous assistance: Martin G. Murray, founder of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, Andrea Carter Brown, a poet and passionate Whitman researcher, Alice Birney, Literary Manuscript Historian of the Library of Congress, and Gail Redmann, Vice President for the Research Library and Collections at the DC Historical Society.