Which The Bullet Could Never Kill

Wounded Civil War Soldiers Recovering at a Washington Hospital

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

How Solemn as One by One

by Walt Whitman
(Washington City, 1865.)

How solemn as one by one,
As the ranks returning worn and sweaty, as the men file by where I
. . . . stand,
As the faces the masks appear, as I glance at the faces studying the
. . . masks,
(As I glance upward out of this page studying you, dear friend,
. . . . whoever you are,)
How solemn the thought of my whispering soul to each in the ranks,
. . . . and to you,
I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,
. O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
. Nor the bayonet stab what you really are;
The soul! yourself I see, great as any, good as the best,
Waiting secure and content, which the bullet could never kill,
. Nor the bayonet stab O friend.


I erred in an earlier post this month when I suggested that American poetry did not evolve during the Civil War.  Spending a month thinking about a war I have not given enough thought in my life, reading various articles and poems, I have come to a different frame of reference.  In particular I did not give enough credence to the impact the war had on Walt Whitman’s poetry and how his free verse went on to have a huge influence on American literature in the 20th century.  Having read the collected works of Whitman years ago, I was aware of his time spent in Washington hospitals and his daily ritual from January of 1863 to the end of the war of providing a human touch to wounded soldiers recuperating in Union hospitals.  But I hadn’t pondered how Whitman’s civil war experience would reshape even the work he had written prior to the war, as Whitman was well known for re-writing, re-editing his poetry over and over, including the influence it had on Whitman’s most significant work, Leaves of Grass. 

Whitman’s path to care-giving for Union soldiers began in December of 1862, when he left Brooklyn to search for his brother, George, whom he feared was injured in the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Whitman did not find his brother in Washington, so he traveled on to Virginia, where he was relieved to find his brother only slightly wounded, at the Union army camp at Falmouth.  Whitman was deeply affected by what he witnessed at the front lines and decided to support the Union cause the only way he knew how, by moving to Washington to care for sick and wounded soldiers. For the remainder of the war, he visited patients daily in hospitals located throughout the city. Whitman spent his days listening to soldiers stories, writing letters for them to family members, bringing them little gifts such as fresh oranges and licorice candy, but most important he was present at their bedside when friends and family could not.   

The two poems presented today are from his volume of poetry written during this period, Drum Taps.  His poem below I found particularly striking, in that it ponders the difficult question that every Civil War and genocide creates – how can countrymen and women kill each other?   If we can not see our shared humanity with those that share the same citizenship then how can we relate to the rest of the planet?  At a time of rising nationalism in countries around the world, it maybe time to rethink the concept of statehood, and like Whitman, reshape it from a geography to a state of mind. 

Long, Too Long America

by Walt Whitman

Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and
. . . prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing,
grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse
. . . really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse
. . . really are?)