For the First Time in 150 Years: Walt Whitman’s Civil War ‘Drum-Taps’


“I intend to move heaven & earth to publish my ‘Drum-Taps’ as soon as I am able to go around,” Walt Whitman told his friend William O’Connor in 1864, after a mysterious illness, likely contracted from the hospital where he nursed soldiers, claimed his health for a time. The American Civil War was in its third year, and Leaves of Grass in its third edition. With his new book of Civil War poems, Whitman meant to advocate a re-union, a reconciliation, an end to the war, and a continuation of the spirit of democracy set in motion by his earlier work. He wanted Drum-Taps to “express in a poem…the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in…with the unprecedented anguish and suffering, the beautiful young men, in wholesale death & agony.” The following January, as the war neared its conclusion, Whitman wrote again to O’Connor, explaining that the now fairly completed Drum-Taps was “superior to Leaves of Grass — certainly more perfect as a work of art.’’ Adding that although it may appear that the poems were ‘‘let loose with wildest abandon, the true artist can see it is yet under control.’’

Only Whitman could not, on this score, control his own feelings. Soon, Lawrence Kramer writes in the introduction to the new NYRB edition of Drum-Taps, “Whitman changed his mind…[and] having done so he took Drum-Taps in hand and tore it apart.” After initially self-publishing the book as a complete work of poetry, with its own empathetic logic and poetic arc, Whitman began rolling the poems into Leaves of Grass. Why, exactly, we do not know; Kramer speculates that Whitman wanted a “single ever-expanding poem” to go along with a “single ever-expanding nation.” As a result of Whitman’s caprice, only 38 of the original 71 poems featured in Drum-Taps and its sequel were to remain in later editions of Leaves of Grass.

The original version of Drum-Taps has never been published again in its entirety — until now. The NYRB version out this month is the complete 1865 edition that features not only familiar poems, like “O Captain my Captain!” and the masterful elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,” but also the remaining 33 poems that Whitman published at the close of the war. The collection now published in its entirety is indispensable. From the prelude “Drum-Taps,” familiar to readers of Leaves of Grass, which sees the island of Manhattan stir itself awake in preparation for war —

A shock electric—the night sustain’d it; Till with ominous hum, our hive at day-break, pour’d out its myriads. From the houses then, and the workshops, and through all the doorways, Leapt they tumultuous—and lo! Manhattan arming.

— to its aftermath and “Reconciliation.” Where the good Adams and good atoms of his song were once breathing, they now must be revived:

…For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead; I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near; I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Often shorter, more stanzaic, as Kramer notes, the poems of Drum-Taps reveal a Whitman driven by a new formal intensity, one met, too, by a perhaps more permeable self both stretched and pressurized by his consolatory experience of the war. This polyphonic Whitman is “let loose with wild abandon,” as the poet himself said, but he is paradoxically still in control, as when the language and elegiac tenor of the “isle of wondrous beauty” enters into his voice in “Old Ireland”:

The Lord is not dead— he is risen again, young and strong, in another country; Even while you wept there by your fallen harp, by the grave, What you wept for, was translated, pass’d from the grave, The winds favor’d, and the sea sail’d it, And now with rosy and new blood, Moves to-day in a new country.

When we read Whitman’s explanation, years later, that Drum-Taps had been arranged by “fits and starts, on the field, in the hospitals, as I worked with the soldier boys,” we can almost hear the sound of the poems in his head — the recurring pangs, as if wood is striking metal. These pangs, which we can hear growing louder again today, are softened only by the book’s closing observation, one that means everything 150 years later, in the version that Whitman originally intended it:

The Northern ice and rain, that began me, nourish me to the end; But the hot sun of the South is to ripen my songs.