As so many of us celebrate American Independence Day with what we might consider healthy doses of our martial history, perhaps this proclivity should be leavened with some reverence for one of our most sympathetic souls. Walt Whitman was born in Brooklyn one hundred and ninety years ago and grew into a man whose patriotism was indistinguishable from his sensitivity to nature and the suffering of his fellow citizens. From among many elements of his development, this note from an online biography.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a “purged” and “cleansed” life. He wrote freelance journalism and visited the wounded at New York-area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war.
Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.
Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk’s salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him “purses” of money so that he could get by.
Penury aside, his legacy would have been quite different had he served as a general or president, much less a captain of industry, rather than a poet. What this says about us he says all the better, with much greater elegance and precision, here in Death of a Nature-Lover, from 1843.
Not in a gorgeous hall of pride
Where tears fall thick, and loved ones sigh,
Wished he, when the dark hour approached
To drop his veil of flesh, and die.
Amid the thundercrash of strife,
Where hovers War’s ensanguined cloud,
And bright swords flash and banners fly
Above the wounds, and groans, and blood.
Not there—not there! Death’s look he’d cast
Around a furious tiger’s den,
Rather than in the monstrous sight
Of the red butcheries of men.
Days speed: the time for that last look
Upon this glorious earth has come:
The Power he served so well vouchsafes
The sun to shine, the flowers to bloom.
Just ere the closing of the day,
His fainting limbs he needs will have
Borne out into the fresh free air,
Where sweet shrubs grow, and proud trees wave.
At distance, o’er the pleasant fields,
A bay by misty vapors curled,
He gazes on, and thinks the haven
For which to leave a grosser world.
He sorrows not, but smiles content,
Dying there in that fragrant place,
Gazing on blossom, field, and bay,
As on their Maker’s very face.
The cloud-arch bending overhead,
There, at the setting of the sun
He bids adieu to earth, and steps
Down to the World Unknown.
* * *
Independence Day, indeed.