Stride on, Democracy! Strike with Vengeful Stroke!
by Stephen Schwartz
A WASHINGTON POST, Style section feature today--Let Slip the Poets of War--manages to completely misrepresent the work of Walt Whitman, recasting The Good, Gray Poet as a patron of the antiwar constituency among versifiers.
Such an outcome was predictable. The vast horde of lousy poets who pullulate in America today have annexed Whitman, based on his innovative meters, his populism, and his alleged sexual ambivalence. Thus Wil Haygood, the Post staff writer, describes Whitman as "seared" by the Civil War and as "writ[ing] of dazed soldiers returning to the nation's capital." He cites:
I see behind that mask the wonder of a kindred soul,
Haygood goes on to quote an academic, David Citino of Ohio State, who asserts, "Whitman would identify with the soldier who was wounded, who was dying."
What hooey. Whitman was not only not the 19th century equivalent of a peacenik, he was an unapologetic warmonger who saw America as a triumphant, liberating power, using its military might to bring freedom to the world. At the beginning of "Drum-Taps," he wrote,
War! An arm'd race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning way,
One of Whitman's greatest poems, "Rise O Days From Your Fathomless Deeps," includes the lines,
Thunder on! Stride on, Democracy! strike with vengeful stroke! . . .
In his "Song of the Banner at Daybreak," Whitman averred,
No longer let our children deem us riches and peace alone,
Whitman was, to emphasize, an eloquent partisan of America at war. He wrote, in lines taken from various works,
You shall yet scorn the attacks of all the remainder of the earth . . .
RACE of veterans! Race of victors!
Nor did Whitman concern himself alone with the suffering of soldiers. Here is the final stanza of his magnificent "Beat! Beat! Drums!," written at the beginning of the Civil War:
Beat! beat! drums!--Blow! bugles! blow!
Here is how Whitman wrote "To a Certain Civilian:"
DID you ask dulcet rhymes from me?
These lines apply to today's poetasters, with unparalleled accuracy. But even more relevant to our nation, today, are Whitman's immortal lines, "Long, Too Long America:"
LONG, too long, O land,
And finally, the Civil War ended, he wrote his classic "Turn O Libertad," in which he foresaw new wars for freedom, across the globe:
TURN, O Libertad, for the war is over,
That is the authentic voice of the Walt Whitman we should love, our Poet, in the Washington from which the great wars for freedom are fought, no less than in the Manhattan to which he was devoted--and whom we need to restore to an exalted position in our schools, and in our hearts.