Â Â Â Â After reading the fifty-six (!!) page biography of Whitman, I decided to focus this blog on the â€śtale of the jetblack sunrise,â€ť on pages 66-67. What got me interested was the biographyâ€™s mention that Whitmanâ€™s poetry about war and death was (not surprisingly) drastically changed by his hospital work. However, since Iâ€™m still pretty ignorant about Whitman, I have to wonder what hisÂ antebellum war poetry was like, and what changed about it. Well, hereâ€™s my examination of the â€śjetblack sunrise.â€ť
Â Â Â Â The way in which the tale is told stands out: with the â€śHear now the taleâ€¦ of the murder in cold blood,â€ť the narrator keeps the booming, larger-than-life tone of the rest of Song. It is a tone that brings Beowulf to mind, instead of a Victorian or Puritan voice. Therefore, it is fitting for Whitmanâ€™s view of the United States as a new frontier. And it is that frontier mentality that soon reveals itself in the story.
Â Â Â Â Like the naval stories that follow, the â€śjetblack sunriseâ€ť is about underdogs. The underdogs are not trained and schooled soldiers though: these 412 men, â€śNot a single one over thirty years of age,â€ť are â€śthe glory of the race of rangersâ€ť (67). These young men are the children of Americaâ€™s ever-expanding western border, those used to persevering through difficult circumstances to carve out a life for themselves. That they find themselves surrounded in a military situation only mirrors the harsh wilderness that surrounded them at home.
Â Â Â Â The use of these characters shows Whitmanâ€™s fascination with the lower classes of people, those that appeared to live out the simplicity that he extols in Song of Myself. The fact that they are underdogs reflects Whitmanâ€™s feelings towards the establishment. After all, well-schooled, overtly-religious children of wealthy families would be terribly out of place in a poem written by a mostly self-educated, working-class man speaking out against organized religion. The characters are idealized though: the narratorâ€™s voice drowns out anything that might ruin his romantic scenario. The fighters do not have their own voice here, nor do they even have any physical characteristics to separate them from one another.
Â Â Â Â The final aspect that Iâ€™ll look at is the betrayal, and execution, of these men by their anonymous enemies. In what seems like a jab at Christianity, the men are betrayed on a Sunday morning, although the business is finished by eight (presumably early enough that the men could still attend services) and the burning of the bodies begins at eleven (after services might have finished). The men die in a variety of ways, but we are left with the chilling final image of men covered in the blood of a seventeen year old.
Â Â Â Â So, how might Whitmanâ€™s war poetry progress from here? For one, the biography specifically mentions how Whitman sought to give a voice to the soldiers that he visited in the hospitals. His soldiers presumably fill out, changing from idealized icons into individuals. Perhaps even the passage read by Dr. Earnhart last class about the wounded soldierâ€™s stump of an arm provides an adequate example of this, when contrasted with the broader strokes that paint the assailants of this poemâ€™s seventeen year old. Along those lines, it is doubtful that Whitman saw only pre-thirties, frontier-born soldiers during his hospital work. Men from across the U.S. would have passed before Whitmanâ€™s eyes, all worthy of dying with dignity, regardless of their background. Finally, it is eerily prophetic that the men of the â€śjetblack sunriseâ€ť are killed by men using bayonets and muskets, weapons like their own. No foreign â€śotherâ€ť is identified here, which points to the way in which citizens would fight their fellow citizens in the coming Civil War.
Hopefully, I will be able to see for myselfÂ how Whitmanâ€™s war writing evolves over time in the coming weeks.