Sam Krieg for September 1 (Antebellum War Poetry)

     After reading the fifty-six (!!) page biography of Whitman, I decided to focus this blog on the “tale of the jetblack sunrise,” on pages 66-67. What got me interested was the biography’s mention that Whitman’s poetry about war and death was (not surprisingly) drastically changed by his hospital work. However, since I’m still pretty ignorant about Whitman, I have to wonder what his antebellum war poetry was like, and what changed about it. Well, here’s my examination of the “jetblack sunrise.”

     The way in which the tale is told stands out: with the “Hear now the tale… of the murder in cold blood,” 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 Whitman’s view of the United States as a new frontier. And it is that frontier mentality that soon reveals itself in the story.

     Like the naval stories that follow, the “jetblack sunrise” is about underdogs. The underdogs are not trained and schooled soldiers though: these 412 men, “Not a single one over thirty years of age,” are “the glory of the race of rangers” (67). These young men are the children of America’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.

     The use of these characters shows Whitman’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 Whitman’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 narrator’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.

     The final aspect that I’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.

     So, how might Whitman’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 soldier’s stump of an arm provides an adequate example of this, when contrasted with the broader strokes that paint the assailants of this poem’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 Whitman’s eyes, all worthy of dying with dignity, regardless of their background. Finally, it is eerily prophetic that the men of the “jetblack sunrise” are killed by men using bayonets and muskets, weapons like their own. No foreign “other” 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 myself how Whitman’s war writing evolves over time in the coming weeks.

August 30 2009 06:21 pm | Uncategorized

4 Responses to “Sam Krieg for September 1 (Antebellum War Poetry)”

  1. Brady Earnhart Says:

    Not to start any fights, but does it seem odd to you that Whitman shows no doubt over the right of the U.S. to seize Texas from Mexico?

  2. chelseanewnam Says:

    I, too, am interested in the direction Whitman’s war poetry will take. After reading your post, I went back to the biography to zero in on the sections discussing Whitman’s direct involvement with the war and became even more interested. In the pages of “Song of Myself” discussing the “jetblack sunrise” it is interesting that his story formulates in a decently straightforward manner; it almost functions as a chronology or timeline. The bookend statements that contain the phrase open and close the event in an almost jarring manner. Whitman even relates the times that certain events took place and leaves us with, “At eleven o’clock began the burning of the bodies; / And that is the tale of the murder of the four hundred and twelve young men, / And that was a jetblack sunrise”(67). His urgent and almost robotic language here makes the event even more eerie and tragic.

    Additionally, I find the analogy of this massacre to a “jetblack sunrise” quite interesting, particularly in relation to Whitman’s mention of a sunrise earlier in, “Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me” (52). Here it seems that he is playing with the idea that poets (assuming the speaker and Whitman are one in the same here) can avoid the tragedy that accompanies this type of ravage because they are always creating and breathing life into new things. Black is often a symbol of death, as it is undoubtedly here, and Whitman uses the sunrise to symbolize creation, therefore this “jetblack sunrise” is not just a tragic battle, but literal death of creation.

  3. Erin Longbottom Says:

    The way you describe Whitman’s tone at the beginning of this section = spot on. This section really stuck out to me for some reason on first reading, and you have made it clear why. After I read your analysis I went back and re-read the “jetblack sunrise” section. The point you bring up about the way the soldiers aren’t individuals in this section is something that I hadn’t thought about when reading it the first time. When I re-read the section with your analysis in mind it seemed almost odd incomparison to the rest of the poem the way Whitman strips this group of people of an individual identity. Especially considering the way he talks about other people in the poem in a very intimate and indivual sense. From my own perspective it seems that a lot of times writers tend to blend soldiers into one solid group instead of giving them their own personalities, so maybe Whitman was merely operating from a technique or style he had read before?
    I haven’t read any of his war poetry before, so it will be an interesting as we begin to study it to see how he develops the individuality of the soldiers in his work. Awesome post!
    – Erin

  4. Sam Protich Says:

    Sam (and no, Whitmanesque solipsism aside, I am not talking to myself), you make an invaluable observation about Whitman’s idealization of “the underdog,” by which “the narrator’s voice drowns out anything that might ruin his romantic scenario.” One of my chief misgivings about the worldview that Whitman’s poem advances (however circuitously) regards this exact problem: the rugged, hearty, unfettered wholesomeness of his ideal man, embodied of course by himself.
    His vision of the underdog seems highly conditional. Poor? Why not? But male? Probably, since the roving and even “wicked” roguishness of Whitman’s various self-projections seems to little consider the stationary domesticity demanded of almost all women in nineteenth-century America, but not imposed as heavily on men. Most importantly, is this “underdog” physically capable, a fine specimen? Of course, he must be! By situating his description of individual liberation deep within the terms of physical potency, Whitman seems to suggest that “no pale, shut-in or invalided askers need apply.” Though he purports to hold every object, and so presumably every person, in its place and see it as “good,” his preoccupation with roaming and physical virulence significantly narrows the poem’s range of practical peers. This exclusion leaves us with still more questions. Does he contradict himself? Sure. But further: does that count as hypocrisy?

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