Thursday, March 28, 2013

Give me comrades and lovers by the thousand! - cumulative Whitman

This is one entire poem from Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps:

A Farm Picture

Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding.  (p. 46)

It does not seem like much of a poem, or much of anything.  On its own, surrounded by white space, as in this 1902 edition, it is a puzzle.  But in 1865 it was here, in the lower left corner:

“A Sight in Camp in the Day-break Grey and Dim” precedes it.  The “sight” is three corpses, each under an “ample brownish woolen blanket.”  The sun has risen enough to give enough light to see the faces of the dead, one old, one a child, and one

the face of Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Then follows “A Farm Picture,” as if the movie has cut to another scene.  Just as in a film, I quickly, intuitively create a meaningful way to link the scenes together.  The sun links the two poems.  Is the farm scene the home of the dead soldier?  Or is it the observer who turns his thoughts to the “sight” of the “peaceful” countryside?

The next poem is – my hunch was right! – “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” which begins with a series of “Give me”s:

Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling;
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard;
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows;
Give me fresh corn and wheat – give me serene-moving animals, teaching content;

And on like that, although the important thing is that the sun, field, and animals have been checked off, culminating in:

Give me solitude – give me Nature – give me again, O Nature, your primal sanities!
 – These, demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless excitement, and rack’d by the war-strife;)

“These” meaning the things the poet is demanding.  He is asking for peace and renewal, a respite from death, “odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers” rather than a line of corpses.

In what is almost a plot twist, though, the poet reveals that “still I adhere to the city,” and in the second part of the poem rethinks and retracts his demands (“Keep you splendid silent sun”) in exchange for the crowds of the city.  As a solace for death, he demands people:

Give me interminable eyes!  give me women!  give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day!  let me hold new ones by the hand every day!

The crowds include soldiers on their way to war.  By the end of the poem, the poet, perhaps like Whitman a volunteer nurse, is ready for “even the sight of the wounded.”

I do not think “A Sight in the Camp” or “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” are especially good poems, either, although they have a lot more heft than the “Farm Picture” fragment.  But they have a lot more meaning read together than separately, and in fact also contain images or phrases from other poems in Drum-Taps, deepening the better I know the book.

This does not always work, reading a poetry book in its original form.  Many of them are better off chopped up and squeezed into the poet’s Selected Poems.  But not necessarily this one.

Tomorrow is a holiday for me.  Thank goodness.  I will be back on Monday with an exciting post about Jonathan Franzen.  Oh yes, you’ll see.


  1. I do not know Pound so well, so it took me three tries to figure out what you meant. But, finally, yes, yes it is, isn't it?