Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
In a few words, Whitman captures a moment of extraordinary, almost unbearable beauty—Whitman, who had lost one soldier brother to death and another to capture as a Southern prisoner, Whitman who had worked as a nurse among the maimed and the dead in the army hospitals, Whitman kneels and kisses the face of a fallen foe. There is an American tendency to talk about the Civil War as nothing but a tragedy, which Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out misses half the point—the Civil War wasn’t so much a violent tragedy as a spilling over into the world of white Americans the two and a half centuries of violent tragedy that had been endured by the enslaved. To the extent that any war can be called good (I hear you, Edna), a war that brings an end to slavery has to be seen as a good act—just as we praise the Second World War for ending Hitler’s genocides. But in another sense (with respect to Ta-Nehisi), war has to be considered a tragedy, and a war that pitted a nation against itself, and many families against themselves, is certainly no less tragic than usual.
Into this maelstrom steps Whitman with a poem that wastes no time getting down to business. The word that fills him with joy and fascinates him is our title word, “reconciliation”, a word so strong that as he says “war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost” (what a hopeful sentiment, and incidentally what a perfectly crafted phrase!). I’ll confess that I have too many ideas about how to take the sisters Death and Night—is he hailing the passage of time and its effect on memory, is he looking forward to the progress humanity will make with each passing day and generation, or? I like the openness of the phrase, anyway, and the space it makes in a small poem.
And then the body in the coffin—divine, of course, because Whitman is as fascinated by the idea of “divinity” as perhaps any poet ever has been—and the simple elegance of the prose as Whitman gazes on the face and bends to kiss it. In 1865, when this poem is published, a nation has to be ready for reconciliation in order to survive and move forward, and Whitman shows us how unexpectedly simple it can be to reconcile. There’s a lot of power here (some of it reminiscent for me of Priam, with his lips on the hands of the man who killed his son, in Book 24 of The Iliad) and I like that Whitman avoids the 19th Century tendency to make emotion overly florid and weighed down with sentimental flourishes. The poem packs a punch because it gets into its idea and its central image as quickly as it can, and stops, letting the impact resound in a quiet space. Papa Walt knew what he was doing.
I don’t know if I’ll come back to Whitman again next week, but I will tangle with Leaves of Grass, for certain, before too many more months pass. I have to get my head up from the 1930s now and then and see the lay of the land.