Walt Whitman on the Civil War - Notebooks, Prose, Poetry

Today we celebrate this beloved American poet born May 31, 1819. EDSITEment offers resources on Walt Whitman whose poetry and notebooks convey the Civil War in a most direct and poignant manner. Through his writing students gain insight into the human experience of suffering and grief in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the War. His Civil War experience along with other episodes from his fascinating life are featured in the NEH funded American Experience PBS documentary on Walt Whitman (no longer available online) including The Teacher's Guide.

In his early writing, Walt Whitman set out to explore ideas universal in scope. EDSITEment lesson Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe directs students to seek clues to this poet’s effort to create a new and distinctly American form of verse. Of special interest to English teachers using this lesson is Activity 2. Whitman and the Civil War. Here students work with Walt Whitman's words in three different formats—notebooks, prose, poetry—to deepen their understanding of Whitman's process. Using Whitman's writing as well as Civil War photographs and poems created from Whitman notebook entries, student groups are challenged to create a presentation for the class that demonstrates the connections between the materials they have analyzed.

Another EDSITEment lesson Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy explores the historical context of Whitman's concept of "democratic poetry" and examines daguerreotypes taken circa 1850. Both lessons illustrate how Whitman was determined to express truth through verse using authentic American situations and settings with language that appealed to the senses. The Civil War would provide him with ample opportunity.

Walt Whitman’s notebooks available through the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project illustrate the Poet at Work and capture wrenching images that war evoked for him. The article, Daybreak Gray and Dim: How the Civil War Changed Walt Whitman’s Poetry from NEH Humanities magazine, characterizes Whitman’s first response to the call of war: “BEAT! beat! Drums! — blow! bugles! blow!” Haunting scenes of human suffering shape his maturing response to the war and find their way into this tender musing upon “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” available at the NEH-funded Walt Whitman Archive, that will lead him to minister to soldiers through the end of the war.

Was Whitman prescient when he declared his early ideals in Democratic Vistas (available on the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia)? “In the future of these States must arise poets immenser far, and make great poems of death. The poems of life are great, but there must be the poems of the purports of life, not only in itself, but beyond itself.” Whitman was himself destined to write the nation’s quintessential poem on life, death, and rebirth. When Lilacs Last in the dooryard Bloom’d articulates America’s grief upon President Lincoln’s untimely death in this lament of a stricken nation as it watches the train with Lincoln’s body make its way across the country to its final resting place. A critical discussion of this elegy with its three archetypal symbols — the lilac, the star, and the hermit thrush — is found at the Whitman Archive.




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