Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Text Discussion #11: Reconciliation - Drum Taps


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.

I was first introduced to this poem in Vaughn Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem.  At that time, what struck me the most was the personification of Death and Night and how those two constants in life rejuvenated the world.

To me, this poem is echoed in Wilfred Owen's poem, "Strange Meeting," that is set so effectively at the end of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.  While not an outright reflection of Whitman's poem, Owen makes again the allusion to an after-the-battle relationship between enemies.  Here with Whitman we have the survivor of the battle making amends with the slain enemy.  In Owen's poem, the newly slain Allied soldier arrives in the Underworld and is met by an Axis soldier he killed in battle.  The Axis soldier explains who he is and they sleep together in peace, pointing out that both sides meet in the same place in the end, regardless of their differences.  Both poems emphasize the peace that comes after the battle and the reconciliation among enemies, and both do this by putting the enemies together in very intimate and visually powerful circumstances: a funeral and the grave.

This poem's title also suggests the reconciliation of life and death by pointing out that we all share at least one thing in common, death, as Linda Sue Grimes points out in her criticism of the poem.  She goes on to point out the religious undertones of this poem by highlighting the scriptural references to Whitman's use of "Word" as an allusion to God, and drawing a line from Whitman's soldier deciding to kiss the dead enemy rather than curse him to the scripture saying "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you."  (Matthew 5: 43, 44)

In this poem Whitman is also pointing out that even in the brutality of war, beauty can be found.  That beauty is as simple as the fact that the war will end, and the land will heal with the hard feelings between the enemies.  Time will erase it all leaving only the non-tangible trinkets of memories (which die with their holder) and the written record left to be interpreted by generations many times removed from the actual event.

The moment between the two soldiers is also touching.  Whitman's description is very powerful and illustrative.  In just two lines he boldly paints the scene of the dead body in the coffin.  You can imagine the coldness the living soldier feels as he bends to kiss the dead.  He kisses the slain man "lightly" suggesting a reverence and perhaps even a little trepidation for the act.  He also realizes that the man lying in the coffin, stripped of the rhetoric of the enemy, is a man same as him.

The poem taken as a whole leads to a washing away of the ugliness of the war while also tying up the confrontation between the embattled participants, and all in six lines.

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