Memorial Day this year has an extra significance. May 31st, 2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s great poets, Walt Whitman, born May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York.
It is worth remembering on this day (which used to be called Remembrance Day) that this holiday began in commemoration of those who died in America’s Civil War. Whitman served as a part-time military hospital visitor, comforting the wounded in that worst of all our country’s wars and some of his most tender and touching poems came from that experience.
“Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood;
The crowd, oh the crowd of bloody forms of soldiers—the yard outside also filled;
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating;
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls;
The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches…”
It is worth remembering, especially nowadays, that his war didn’t have to happen, that ours is the only nation that didn’t abolish slavery peacefully but instead was one whose politicians arrogantly turned its citizens against each other and into armed camps. At first he was excited to see the northern states in arms to preserve the union but neither he nor anyone else seems to have foreseen the consequences:
“Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge endless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resigned myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.”
This too, is worth remembering now in 2019, at a time when we are engaged in a seemingly endless war and while some of our neighbors here in the Umpqua country are arming themselves and preparing to fight against our federal government in the improbable belief that it might soon be necessary.
It must have been extremely painful for Walt Whitman to see his nation divided. The poet was a sensitive soul and held an expansive, all-inclusive view of American democracy, like our own national kindly uncle. He seems to have immersed himself joyfully in our personal and geographical diversity like a dog rolling on a summer lawn. In Leaves of Grass, his monumental life’s work, we find a willing acceptance of everyone and of everything and a belief that the democratic process was, at heart, a mass enactment of love.
“Of Equality—as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same.”
Despite the horrors of war and the pain of his nation’s divided sympathies, he had a great faith in his country’s future and that, too, is worth remembering. He found plenty of reasons for optimism in looking to our founding principles as a grand experiment in creating an open society, free from the constraints of European manners and strictures.
“Over the carnage rose a prophetic voice,
Be not dishearten’d—Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet;
Those who love each other shall become invincible—they shall yet make Columbia victorious.”
It is, perhaps, not too late to remember Walt Whitman and how he had such great hopes for us, the future generations of our country. You never know, it just might do us all some good.