In the garden of Chatham House in Fredericksburg, Virginia, there's a two-hundred-year-old sycamore that was there when Walt Whitman visited in 1862, in the middle of the American Civil War. The old tree tolerates with dignity two upstart catalpas, and modern front gates which incorporate in wrought iron the first few bars of 'Home Sweet Home'. Whitman had travelled to Fredericksburg to trace his brother who had been wounded in the recent battle. The home-sweet-home that had been Chatham was now a field hospital, and under that sycamore Whitman found something that changed both his life and his poetry.
It was 'a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart...human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening', and nearby, "several dead bodies . . . each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket." Rather than go away, nurse his shock and try to exorcise it in poetry, for the rest of the Civil War Whitman devoted himself to volunteer hospital visiting and nursing. It is an episode in his life which has earned him the greatest admiration.
He sat up night after night with the wounded and dying, talking with them and reading to them, taking them in his arms. He made lists of their requests, from books and tobacco to a young man's plea to him to find a Lutheran minister, and returned bearing whatever gifts he could. When a soldier died, he wrote long letters to the family, each one done first in rough draft and then fair copy. He took on the work of a nursing orderly, cleaning and dressing wounds, removing the bloody debris of operations.
His hospital experiences turned him into the first great war poet of modern times. It's a poetry of experience, the early drafts of poems often written in breaks between hospital watches. When we read 'The Wound Dresser', for example, we know it is first hand experience - as much so as when Owen decscribes a gas attack in the trenches.
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look'd on it.
Every good poet knows when not to use 'poetic' language: in this straggling but dignified and beautiful sentence Whitman conveys without metaphor or any other poetic folderols, the impact of war on one of its victims - the one who now receives his single-minded care and attention, yet who at the same time represents every other.
The same poem brings into the brutality of war a singular tenderness. Its source is the common compassion that Whitman shares with all the best of humanity, but his homosexuality refines this into an intimate tenderness and affection.
Thus in silence in dreams' projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
During his visit to Fredericksburg, while he spent a few days in camp with his brother George, Whitman had another encounter with the dead, which gave rise to his great poem 'A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak':
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
There is an almost indescribable gentleness here that seems to inhabit the very air itself, and certainly flows like a balm in Gilead from the poet himself, in his observation of the 'ample, folding, covering' blankets, the 'light fingers' with which he lifts each blanket, and the tender sorrow in his contemplation of the dead face. He passes on to the next:
Then to the second I step - and who are you my dear child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
But it is the third victim who prompts the simple - even obvious, some might say - insight that justifies the poem and rightly makes it famous.
Then to the third - a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you - I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
'Everything that lives is holy', said William Blake. In this poem, Whitman is Blake speaking with an American accent. His invocation of the Christ is not prompted by maudlin religiosity, any more than Blake's when he told a young friend, 'Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived - and so am I, and so are you.' And we don't have to be Christian to take these lines on board - the life and death of this beautiful young man under the enfolding blanket is as valuable as that of the greatest human being who ever lived - whether that be the Christ or some other paragon. I have suggested that this wisdom might be taken as rather obvious - but if it is, it seems to me one of the least acknowledged of all obvious truths.
'A face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory' - are we in Virginia in 1862, or Iraq in 2006? Well, if it were Iraq the skin colour would be a little different. The innocents shot by marines in Haditha - including children and an old man in a wheelchair; the eleven, including a six-month-old baby, murdered in Ishaqi: these are only two instances out of many cited by the Iraqi Prime Minister when he recently accused Americans of committing daily violence against unarmed civilians. Yet it could equally be said of any young American killed by a roadside bomb: 'Young man I think I know you'.
Their simple language, and Whitman's unerring sense of what is universal, make his Civil War poems timeless. He pioneered a modern tradition of anti-war poetry that languished for a while between his war collection Drum Taps (1865) and the poets of 1914-18, but then came alive again and has continued almost unbroken ever since. Something about the First World War combined with the particular sensibilities of young men such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg - and many others; these are only the most celebrated - to produce a collective outcry against the whole concept and practice of war.
This outcry was a new thing under the sun - a paradigm shift. Of course, the massive scale of the war had a good deal to do with it: in any one of those innumerable insane charges across no man's land, fifty thousand soldiers - most of them only a year or two out of school - would die in a single morning. (Though we must remember there were 18,000 killed or wounded in one day at Fredericksburg.) Among many who survived there was a growing resentment too against the excessive powers claimed by the old monarchies, powers that allowed them to slaughter a whole generation of their own people in pursuit of their imperial ambitions. It was grotesque to consider that the stupid, pig-headed Nicholas Romanov could summon peasant boys from east of the Urals, many of whom did not even know where Germany was, and send them to their deaths in a mire of mud and blood. Nothing in human history is a complete negative, however: at least the war brought the absurd power of Ho henzollerns, Hapsburgs and Romanovs to an end.
But as it did so it began a new dynasty of anti-war writers and artists. As times and wars changed, the poetry evolved. Poets of the Spanish Civil War are, understandably, much more partisan. Like those of earlier wars, they too lament the deaths of comrades, but much of their passion is directed against Franco and his cronies who, with an army of Moroccan mercenaries and the support of Hitler and Mussolini, set out to destroy a functioning democracy and replace it with dictatorship. In 'Explico algunas cosas' (I explain a few things) Pablo Neruda begins by describing in richly sensuous and figurative language - unlike so much of Whitman's - his suburb of Madrid as it had been before the war:
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake...
the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather-vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes down to the sea.
When all this is destroyed by war, Neruda's grief is unmistakeable. It is reflected in the Whitmanesque plainness of his expression, especially in the simile that isn't a simile - children's blood flows like children's blood. No longer the statue fancifully compared with an inkwell in a fountain of fish; simply the blood of murdered children that runs in the streets like children's blood. But in this war it is not only a matter of expressing grief for the dead.
...from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars making blessings,
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.
Though blood was shed by the defenders of Spanish democracy as well as by the fascists, the two sides in this war are not the same for Neruda. Franco and his crew were no better than bandits. They represented privilege, religious hierarchy and political reaction, and meant to put these things in unassailable power against the democratic will. During their advance through Estremadura towards Madrid, in every town and village they were sure to do two things: celebrate mass in the main church, and shoot as many socialists and other democrats as they could find.
This is the poem that ends with the celebrated lines:
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!
The first line is given like an invitation, but then it's almost as if the reader has been too diffident, as if he has responded with a shrug. As the poet repeats his invitation, it becomes perhaps not quite a command but a more insistent plea. The line-breaks insist that we see, not merely read about it either in this poem or anywhere else; and also that we see the blood - not a mere mental picture of 'blood running in the streets' - a phrase we've heard before, almost a cliche drained of its substance. We must avoid the neutralising effects of distance. If we can't actually go and see, we must imagine ourselves on the streets of Guernica, Madrid or Barcelona after a fascist air-raid; we must evoke in our imagination the immediacy of the slaughter of innocents.
Finally, skipping many wars and many poets, we return to the Iraq where we might well encounter Whitman's beautiful boy with the face of the Christ. Much of the English-language anti-war poetry being written now is American, and gives voice to a growing awareness among Americans of where their current leaders are taking them, and a growing challenge to the legitimacy of the US military presence in every continent. I leave the reader to explore. The quality of the poems is mixed, as you would expect; this is 21st century work not yet pigeon-holed by time into good, bad and indifferent.
One last word. A good deal - perhaps too much - of contemporary poetry is inward-looking, some would say narcissistic. Its raw material is the emotional upheavals of personal life and relationships. At its best, it offers real insights and has the same sense of universality and timelessness that seldom let Whitman down; where it is too private, it succeeds less well or not at all. But in our time as much as any other we need poets who write about the collective experience - not only the negatives of war or poverty, but shared affirmation and celebration too.
Poets Against the War
Sam Hamill (Editor)