THE WASHING OF THE WORLD: WHITMAN’S “RECONCILIATION”

In the previous posting, I discussed Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d. I think of today’s much shorter poem by the same writer as a companion to that longer work. It seems to complete and lay to rest, in peace and simple beauty, the turbulent emotions expressed in the first poem. Both are in his book Sequel to Drum-Taps. The final surrender of Confederate troops had taken place on June 2, 1865, marking the end of the terrible American Civil War that had divided friends, family members, and the country.

When the war first broke out, Whitman began visiting the wounded in New York hospitals. Near the end of 1862, he received word that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, and was in Falmouth,Virginia. Whitman went to care for him, and got his first look at a field hospital and the results of the hasty and primitive surgery of the day. He saw “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening…

From there, Whitman went to Washington, and for the next three years devoted much of his time there as a volunteer nurse and comforter to the wounded and dying of the war. His loving and compassionate nature gave the suffering a care that they desperately needed in those cruel days. He wrote to a friend, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield

Finally, the great tragedy of the Civil War came to and end, and with it came the time for a nation broken by years of violent enmity to unite. Whitman, with his experience of the suffering and death in the war, and with his compassion, wrote this poem:

RECONCILIATION

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;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

“Reconciliation” is the word over all, the word that covers all the wounds and suffering and death, and to Whitman, it is — with the sentiments it evokes — “beautiful as the sky.” Its beauty is

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.

Whitman recognizes the place of time in this, as in the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” And with time work “the sisters Death and Night.” We have seen Whitman’s praise of Death in When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” praised because it brought an end to the suffering of the dying; and here Death’s sister, Night, brings ease through sleep, forgetfulness of the horrors of war. It is beautiful how Whitman personifies them as two sisters, patiently and lovingly washing,

again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

They cleanse the world soiled by hate and war, a task completed not immediately, but by the repetition of their labors through time, so that

war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost.

Whitman shows us the end of the war and the beginning of reconciliation in this symbolic image:

… 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;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

To Whitman, human life was sacred. He wrote in Song of Myself,

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

It is a view that reflects not only the Quakerism of his childhood, in which every human has the divine within, called the “Inward Light,” but also the influence of Transcendentalism, in which the world is an expression of divinity, and humans all parts of the “Over-soul.”

Reconciliation is made vivid and immediate to us by the image of Whitman walking to the coffin where his enemy lies — in his bending down, and gently kissing the face in the coffin.

Vengeance is a terrible and soul-destroying thing, and Whitman knows that. But beyond that knowledge is the feeling of his inherent sameness with the former enemy,

“a man divine as myself is dead…”

And Whitman sees the great tragedy in that hard fact, the tragedy that was the Civil War. We feel the end of that war in the man lying there; and in Whitman’s kiss, the seal that completes it: Reconciliation.

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