Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

Then we burst forth, we float,

In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,

Equal, equipt at last, (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil O soul.

TWILIGHT.

The soft voluptuous opiate-shades,

The sun just gone, the eager light dispelled—

(I too will soon be gone, dispelled.)

A haze―nirvana-rest and night-oblivion.

[ocr errors]

WALT WHITMAN AMONG THE SOLDIERS.

[ALL that he loved, hoped, or hated, hung in the balance. And the game of war was not only momentous to him in its issues; it sublimated his spirit by its heroic displays, and tortured him intimately by the spectacle of its horrors. It was a theatre, it was a place of education, it was like a season of religious revival. He watched Lincoln going daily to his work: he studied and fraternized with young soldiery passing to the front; above all, he walked the hospitals, reading the Bible; a patient, helpful, reverend man, full of kind speeches. His memoranda of this period are almost bewildering to read. From one point of view they seem those of a district visitor; from another, they look like the harmless jottings of an artist in the picturesque. More than one woman, on whom I tried the experiment, immediately claimed the writer for a fellow-woman. More than one literary purist might identify him as a shoddy newspaper correspondent without the necessary faculty of style. And yet the story touches home; and if you are of the weeping order of mankind, you will certainly find your eyes fill with tears of which you have no reason to be ashamed. There is only one way to characterize a work of this order, and that is to quote.-R. L. Stevenson, in "Familiar Studies of Men and Books."]

DECORATION DAY always brings to my mind pictures of the "hospital part of the drama of 1861-65," as portrayed by Walt Whitman in his "Specimen Days and Collect" (pp. 26–81). These become more and more vivid as the years go by, and reveal more distinctly Walt Whitman

54

WALT WHITMAN AMONG THE SOLDIERS.

himself as the leading figure. We first see him among the camp hospitals in the Army of the Potomac in Falmouth, Va.-opposite Fredericksburg-in December, 1862, talking to soldiers who seem "most susceptible and need it," and writing their home letters, including "loveletters, very tender ones." He was then in perfect physical health, so that it was more in the "simple matter of personal presence and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism" that he was able to help, than by "medical nursing or delicacies or gifts of money or anything else." Yet with all this physical health, he fortified himself for these visits with "previous rest, the bath, clean clothes, a good meal, and as cheerful an appearance as possible." After a few weeks' experience in Falmouth, we see him in and around Washington, daily visiting hospitals in the Patent Office, Eighth street, H street, Armory Square, and others. Through the aid of friends he is able to give money and necessities to those who need them. He is now giving pocket-diaries and almanacs; now distributing old pictorial magazines or story papers as well as daily papers, and lending the best books from man to man. He adapts himself to each emergency, however trival. He not only washes and dresses wounds (in some cases the patient is unwilling any one else should do this), but expounds passages from the Bible, and offers prayer at the bedside. "I think I see my friends smiling at this confession," he frankly says, "but I was never more in earnest in my life."

Some of these hospital sketches reveal a wondrous tenderness and love; as, for instance, the one of the poor youth, "so handsome, athletic, with profuse beautiful shining hair," who as the poet sat looking at him while he lay asleep, "suddenly, without the least start, awakened, opened his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier—one long, clear silent look—a slight sigh-then turned back and went into his doze again. Little he

[ocr errors]

At another time,

knew, poor, death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hovered near." while spending an afternoon with a suffering, dying soldier, he was asked to read a chapter in the New Testament.

I asked him what I should read. He said, "Make your own choice." I opened at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapter describing the latter hours of Christ and the scenes of the Crucifixion. The poor wasted young man asked me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for he was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He asked me if I enjoyed religion. I said, "Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean; and yet, may-be, it is the same thing." He said, "It is my chief reliance." He talked of death, and said he did not fear it. He behaved very manly and affectionate. The kiss I gave him as I was about leaving he returned fourfold. He died a few days later.

Does not this make more real the closing lines of that autobiographical poem, "The WoundDresser?"

Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have crossed and rested.
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.

The soldier being a rebel made no difference so long as he needed loving ministrations. For instance, he was tenderly soothing in his pain a new patient in the hospital, a "very intelligent, well-bred and affectionate " young man, when all at once, turning to him suddenly, the sufferer said: "I hardly think you know who I am—I don't wish to impose upon you—I am a rebel soldier." "I did not know that," was the reply, "but it makes no difference." The poet visited him daily until he died, two weeks later. "I loved him much," he says, "and always kissed him, as he did me."

In the hottest days of mid-summer we see this "good gray poet," with his umbrella and fan, on his walks to and from the hospitals. At one time he is carrying "several bottles of blackberry and cherry syrup, good and strong but innocent," which upon arriving among the soldiers he mingles with ice-water for a refreshing drink, and serves all around. Another hot day he is distributing personally through the wards a large quantity' of ice-cream he has bought for a treat. One night after leaving the hospital at ten o'clock, where he had been on self-imposed duty for some five hours, he wandered till long after midnight around the Washington streets. The "night was sweet," he says, "very clear, sufficiently cool, a voluptuous half-moon slightly golden, the space near it of a transparent blue-gray tinge," while the "sky, the planets, the constellations-all were so bright, so calm, so expressively silent and soothing after those hospital scenes." This is in contrast to another summer night, when trying to keep cool, sitting by a wounded soldier in the hospital, he hears the home-made music of the young lady nurses of the wards, as, “making a charming group, with their handsome, healthy faces, and standing up a little behind them some ten or fifteen of the convalescent soldiers," with books in their hands, they sing, accompanied by the melodeon, the old hymns, "My Days are Gliding Swiftly By," and the like. His sympathy was such that he could honestly say he received as much pleasure sitting there, while these voices "sweetly rose up to the high whitewashed wooden roof, and pleasantly the roof sent it all back," as he had received from the "best Italian compositions expressed by world-famous performers."

Other pictures linger, such as "Paying the Bounties," "The Deserters," "A Glimpse of War's Hell-Scenes." Besides intercourse with the sick soldiers, we see him having "refreshing" talks with the able-bodied ones whom he meets everywhere about the city. To him there "hangs

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »