The Lessons of Grief: In the Civil War, Walt Whitman devised a way to talk about death
Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.
This is our greatest poet, Walt Whitman, on one of his main subjects: capital-D Death. The poet of sex, the poet of the self, of lively, obstreperous Manhattan and endlessly rocking sensuous living – the poet who went too far, and had a good time doing it – was also, centrally and constantly, concerned with death.
He wrote at a time and in a culture that was nuts about life’s end. The mid-19th century cult of a sensitive death – when dead children were laid out in open coffins for days, offered as a display at social gatherings, and sketched and painted and photographed – Whitman was in the midst of all that, a little disgusted by it, but fascinated, too. He was at one with his times; as he said in the Introduction to Leaves of Grass (1855), “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” The concerns of his countrymen would be his concerns, because a great poet is not one who goes sailing off into the high realms, scorning the mundane obsessions of his fellow citizens, but rather one who ministers to the ordinary, the ill-informed, the perplexed.
Read the rest on Obit Mag.