Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11: America's Doughboy Glorified (Vol. 42, pp. 1402-1412)

Today is Armistice Day, and the editors of the Reading Guide chose this occasion to trot out Walt Whitman and his Civil War-era poetry. (If this seems inconsistent with the 1909 publishing date of the Harvard Classics, it is because the set's reading guide that I'm using was written in 1930).

Whitman is the most modern poet included in his collection and the difference between his work and the rest of the poetry in the Harvard Classics is startling. He's not writing about nightingales or daffodils. He's not ethereal or wracked with longing.

It is poems such as today's "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" or "The Wound Dresser," that deal with death on the battlefield, or "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in The Courtyard Bloomed," written after Lincoln's assassination, that show the realness and humanity that presage the great poets of the 20th century.

Maybe my modernity is showing here, but I'd rather read Whitman than Shelley, Keats and the rest of the insipid twaddle that lie in this set's poetry volumes.

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