The Metaphor of Light in Whitman’s Civil War Poems

“O divine power, but lend yourself to meSo that I may show the shadow of that blessedKingdom which is embedded in my brain”The above passage is excerpted from Canto I of Longfellow’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso (22-24). In this third section of The Divine Comedy, Dante uses light as a metaphor for goodness; as objects move closer to God, they reflect more light. However, light serves another purpose in the work, as well. The divine light in Paradiso is so bright that at first, the speaker cannot even bear to look at it in its entirety. His experience of visiting Paradiso is so intense that he is continually conscious about using language to recount it accurately. In the quotation, the speaker can only hope to convey “a shadow” of the great light to which he is exposed.As a poet, Whitman, too, is conscious about his ability to accurately depict what he observed in visiting Union hospitals during the Civil War. In the introduction to his Memoranda, written between 1862 and 1865, he writes:Of the present Volume most of its pages are verbatim renderings from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratch’d down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes. I have perhaps forty such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil’d and creas’d little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten’d with a pin. (1)a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made,Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,And by one great pitchy torch stationary with the wild red flame and clouds of smokeThe dark and dimly-lit atmosphere underscores the very idea that what the speaker sees is “beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” Whitman’s own experience of seeing the heaps of wounded soldiers is so intense that he cannot describe it clearly for the reader, nor can it be captured entirely in a photograph, for that matter. Hence, it is “beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” That is why the images in the poem are vague and difficult to see. In essence, the words themselves are mere shadows of the true forms from which they are inspired. Whitman mentions his own doubts about portraying the experience through the voice of the nurse by saying, “I stanch the blood temporarily.” In this instance, Whitman represents himself as being ineffective as a nurse in order to express his concern about being ineffective as a poet. The stanching of the blood is an ephemeral act, just as Whitman believes his poem to be ephemeral and incapable of describing the experience. He reinforces the notion that he cannot effectively recount the experience by using vague and nondescript language, as in the line: “faces, varieties, postures beyond description”Continuing the sense of duality in “Look Down Fair Moon” and “Dirge for Two Veterans,” Whitman incorporates the commemoration of the soldiers along with the exposure of the unholy. “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest” takes place in “a large old church at the crossing roads, now an impromptu hospital.” The fact that the soldiers are in a church suggests that they are somehow sacred and praiseworthy. However, there is a bitter irony in their location, much like the way the dead soldiers are depicted as Christ-like figures in “Look Down Fair Moon” and the way in which the father and son are put to rest on the Sabbath in “Dirge for Two Veterans.” The fact that the soldiers who are wounded from battle are inside a place of worship suggests that there is something sacrilegious about the entire scene. The scarcity of light in the poem returns to the idea of Dante’s Paradiso, in which the amount of light reflected in an object is proportional to its goodness. Whitman concludes the poem with an image of darkness, with the army “ever in darkness marching.” The image of the marching army is significant because at the time of the Civil War, technology was not yet efficient enough to photograph a moving army. Furthermore, the army would have been impossible to photograph since it is in darkness, without a light source such as the moon in the other poems. Thus, in addition to the scarcity of light, as in the “dim-lighted building” and the “shadows of deepest, deepest black,” the problem of capturing movement in a photograph, such as the marching on in darkness, serves to convey Whitman’s perceived shortcomings about the poem’s ability to portray reality. At the same time, the literal distance of the soldiers from light serves to convey the blasphemy of the situation.In 1839, following the death of Joseph Niepce, the producer of the first successful photograph, Louis Daguerre invented the Daguerreotype, which produced images on photographic plates. At the time, some were skeptical of the process of photography and what it sought to achieve. For example, a German newspaper report stated:The wish to capture evanescent reflections is not only impossible… but the mere desire alone, the will to do so, is blasphemy. God created man in His own image, and no man-made machine may fix the image of God. Is it possible that God should have abandoned His eternal principles, and allowed a Frenchman… to give to the world an invention of the Devil? (http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory)In writing poems about what he witnessed in hospitals during the Civil War, Whitman sought to counter opinions like the one stated in the article above. By publishing his journals and numerous poems describing the nature of the war in great detail, he strove to accomplish what photographers of the time were striving to do capture the essence of a true image in a still frame. Just like the photographers of his time, however, Whitman was aware of the physical difficulty of attempting this. This is why so many of the poems express concerns similar to those of the speaker in Paradiso about a failure to relate the experience. Combining the function of light in photography with the metaphorical purpose of light in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Whitman succeeds in illuminating the essence of the Civil War its glory as well as its horror while conveying his concern about being able to reproduce it accurately.

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