Walter Whitman was an American poet and journalist. He is remembered for his free verse style of poetry, humanist principles, and opposition to slavery, and big political concerns. Most of his poems are based on humanitarian themes and issues affecting humanity. The poem 1861 is no exception.
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In the poem, he uses an omnipresent speaker who narrates about a civil war that took place in the year 1861. The whole poem takes a setting preoccupied with soldiers marching around and propagating the war. Through personification, the speaker goes ahead to describe the details of the war and what befell the civilians as a result of the war. He refers to the year 1861 as a soldier of the union dressed in blue and goes on fighting for the people. Thus, the war can no longer be supported by the people due to its physically demanding lifestyle.
The narrating speaker begins by stating his attitude towards the year 1861, which he refers to as the year of struggle (line 1). He further points out how discontent he is with the year when he says that the year deserves neither dainty rhymes nor sentimental love verses as it is a terrible year. Stating the attitude of the narrator at the start of the poem does not only prepare the reader for subsequent inhuman revelations in the poem but also captures the reader’s attention which propels him or her to read further.
More so, he opts to personify the year in an attempt to bring out the details of the Civil war. The personification of the year has indeed achieved its desired effect. Furthermore, the description of the character and appearance of the soldier is used in the poem to describe the progress, intensity, as well as the overall effects, brought about by the Civil war.
Throughout the poem, the narrator refers to the year as a strong man who is clothed in blue clothes and carrying a rifle on the shoulder (line 10). This helps to vividly describe the soldiers that helped propagate the war. The idea of blue uniforms and rifles imply the presence of heavily armed soldiers in the course of the war.
As time goes by, the war intensifies and its coverage area extends. This is revealed through the description of the soldier who has suddenly transformed into a strong and masculine man (line 18). The speaker also says that the soldiers can no longer be supported by people due to their demanding lifestyle. An increase in the strength of the soldiers perhaps implies the increasing intensity of the war and its aftermath. The poet also mentions “rising” meant to describe the increasing number of soldier recruits taking up their duties in the war.
These soldiers were once ordinary workers from Manhattan, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The war indeed has affected the whole land as per the speaker. Once the soldiers are enough in number, they start marching to the South determined to fight for their cause in the war (line 24). At the end of the poem, the speaker insists on the tumult of the year and is still resolute about the year. This definitely depicts his dissatisfaction and desperation about the year. He is still bitter about the year in his final sentiments.
The poet has also employed several poetic features of style in the poem. A major characteristic of American poetry, free verse, is evident in the poem and unlike British poetry where poems are written in stanzas with a predetermined number of lines, the poem is written in verse form which clearly implies an American setting.
Another prominent feature of language in the poem is personification. The year 1861 has been referred to as a soldier all throughout the poem. The speaker then describes the physical appearance of the male soldier in the war. This makes it easy to describe the events of the year as if one was describing a person.
The use of first-person narration has also been employed in the poem. The omnipresent “I” narrator in the poem has been used by the poet to develop the attitude and the mood of the poem. It also helps make the poet bring out the emotional aspects of the poem, especially when it is a live recitation.
Inversion has also been used in the poem; it is evident when the narrator says, “Saw I your gait and saw I your sinewy limbs” (line 36). Inversion is most common with American poetry, and besides, it is also used to achieve musicality in the poem. There are also instances of rhyme in the poem. Examples include: “Struggle and sentimental, Manhattan and workmen” (line 1& 2), among others. Rhyme is also used to enhance rhythm and musicality in the poem.
The poet uses the American free verse style of poetry, personification, and first-person narration to develop the theme of the poem. At a glance, it is hard to get the theme of the poem until one takes a step further to analyze it. He also carefully picks the title of the poem to draw the reader’s attention. This makes the poem one of the best and complete works by Walter Whitman since it fully depicts the real American poetry.