The COVID-19 pandemic, although radically different in various ways, has obtained US resides on an identical scale–thus far, roughly 550,000. Amid the horrible loss of life, such ordeals offer lessons about living. One such source of insight can also be America’s great poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, who devoted over three years of his life to voluntary support at the bedsides of dying and wounded Civil War soldiers.
The literary critic Harold Bloom famously declared Whitman the”imaginative parent” of Americans, describing his”Leaves of Grass” as the best candidate for its secular scripture of the USA. What Whitman felt and hoped for the country extended beyond politics into the national creativity, and his own creativity was powerfully shaped by what he’d experienced tending the ill and hurt. His moving accounts of the war and his personal reaction to it offer sage adviser to COVID-19-weary Americans appearing hopefully to spring for relief in the pandemic’s ravages.
Born in 1819 on Long Island,” Whitman spent a lot of his life at Brooklyn, leaving school at age 11 to help support his family. He finally found his approach to journalism, founding his own newspaper before deciding to become a poet. In 1855he self-published”Leaves of Grass,” a poetry collection that he continued to update throughout his life. Six years after, with the outbreak of war, among his brothers, George, enlisted in the Union cause. When Whitman watched his brother’s name to get a list of soldiers that were wounded in late 1862he traveled south to locate him.
After much hunting, Whitman was delighted to discover that his brother had endured only a shallow wound. However during the hunt, Whitman struck sights that impressed him deeply–piles of limbs and the plaintive faces of soldiers that were wounded. Obtaining a part-time position as a paymaster’s clerk in Washington, DC, Whitman solved to remain in the town, home to many military hospitals, where he would devote most of his free time to care for the wounded. He later wrote,”These 3 years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction, along with the most profound lesson of my life.”
What did Whitman do for the patients? He realized that only medical diagnosis and treatment left vital needs unanswered, particularly the demand for companionship. The doctors could move fast out of bed to bed, overwhelmed with the amount of wounded. Employed as a volunteer, by contrast, Whitman might linger at the bedside, listening to his patients, reading stories, and in certain cases, holding their palms. Their requirement for medical care has been at least equaled by their own longing for a buddy.
Whitman’s has been a ministry of presence. He would work a few hours in the paymaster’s office and then go to the bedside, laboring there for a lot more. He wrote:
During those 3 years in hospital, camp or field, I made over six hundred visits or tours, and went, as I estimate counting all, one of from eighty million to a hundred million of those wounded and ill, as sustainer of soul and body in a certain degree, in time of need. These visits diverse from an hour or two, to every single day or night; for with dear or critical situations, I usually watched all evening. Occasionally I took up my quarters in the hospital and slept or observed there several nights in succession.
Whitman was discussing some of the most priceless but universal of resources, his timing, focus, and empathy with the ailing, frightened, and often homesick young men of the Union and Confederate forces.
It’s just in the experience of life’s precariousness that the full preciousness may emerge. The pandemic is such a reminder, and out of it, all can discover to celebrate each day with gratitude.Although owned of meagre means, Whitman shared even more. Besides kind words, he also brought anything trifles he could get his hands on:”all types of sustenance, blackberries, peaches, lemons and sugar, perfumes, all types of preserves, pickles, brandy, milk, tops and all articles of underclothing, tobacco, tea, and handkerchiefs.” Ever the poet, Whitman also brought them envelopes, paper, and stamps, so they might write to their nearest and dearest. For many who were illiterate and others who did not know what to sayWhitman would choose dictation or even write on their behalf.
For a Nelson Jabo, Whitman wrote the following letter for his wife:
You must excuse me for not being written to you . I have not been very well and did not feel much like writing–but I feel considerably better now–my complaint is an affliction of the lungs. I’m mustered out of service although not present good enough to come home. I trust you will try to write back as soon as you get this and allow me to know how you are, just how things will –let me know how it is with mother. I compose this by means of a buddy who is presently sitting by my side and I hope it’s going to be God’s will that we shall meet again. I send all my love.
Through newspaper accounts, poems, and essays, Whitman also shared his experiences with a broader audience, helping ensure that the American public, largely way removed from conflict, understood the magnitude of the sacrifices being made on their behalf. Of one young guy, he composed,
I do not understand his previous life, but I feel as if it should have been good. At any rate what I saw of him here, under the most trying situation, having a painful wound, and also among strangers, so I can say that he appeared so courageous, so composed, and so affectionate and sweet, it could not be surpassed. And today like many other noble and excellent men, after serving his country as a soldier, then he’s yielded his young life at the outset in her service.
Amid the current outbreak, several characteristics of Whitman’s work bear emphasis. One is the fact that he functioned without formal obligation or compensation. No one expected him to give years of his life to the support of complete strangers. There was no job description to that he needed to conform, because, quite simply, it wasn’t his job. What he witnessed in hunting for his brother and later daily in the military associations –the terrible plight of the wounded–transferred his heart to actions.
Something similar can happen today, amid the outbreak. Although fear of contagion might leave it imprudent or even impermissible to occur to the pandemic’s victims at their bedsides–notably the sickest one of them–the opportunity to serve isn’t foreclosed. The collateral damage of COVID-19 goes far past people contaminated with the virus, which penumbra provides ample space to answer such a call. For example, the decline in human connectedness caused by social distancing, isolation, and quarantine places a premium on attempts to decrease isolation and allow folks know that somebody is thinking about these.
Confronted with all the fragility of life, Whitman did not even turn his back but looked it straight in the eye. He discovered that at the bedside of the sick and dying, he might see death and life much more clearly than elsewhereand it taught him something about what it means to really live, to savor time with another person. Mortality, it seems, isn’t a bug but a feature of existence, and it’s just in the experience of life’s precariousness that its whole preciousness can emerge. The pandemic is this kind of a reminder, and out of it, all can discover to celebrate each day with gratitude.
Whitman not only found but imagined. He guessed a mommy in Ohio, getting the correspondence bearing news of her son’s death, written in another’s hand. In”Come Up from the Fields Father,” he wrote:
From the jam of a door [she] leans.
However, the mother Has to Be better,
fitfully sleeping, often waking,
From the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed,
silent from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her beloved
The pandemic’s biological, economical, and educational damage has been fantastic. But so, also, is the toll it’s taken on the heads, hearts, and spirits of the fellow citizens, neighbors, along with human beings. In such circumstances, we need to recall not only the damage we have observed, but the damage that we have not seenthe wounds that cut deeper than flesh. It’s not only Whitman’s powers of description and perception that offer opportunities for learning and emulation, but also his moral creativity, from which excels the chance, despite crisis, of salvation through support.