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Literary Analysis of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” by Whitman
In his poem “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” very first published in Drum Taps in May of 1865, Whitman describes his emotional attachment to the Civil War by way of his own experiences in New York City where the war efforts of the North have been being examined and discussed by virtually each citizen. In his landmark operate American Renaissance, F.O. Matthiessen notes that Whitman’s “deepened perception of the which means of suffering” brought on by his “resolution to grow to be a volunteer nurse in the course of the Civil War” resulted in the creation of Drum Taps (537). While living in Manhattan, Whitman heard “the sound of the trumpets and drums” (line 30), “the rustle and clang of muskets” (line 39) and witnessed “the soldiers in organizations or regiments” (line 31) and “the dense brigade. . . with high piled military wagons” (lines 34-35), all examples of the on-going struggle in between the Union and the Confederacy over state’s rights and slavery.
This poem, nevertheless, is not totally concerned with the war, as in Whitman’s anthem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in which he explores his dedication to the military principles of the North. In “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” Whitman provides two conflicting points of view, the initial being a calm, peaceful co-existence with nature which can only be accomplished through a complete indifference to the war, and secondly, a turbulent, war-mongering attitude replete with flag-waving, cheering crowds, marching soldiers and shows of military pomp and circumstance in the streets of Manhattan.
Whitman’s use of declamation or rhetorical speech, as in “Song of Myself,” is also very represented in “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” for he interprets and defends his ideals of nature with commands like “Give me a field” (line three), “Give me an arbor” (line four), “Give me fresh corn” (line five) and “Give me nights perfectly quiet” (line 6). In contrast, he demonstrates his ambivalence with lines like “Keep your woods O Nature” (20), “Keep your fields of clover” (22) and “Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields” (24), all in relation to his yearning to join the celebrations in the streets of Manhattan due to his enjoy for city life.
In the initial stanza of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” Whitman presents a portrait of nature separate from “the noise of the world” (line 12), a metaphor indicative of the urban dissonance of the city, a product of the Industrial Revolution. The “splendid silent sun” symbolizes the source of all life on earth, with “splendid” denoting the alterations in the seasons which bring forth ripe fruits, fields of wheat, arbors and fresh vegetables, whilst “silent” points to the sun’s indifference to the societies of man. Whitman’s primal connection with nature is shown in such phrases as “Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of lovely flowers” (line eight), “Give me a ideal child” (line 12) and “Give me solitude, give me Nature” (line 11).
Whitman’s poetic vision in “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” also revolves around music which appropriately have to be conveyed in all poetry in order to preserve a sense of balance, tone and rhythmic structure. “Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my ears only” (lines eight-9) shows that Whitman is a musical getting dependent on the music of nature and existence. His “spontaneous songs,” a reflection of his need to improvise, demonstrates his individual harmony with nature via a chord tuned to his spiritual self, a contrapuntal fugue in tune with nature’s “primal sanities!” (line 12).
At the conclusion of this stanza, Whitman reverses himself with “still I adhere to my city/Day upon day and year upon year” (lines 16-17) which reinforces his love for the city in contrast to his longing for nature. The “splendid silent sun” is then replaced with photos of the city in the second stanza–“Give me faces and streets” (line 27), “Give me women–give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!” (line 28) and “Give me Broadway” (line 29). This serves as a second implies for Whitman to describe his delight with music by way of the vocalizations of the people in the streets and the shows on Broadway with their bawdy renditions of dancing and singing–the heartbeat of Manhattan that Whitman so adores.
Towards the conclusion of the second stanza, the music continues with the rhythms of “soldiers marching” (line 29), the blaring of trumpets and the banging of drums which shows Whitman’s adoration for military processions. This musical extravaganza terminates with “People. . . with strong voices” (line 36), “Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs” (line 37) and “The endless and noisy chorus. . . the turbulent musical chorus” (line 39) of the boisterous crowds of New York City, shouting and singing the joys of their forthcoming victory more than the Confederacy.
The final line of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” presents Whitman’s ultimate decision–he wishes to be given “Manhattan faces and eyes forever.” In spite of his enjoy for nature and the peacefulness that it represents, Whitman’s mood remains unalterable, due to the fever pitch produced by the Civil War in the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York City, for he has accepted, without reserve, the chaotic, turbulent society inherent in the city.
Bradley, Scully & Harold W. Blodgett, Eds. “Whitman on His Art: Comments, 1855-1892.” Leaves of Grass. NY: W.W. Norton, 1973.
Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. NY: Oxford UP, 1979.
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