Reconciliation for Whitman
Here we are as a country, about to swear in the first black President of the United States. The first non-white President too, but of course the fact that he is black brings a huge significance in the history of the country. Just watch Jesse Jackson on election night, or listen to the black man who while being interviewed said “The dream has come, the dream is real.”
That Obama is also non-white is significant in the present time as well. (My wife, who is half White and half Asian Indian, affectionately calls Obama a half-breed, and talks about him as one of “us”! But I digress…) We are in an intangible and yet very real war with Islamic extremists, and that is why his being non-white is so important right now; Whitman lived in a war as well, and although slavery was not officially a reason to fight against our own countrymen, no one can deny the importance of the issue during that time.
Obama was elected as a uniter of our own country, and within this context, a forgiver as well.
Thus, I can think of no better tribute to the country, the new President, and the poets, than to analyze Whitman’s “Reconciliation”.
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its acts of carnage must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin — I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
In the beginning was The Word, and The Word was God. God also begins this poem, and lives in the beautiful, vast sky. God is beautiful, and is also a reflection of what lies beneath, even if it is war. But lines two and three is telling us that war and everything evil that comes with it must be forgotten (“utterly lost”) and forgiven (“softly washed again, and ever again”), including the cold slow lonely nights. The world is not just physically soiled of dead bodies, it is emotionally soiled. People are mad, angry, tired, beaten, exhausted.
But then the poem turns, and narrows the war to two men, the killer and the killed. The killer looks at the dead man’s face and remembers that this is war, only war; remove war and you have two normal loving countrymen. This enemy is only an ideological enemy, not a personal one (and if he were, would it matter?). He forgives the man he fought — and loves him too.
This poem is a poem of love and hope, not hate and despair; it is written by the father of American poetry, who loved humanity in all its faults. I have a feeling this love for humanity is not lost on the 44th President of the United States.