Walt Whitman: Poems
The Metaphor of Light in Whitman's Civil War Poems
"O divine power, but lend yourself to me
So that I may show the shadow of that blessed
Kingdom 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...
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