Walt Whitman's "Reconciliation"

Updated on April 17, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Walt Whitman Commemorative Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of "Reconciliation"

Walt Whitman’s “Reconciliation” consists of only six lines. The lines are long and unwieldy—the third line has to be broken for almost any page.

Far from ever professing a morose or melancholy view, Whitman was able to see in the overall scheme of things that death is an integral part of life: the poem reconciles life and death as well as friend and enemy.

Reconciliation

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds 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;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Reading of Whitman's "Reconciliation"

Commentary

Walt Whitman served in field hospitals during the American Civil War (1861-1865), and he wrote extensively about his experience in both poems and essays.

First Movement: Cosmic Claim

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;

“Reconciliation” makes a cosmic claim in the first line, “Word over all, beautiful as the sky.” “Word” alludes to “the Word” as it is used in the beginning of the Gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

The speaker avers that God is “over all.” He then focuses on the limited space of humanity, claiming that something is “as beautiful as the sky.” And then he addresses his specific subject: “Beautiful as war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost.”

Despite the death and destruction that war engenders, it is a beautiful fact that eventually those evil “deeds of carnage” will disappear. The sky implies the beauty that is “the Word” (or vibration) of God, and the beauty that is lost in war will return because war “in time” loses its hold completely.

Second Movement: Death a Cleanser

That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:

Line three continues the claim, stating that it is also beautiful “[t]hat the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, / and ever again, this soil'd world.”

Personifying “Death and Night” as sisters who cleanse the dirt from the world, the speaker offers further evidence of deliverance from the “deeds of carnage.”

That bad things happen on this physical plane is undeniable, but that the bad things are corrected is beautiful. “Death” gives the tired soul a respite from the torment of earth life as “night” gives rest to the body.

Third Movement: Love Your Enemies

... 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;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin

In line four, the speaker makes a startling statement: “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.” It is difficult for the ordinary mind to grasp that an enemy is, like one’s self, a child of God. But Whitman’s speaker does comprehend and also does as the Christ commands, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)

The speaker views the dead enemy in his casket, but instead of denigrating the enemy or experiencing gladness at the man's death as is usually expected, this speaker does the unthinkable: He “[b]end[s] down" to "touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.” He blesses the face of the enemy by offering a consoling touch of the lips to the enemy's pale countenance.

Sound and Meaning

Whitman’s short lyric relies on few poetic devices. Apart of the opening allusion and personification of Death and Night as sisters, the poem is fairly literal. It does employ alliteration in the same line as the personification: “the hands of the sisters . . . incessantly softly wash . . . the soil’d world.”

The many alliterative sibilant sounds enforce the meaning of the claim that the hands wash the “soil’d world.” The sounds seem to inundate the sentence as water would inundate as it cleanses.

Repetition of the "–ld" sound in “soil’d world” emphasizes the physical plane’s uncleanliness because the words are a near rime. Also, repetition of “is dead” in line four reinforces the finality that death has brought to the victim.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, Whitman is one of the greats!

    • profile image

      Amber MV 

      2 years ago

      So many great lines, love that guy, Whitman: “[t]hat the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, / and ever again, this soil'd world.”

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