Pensive on Her Dead Gazing

This Walt Whitman poem closed out the recent PBS documentary Death and the Civil War (based on the excellent Drew Gilpin Faust history, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War) I’ve never been a poetry student, but I knew as soon as the narrator started in that it was a Whitman piece. The war deeply scarred him, but his humanity always shines through. I love his notion of spending my afterlife being absorbed by trees and exhaled back out into the universe.


PENSIVE, on her dead gazing, I heard the Mother of All,

 Desperate, on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battle-fields gazing;

 As the last gun ceased—but the scent of the powder-smoke linger’d;

 As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d:

 Absorb them well, O my earth, she cried—I charge you, lose not my sons! lose not an atom;

 And you streams, absorb them well, taking their dear blood;

 And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly,

 And all you essences of soil and growth—and you, my rivers’ depths;

 And you, mountain sides—and the woods where my dear children’s blood, trickling, redden’d;

And you trees, down in your roots, to bequeath to all future trees,

My dead absorb—my young men’s beautiful bodies absorb—and their precious, precious, precious blood;

Which holding in trust for me, faithfully back again give me, many a year hence,

 In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence;

 In blowing airs from the fields, back again give me my darlings—give my immortal heroes;  

Exhale me them centuries hence—breathe me their breath—let not an atom be lost;

O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!

Exhale them perennial, sweet death, years, centuries hence.

via 191. Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, I Heard the Mother of All. Whitman, Walt. 1900. Leaves of Grass.

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