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.