June 20, 2020 | Brian Chappell

Specimen Days

Specimen Days Blog

The syllabus questions for Specimen Days are as follows:

1. Whitman is still writing about his “self,” but in a different format. How does this change in genre, from poetry to fragmentary prose, affect your overall impression of Whitman? 

2. Whitman is more interested here in history, both personal and collective. How does he present a “self” that is situated in these histories? What stories does he tell? 

3. If you were to tell stories of your “self” in this kind of a mode, what fragments would appear, both in terms of your personal history, and your situatedness in collective history? 

You can perhaps glean that these questions are interested primarily in form, especially in teasing out the differences between Whitman’s achievements in “Song of Myself” and here in Specimen Days. Indeed the differences are in kind rather than in degree, and that is the main exercise. How does a complete shift in genre facilitate new forms of meaning, especially surrounding the same set of questions about self, other, society, history, etc.? 

As I prepared to write this blog post, one main thought I couldn’t escape. While there is much to work with here in terms of form, style, etc., one key thing that we should not lose sight of is this: Whitman lived through the Civil War. The Civil War. I am left imagining what that could have been like, particularly for a non-combatant participant like Whitman, who tended the wounded of both sides in Washington, D.C. field hospitals not far from where I live. If his stanzas in “Song of Myself” aim for lyrical profundity, Whitman’s prose here is characterized by tenderness . While he describes harrowing battle scenes and heart-wrenching hospital visits, he also takes time to express his admiration for American democracy, a preview of our installment from Democratic Vistas

Here is a striking description of the White House, whose inhabitant at the time, Abraham Lincoln, was a personal hero of Whitman’s:


February 24th.—A spell of fine soft weather. I wander about a good deal, sometimes at night under the moon. Tonight took a long look at the President’s house. The white portico—the palace-like, tall, round columns, spotless as snow—the walls also—the tender and soft moonlight, flooding the pale marble, and making peculiar faint languishing shades, not shadows—everywhere a soft transparent hazy, thin, blue moon-lace, hanging in the air—the brilliant and extra-plentiful clusters of gas, on and around the façade, columns, portico, &c.—everything so white, so marbly pure and dazzling, yet soft—the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon—the gorgeous front, in the trees, under the lustrous flooding moon, full of realty, full of illusion—the forms of the trees, leafless, silent, in trunk and myriad—angles of branches, under the stars and sky—the White House of the land, and of beauty and night—sentries at the gates, and by the portico, silent, pacing there in blue overcoats—stopping you not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes, whichever way you move.

Amid a tumultuous milieu, The White House stands for Whitman as a beacon, and for many today it retains the regality that Whitman invests in it. And so I’m left wondering how I would create a Specimen Days about the tumult of my own age. Could I muster the tenderness and vision that Whitman is able to muster here? For now, when I pass The White House, as I do rather frequently, I am reminded of so much else, so much that Whitman and Lincoln his hero wished to oppose in their own time. Is it even desirable to regain an almost innocent love of symbols? Whitman stared war directly in the face, in the broken faces and spirits of his fellow citizens. Into what are we gazing today, and how do we record what we see?