I have been reading Whitman on the American flag. He wrote about it repeatedly, though I think only during the years of the Civil War—years of ferocity and sorrow. Naturally his flags are living things. They sing, gaze, beckon, ripple, and pass by. The flag in “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” exhorts the poet himself to speak up: “Yet louder, higher, stronger, bard! yet farther, wider cleave!” The flag sings of the higher values—of more than wealth, and more than peace. Sometimes the flag is womanly. One of his war poems was a not-entirely successful ode to the flag called “Bathed in War’s Perfume,” which he never inserted into Leaves of Grass:
Bathed in war’s perfume—delicate flag!
O to hear you call the sailors and the soldiers! flag like a beautiful woman!
O to hear the tramp, tramp of a million answering men!
O the ships they arm with joy!
O to see you leap and beckon from the tall masts of ships!
O to see you peering down on the sailors on the decks!
Flag like the eyes of women.
But I think I know what he was getting at. You can see it in one of the other flag poems, “Delicate Cluster”:
Delicate cluster! flag of teeming life!
Covering all my lands—all my seashores lining!
Flag of death! (how I watched you through the smoke battle pressing!
How I heard you flap and rustle, cloth defiant!)
Flag cerulean—sunny flag, with the orbs of night dappled!
Ah my silvery beauty—ah my woolly white and crimson!
Ah to sing the song of you, my matron mighty!
My sacred one, my mother.
Death, for Whitman—death is a woman. That is what he means. Death is the all-welcoming and all-comforting mother.
Ultimately the flag, which is teeming with life, and is the flag of death, is the banner of the revolutionary cause. Everyone who has read Leaves of Grass will remember “Thick-Sprinkled Bunting”:
Long yet your road, fateful flag—long yet your road, and lined with bloody death,
For the prize I see at issue at last is the world.
He means that America is fighting for democracy’s conquest of the world—democracy, in universal battle against the other, enemy principle, which is the flag of kings. / Paul Berman, Tablet