I Dream’d In A Dream

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I Dream’d In A Dream

by Walt Whitman

I DREAM’D in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the
attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;

Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust
love—it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of
that city,
And in all their looks and words.

______________________

This poem by Walt Whitman is an exploration of a Utopian fantasy. He imagines a perfect place of love and friendship. The poem has an undertone of melancholy, though, because the Reader knows that this place does not actually exist. As a result, we are forced to consider what such a world might be like.

Structurally, the poem consists of eight lines within a single stanza. Whitman does not make use of either a rhyme scheme or a specific meter. This style is known as free verse and Whitman is somewhat well known for writing this way.

The technique of removing letters from a word is known as syncope.

Whitman also makes use of enjambment – which is one of my favorite poetry words. Enjambment is the technique of abruptly ending a line mid-thought to rush the Reader onward into the next line. We see this used in the poem above at lines 4 and 6.

From a subject matter standpoint, the first four lines tell us of the existence of a Utopian city. Lines five through eight let us know what life inside the Utopian city is like.

Whitman’s life experiences – filled with trauma – are likely a contributing factor to his thinking on a Utopia. He lived through the American Civil War and was profoundly effected by it. From Wiki:

As the American Civil War was beginning, Whitman published his poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” as a patriotic rally call for the North.[73] Whitman’s brother George had joined the Union army and began sending Whitman several vividly detailed letters of the battle front.[74] On December 16, 1862, a listing of fallen and wounded soldiers in the New-York Tribune included “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore”, which Whitman worried was a reference to his brother George.[75] He made his way south immediately to find him, though his wallet was stolen on the way.[76] “Walking all day and night, unable to ride, trying to get information, trying to get access to big people”, Whitman later wrote,[77] he eventually found George alive, with only a superficial wound on his cheek.[75] Whitman, profoundly affected by seeing the wounded soldiers and the heaps of their amputated limbs, left for Washington on December 28, 1862, with the intention of never returning to New York.[76]

In Washington, D.C., Whitman’s friend Charley Eldridge helped him obtain part-time work in the army paymaster’s office, leaving time for Whitman to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals.[78] He would write of this experience in “The Great Army of the Sick”, published in a New York newspaper in 1863[79] and, 12 years later, in a book called Memoranda During the War.[80] He then contacted Emerson, this time to ask for help in obtaining a government post.[76] Another friend, John Trowbridge, passed on a letter of recommendation from Emerson to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, hoping he would grant Whitman a position in that department. Chase, however, did not want to hire the author of such a disreputable book as Leaves of Grass.[81]

The Whitman family had a difficult end to 1864. On September 30, 1864, Whitman’s brother George was captured by Confederates in Virginia,[82] and another brother, Andrew Jackson, died of tuberculosis compounded by alcoholism on December 3.[83] That month, Whitman committed his brother Jesse to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum.[84] Whitman’s spirits were raised, however, when he finally got a better-paying government post as a low-grade clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, thanks to his friend William Douglas O’Connor. O’Connor, a poet, daguerreotypist and an editor at The Saturday Evening Post, had written to William Tod Otto, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, on Whitman’s behalf.[85] Whitman began the new appointment on January 24, 1865, with a yearly salary of $1,200.[86] A month later, on February 24, 1865, George was released from capture and granted a furlough because of his poor health.[85] By May 1, Whitman received a promotion to a slightly higher clerkship[86] and published Drum-Taps.[87]

Effective June 30, 1865, however, Whitman was fired from his job.[87] His dismissal came from the new Secretary of the Interior, former Iowa Senator James Harlan.[86] Though Harlan dismissed several clerks who “were seldom at their respective desks”, he may have fired Whitman on moral grounds after finding an 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.[88] O’Connor protested until J. Hubley Ashton had Whitman transferred to the Attorney General’s office on July 1.[89] O’Connor, though, was still upset and vindicated Whitman by publishing a biased and exaggerated biographical study, The Good Gray Poet, in January 1866.[90] The fifty-cent pamphlet defended Whitman as a wholesome patriot, established the poet’s nickname and increased his popularity.[91] Also aiding in his popularity was the publication of “O Captain! My Captain!“, a relatively conventional poem on the death of Abraham Lincoln, the only poem to appear in anthologies during Whitman’s lifetime.[92]

Part of Whitman’s role at the Attorney General’s office was interviewing former Confederate soldiers for Presidential pardons. “There are real characters among them”, he later wrote, “and you know I have a fancy for anything out of the ordinary.”[93] In August 1866, he took a month off to prepare a new edition of Leaves of Grass which would not be published until 1867 after difficulty in finding a publisher.[94] He hoped it would be its last edition.[95] In February 1868, Poems of Walt Whitman was published in England thanks to the influence of William Michael Rossetti,[96] with minor changes that Whitman reluctantly approved.[97] The edition became popular in England, especially with endorsements from the highly respected writer Anne Gilchrist.[98] Another edition of Leaves of Grass was issued in 1871, the same year it was mistakenly reported that its author died in a railroad accident.[99] As Whitman’s international fame increased, he remained at the attorney general’s office until January 1872.[100] He spent much of 1872 caring for his mother, who was now nearly eighty and struggling with arthritis.[101] He also traveled and was invited to Dartmouth College to give the commencement address on June 26, 1872.

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