Born on Long Island in 1819, Whitman is one of the America’s most recognized poets. His work, “Leaves of Grass” is often his most recognized, and was his attempt at an American Epic. Greeted with derision over his use of sexual language and talk of “naturalism”, he was a figure of controversy for most of his life.
The poem today was taken from letters written by Whitman to Peter Doyle, starting in the year of 1868 during the presidential election and ending years later, away from the chaos of Washington in the quiet of Rhode Island.
The sky was full of big balloons letting off rockets and Roman candles
‘way up among the stars. The excitement, the rush,
Ever and anon the cannon, some near, some distant. I heard them
long after I got to bed. It sounded like a distant engagement.
From the window of my room I can look
down across the city, the river, and off miles upon miles in the distance.
You see everything as you pass, a sort of living, endless panorama
To-night we will hear the big guns and see the blazing bonfires.
The fall is upon us; I will write you a line from Providence
colored with all the rich colors of autumn.
The second of nine children, the family relocated to Brooklyn when Walt was four, where they moved repeatedly, struggling with financial concerns. Shortly after completing his schooling he found apprenticeship with a Long Island newspaper. He fluctuated between editorial work and teaching until 1862, when concern for his Union enlisted brother, George, gave him cause to traverse the country in an attempt to discover his fate. Finding himself unable to turn away from the casualties of war he volunteered as a nurse in the army hospitals of Washington.
Whitman was known for his many close relationships with men and boys, and although he often denied any homosexual behavior, it is said that Oscar Wilde told George Cecil Ives (an advocate for homosexual rights) he received a kiss upon the mouth from the man, and that his sexuality was beyond question.
Peter Doyle was an Irish immigrant who arrived in America as a child. He joined the Confederate army but sought discharge in 1862. It was granted in November but by spring of the following year he was accused of desertion and his arrest was ordered. Here history becomes vague, Doyle makes mention of being taken prisoner, and Whitman himself mentions Peter being a prisoner of war. Some historians believe he attempted to escape reenlistment and was taken prisoner by Union troops as he traveled northward.
His case was reviewed along with several others, and he was found to be one of the “poor Irishmen who fled from Richmond to avoid starvation . . . They will not take oath of allegiance, but will give sworn parole.” He was released after taking an oath to not aid the Rebellion.
In 1865, Whitman and Doyle met. Peter was a twenty-one year old conductor, Walt a soon-to-be fired forty-five year old clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. From their accounts their attraction was instant, Doyle joining Whitman in the cab for the duration of the trip, and for the next eight years the men were constant companions.
I have heard what the talkers were talking,
the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
-From “Song of Myself”
Sources; I was lucky enough to find Calamus: a series of letters written during the years 1868-1880 by Walt Whitman to a young friend (Peter Doyle) in its entirety at the absolutely wonderful and amazing Archive (which you should donate to if you’re able, because freedom of information is important). I also referenced this article from LGBT Today, The Love of Comrades by Rictor Norton, and Pete the Great A Biography of Peter Doyle by Martin G. Murray, which I found on The Walt Whitman Archive.