W Walt Whitman

1861 by Walt Whitman

‘1861’ by Walt Whitman is a moving Civil War poem written from the perspective of a soldier. He details the difficulty of a particular year. 

1861 by Walt Whitman Visual Representation

1861′ is an interesting one that’s likely to leave readers thinking about the ways that various experiences can be depicted. The poet uses poignant imagery throughout, ensuring that readers remain connected to 1861 and do not lose track of what’s important. 

1861
Walt Whitman

Arm'd year! year of the struggle!
No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you, terrible year!
Not you as some pale poetling, seated at a desk, lisping cadenzas
        piano;
But as a strong man, erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing,
        carrying a rifle on your shoulder,
With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands—with a knife in
        the belt at your side,
As I heard you shouting loud—your sonorous voice ringing across the
        continent;
Your masculine voice, O year, as rising amid the great cities,
Amid the men of Manhattan I saw you, as one of the workmen, the
        dwellers in Manhattan;
Or with large steps crossing the prairies out of Illinois and
        Indiana,
Rapidly crossing the West with springy gait, and descending the
        Alleghanies;                                                
Or down from the great lakes, or in Pennsylvania, or on deck along
        the Ohio river;
Or southward along the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers, or at
        Chattanooga on the mountain top,
Saw I your gait and saw I your sinewy limbs, clothed in blue, bearing
        weapons, robust year;
Heard your determin'd voice, launch'd forth again and again;
Year that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round-lipp'd cannon,
I repeat you, hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted year.
1861 by Walt Whitman


Summary

1861’ by Walt Whitman is a moving poem about a specific year during the American Civil War from the perspective of a soldier.

The poem starts with the soldier saying that the year is not one that one writes happy verses about. Instead, it was a terrible experience for everyone. He personifies the year, referring to it as he mentions various locations around the country. In this way, he’s able to connect his experience to the year that the rest of the country saw/experienced. 

Structure and Form 

‘1861’ by Walt Whitman is a thirty-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The poem is written in free verse, a style that does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is common to Whitman’s verse. In fact, Walt Whitman is famously known as the “father of free verse poetry.” His work in this style inspired countless poets to come. 

Of note in this piece are also Whitman’s examples of repetition. It is through other literary devices that Whitman provides his work with a feeling of unity beyond a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Explore these in more detail below. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “or” which starts three lines in the last section of the poem. 
  • Caesura: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, “Arm’d year! year of the struggle!” 
  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “pale poetling” in line four and “With well” in line eight.
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands— / with a knife in the belt at your side” is quite evocative and should inspire readers senses. 


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-11

Arm’d year! year of the struggle!

No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you,

terrible year!

Not you as some pale poetling, seated at a desk, lisp-

ing cadenzas piano;

But as a strong man, erect, clothed in blue clothes,

advancing, carrying a rifle on your shoulder,

With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands—

with a knife in the belt at your side,

As I heard you shouting loud—your sonorous voice

ringing across the continent;

In the first lines of this poem, the poet makes use of examples of allusion. He refers to the year 1861 as a “year of the struggle” and “Arm’d year.” This is a reference to the events of the American Civil War. The speaker, a Union soldier in that war, is expressing his experience. When the word “blue” is used in the first section of the poem, readers know for sure they are on the side of the North. 

The speaker addresses the year, an example of an apostrophe. He tells the year that there are no “sentimental love verses” written about it. It is a dark and terrible year. 


While describing a soldier, the speaker works in reference to the year. If the speaker is indeed a soldier, as it seems likely, they are using their experiences to define the year as they experienced it. For example, they are referring to it as carrying a rifle and wearing blue. 

Lines 12-19

Your masculine voice, O year, as rising amid the great

cities,

Amid the men of Manhattan I saw you, as one of the

workmen, the dwellers in Manhattan;

Or with large steps crossing the prairies out of Illinois

and Indiana,

Rapidly crossing the West with springy gait, and de-

scending the Alleghanies;

The speaker’s unique address and description of the year continue into the next lines. He brings in the phrase “O year” as a way of ensuring readers are aware he’s still talking to and about the year 1861. He personifies the year, describing it as one of the “workmen, the dwellers in Manhattan.” He saw the year in the form of men across the country, “Rapidly crossing the West” and on the “prairies out of Illinois  / and Indiana.” 

He’s casting his own experience across the country, likely thinking about all the other men who have suffered as he has. The year was terrible for him, but he knows that he’s not the only one who experienced it in this way. 

Lines 20-30 

Or down from the great lakes, or in Pennsylvania, or on

deck along the Ohio river;

Or southward along the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers,

or at Chattanooga on the mountain top,

Saw I your gait and saw I your sinewy limbs, clothed

in blue, bearing weapons, robust year;

Heard your determin’d voice, launch’d forth again and

again;

Year that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round

lipp’d cannon,

I repeat you, hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted year.

His address to the rest of the country continues into the next lines. He mentions the “great lakes” and “Ohio river.” He also takes the reader down to the “Tennessee or Cumberland rivers.” The poet uses examples of repetition in the following lines as he again describes the year/his/other soldier’s appearances. In the end, he compares the year and his suffering to the repeated blasts of a cannon. They are “hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted.” The poem ends on this solemn note, without a hint of optimism for the future

FAQs 

What is the tone of ‘1861?’ 

The tone is solemn and passionate. The speaker has gone through a great deal in 1861 and approaches a retelling of his feelings by depicting the year. He struggled and suffered, and that comes through in his words. 

What were the themes at work in ‘1861?’

The themes at work in this poem include suffering, war, and collective experience. The latter is seen through the speaker’s mention of the various states and landscapes he’s seen “the year” in. This is a way of connecting his suffering and the war itself to other people. 

What is the purpose of ‘1861?’

The purpose is to emphasize the suffering of soldiers during the Civil War, particularly during the year 1861. It was not a year that one writes beautiful and peaceful poetic verses about. 

Who is the speaker of 1861?’

The speaker is a Union soldier, on the side of the North, during the American Civil War. He’s had a terrible year, as have many other men around the country, and he’s using these lines to emphasize the widespread terror of the year. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ should also consider reading some other Walt Whitman poems. For example: 

  • Animals’ – a poem describing the poet’s love for animals and their nature.
  • A Clear Midnight’ – a simple, yet impactful poem that depicts a speaker’s desire to free his soul from the confines of day to day life.
  • I Dream’d in a Dream’ – depicts a speaker’s dream of a utopian world in which love is the reference point for all decisions and actions. 

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1861 by Walt Whitman Visual Representation
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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