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Walt Whitman’s Poems and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
Read the two other poems by Whitman that were assigned, which were written some time after Leaves of Grass, after the carnage of the Civil War: “The Wound-Dresser” and “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Consider the subject matter — Whitman’s experiences as a nurse in Washington D.C. during the war, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. How do the styles of these poems differ from the exuberance of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in order to match the grim subject matter? Or what, on the other hand, persists from his earlier poem? Quote and analyze a few individual lines or verses.
“The Wound-Dresser ” and “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom’d” provide themes of traumatic experiences, matching the gruesomeness of Walt Whitman’s encounters as a nurse during the civil war, and the assisination of Abraham Lincoln. Unlike his earlier poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” which provides themes surrounding unity and tranquility.
In “The Wound-Dresser”, Whitman uses different images describing the soldiers the speaker is tending to throughout the poem for example when the speaker says, “The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine/Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard.” This gruesome image is a result of the horrors war creates. The speaker describes the cavalry-man as struggling to stay alive and in the lines that follow the description of the cavalry-man, the speaker says, “(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!/ In mercy come quickly).” This following sentence almost reads as if it’s a prayer or an aside, something the speaker wishes not to say directly because of the parentheses. The speaker wishes the cavalry-man to find peace in a sweet slumber, an escape outside of the nightmare-turned reality they are experiencing first hand. This is also a prominent theme in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In section fifteen of the poem the speaker says, “I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them/ And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them/ I saw the debris and debris of all slain soldiers of the war.” This morbid account of what happened after the battle from the speaker shows the soldiers that lay scattered on the battlefield. What follows after the speaker’s observation is a mere parallel to what the speaker in “The Wound Dresser” says right after his examination of the soldier, “But I saw they were not as was thought/ They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not/ The living remain’d and suffer’d.” The speaker is making a point that though the soldiers that lay before him are slain, they no longer have to feel the pain of loss or bear witness to what horrors would come to follow. Suffering is almost synonymous with living in both of these poems, as they accurately depict the pain and suffering Whitman saw while the war was prevalent.
Before the war was prevalent, Whitman’s poems focused on normalcy. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” the speaker mentions his encounter with others, “Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat/ Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word.” The speaker is describing what he usually sees. The description is much more tranquil than the descriptions of the speakers in both “The Wound Dresser” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The closeness the speaker has in relation to the people he encounters in this part of the poem are created as a result of the tranquility that is established early on in the poem. The line that follows what the speaker is describing is, “Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping.” The term “sleeping” is used differently than in the two other poems, as here it is added with other peaceful and basic human experiences. The speaker also points out a sense of unity by mentioning his shared experiences with others, making life worth living, that is at least before the war.
The central story related in “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is relatively simple, being that of a man, Jim Smiley, who catches a frog — and names it “Daniel Webster” after a famous American Senator — trains it to jump, and makes a $40 bet with a stranger that it can out-jump any other frog in the county. But the story’s framing devices — how the story comes to the reader, and how the story is told — are a little more complicated. How many layers are there to this story? Who is telling what parts of the story, and why? How does this multi-layered approach to telling the story affect the way we interpret the events recounted?
In Mark Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” there are quite a few layers to the story that’s being told. There is the primal story the narrator is telling and within the narration there are other stories layered in such as the narrator’s friend from the East’s friendship with Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley and Simon Wheel’s account of Jim Smiley. The way Mark Twain structures who is telling each section of the story is by the narrator telling the story of the present as well as the short description of his friend from the East and his desire to find out if Rev. Leonidas Smiley was actually a resident of Angel’s Camp. This prompts the narrator to find out if the reverend is a myth and if they were a resident. After learning why the narrator wants to talk to Simon Wheeler, Mark Twain shifts the story of finding information about the reverend to Wheeler’s memories of Jim Smiley. Simon Wheeler goes on and on about Jim Smiley’s accomplishments as a winner of bets and then shifts to telling the narrator the story of the frog that made Jim Smiley lose a bet. The way each story is structured throughout provides limited accounts of what might have actually happened, especially in regards to the stories of Jim Smiley. Wheeler recalls Jim as, “lucky, uncommon lucky; he most always come out winner.” The story Wheel proceeds to start with an excessive amount of bets Jim made and then ends with a bet he lost because he was swindled. This affects the way we interpret the events because we don’t hear Jim’s perspective, making it possible that what actually happened in his last fight isn’t said by Wheeler. How would Simon Wheeler know a stranger gave Dan’l a quail shot, rigging the bet made with Jim? And how does Simon know this is true?
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