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Walt Whitman's Perspective on War and the Soldier's Experience

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

Bathed in War's Perfume & Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night

If you have studied American literature or U.S. History in school, it is likely that you are already familiar with Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Although he is sometimes credited as the “father of free verse,” the style of writing poetry that does not adhere to the conventional practices of rhyme and rhythm, in reality, many early period poems (pre-14th century) can be described as free verse. Be that as it may, what is particularly special about Whitman the poet, is how much themes of military life and death, war and patriotism are woven into many of his works.

Walt Whitman
 For a brief period of five years (1871-1876), in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, seven poems collectively titled Bathed in War’s Perfume were included in the compendium of his work. Prior to, and after those dates, this set of poems was removed; this includes the final version of Leaves of Grass published in 1881. From those, as well as his many other military themed poems, I‘ve selected some of my favorites to include as a precursor to, arguably his most famous works: Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night.

Listen and follow along with the short video for these first five military themed poems. Focus on Whitman’s words that evoke his obvious respect and compassion for those that serve in the military and, especially, under their nation’s flag. 

Here, Sailor
Bathed in War’s Perfume
Adieu to a Soldier
To the Man-of-War-Bird
Behold this Swarthy Face

The second video (below) will be for Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night.  An analysis of the poem Vigil will follow and complete this article. I hope you enjoy my selections.

Poetry Analysis: Whitman's Civil War Influenced Poem

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night

Walt Whitman's Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night, is a representative selection of his work as influenced by the Civil War. Whitman was not of a mind to simply tell a story for the sake of beauty: He was more concerned with using words to express ideas and thoughts to provoke images of what he believed to be the truth. Vigil is the telling of a moment in time. As portrayed by Whitman, a night where a soldier seeing the death of another soldier, finds himself torn between the compassion and sadness he should feel, and the numbness and blunting of emotions developed from the continual deaths and losses seen in war. It's an emotional and intestinal balancing act between your fears, nerves, and instincts for survival.

The "Self" in this poem, as an essential metaphor, is told from the point of view of "I", as if to mean Whitman himself, but it is used in a manner that inevitably includes the reader as the "I". Whitman describes the death of a soldier and how those who survived felt about the death.

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;

when you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day.

One look I but gave which your dear eyes returned

with a look I shall never forget.

This "I" is not just Whitman as the story-teller, it is the reader as the soldier experiencing the event. Whitman creates the images of emotional contradiction with lines such as: "But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh...." This line is significant because most people faced with the death of someone who may have been family, or at least a friend, would expect a deep sadness, crying, and a sense of emotional pain. Yet, for this surviving soldier, a touch of compassion is all he can muster. He is still consciously, or unconsciously, ever weary of the battlefield. The soldier is obviously sad to lose his friend, but he has already lost so many friends by this time, his feelings are somewhat blunted by now. Whitman's surviving soldier has not turned totally emotionally numb. In the line, "Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade . . . not a tear, not a word," you can imagine the surviving soldier's thoughts of the contemplation on this comrades death and his life.

Whitman uses the terms "son," "comrade," and "boy" to signify the fallen soldier. He does not specify a particular relationship but infers many possibilities. His choice of words is both a protection mechanism for the surviving soldier, in order to distance himself from his friend, and as a tool to recognize that this war involved family dying side by side. The term comrade is to lessen the inference of friendship and to signify the relationship as partners of a common purpose, without regard to any emotional or compassionate relationship. Its use is to suppress the pain this soldier holds. However, this is only temporary, because the line, "I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again," signifies a more seriousness friendship or family connection than the term "comrade". He completes this picture on a positive and compassionate note, by pulling the surviving soldier back up by saying, "I never forget, how as day brightened, I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier will in his blanket, And buried him where he fell."

Whitman's focus in Vigil was not on the military units, the northern armies, or southern armies. His focus was on the individuals, all the individuals, their emotions, sadness, fears, pains, pride, loneliness, and strength. He presents a completed ending for this short poem: The surviving soldier's ordeal is brought to an end with the burial of his comrade and the coming of the new day. This ending could reflect Whitman's own sense of bringing a sense of completion to this death story and the idea of a new tomorrow.

Civil War Print

Final Word  

Walt Whitman's telling story of a soldier who sees his comrade struck down in battle and returns to find him "cold with death" are timeless words, though written more than 150 years ago, could have been written during World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan and would be no less true.

Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition (Dover Thrift Editions)
Amazon Price: $3.50 $0.54 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 6, 2015)
Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography
Amazon Price: $22.00 $9.22 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 6, 2015)
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Bibliography

  1. Betsy Eikkila "Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues (Walt Whitman)." Georgetown University. 21/10/2014 <Web >

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