Ezra Pound wrote while confined to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.,"I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman--I have detested you long enough." Whitman's heritage is so huge that it is hard for any American bard not to measure their verse against his. Time does not shrink Whitman and he seems to loom ever larger and more palpable upon the page even today. Composed in 1865 "Vigil strange I kept on the field one night." was first published the same year in Drum Taps.
The collection of war poems illustrated a new approach to poetry. The verses shift from the melodramatic thrill with which Whitman hailed the call to arms of the young men at the outset of the American Civil War to a troubling consciousness of the inevitable outcome of any war. While Beat! Beat! Drums! reverberates with the harshness of the Battle of Bull Run a shift in tone occurrs in Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night depicts a wakefulness to anguish that is just as valuable for its gentle and ordinary comfort.
“Vigil strange," "Vigil wondrous" and "Vigil final" bookend the scenes as they play out across the text. In effect the phrases break up the poem into three sections -- the battle, the vigil, and the burial. The night and stars first reveal a dead boy's face as "cool blew the moderate night-wind." Discovering the body, the chronicler embarks on his vigil without tears or words of despair. His only contrition is for racing off duty bound leaving his younger companion to die alone. The storyteller discloses the vigil as "strange," "curious," "wondrous," "mystic," and "sweet" -- almost wholly mysterious and revelatory.
His sorrow designates him father and mother and lover of the fallen boy, allowing him to take part in all of the hallowed acts of devotion that becomes absorbed by the ritual. Both act out a universal consummation of love and what is being cultivated is not a public obligation but a personal relationship upon a wasteland devoid of kinship and apathetic to loss. The speaker’s wordless grief—"not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh"—refuses to reach the maudlin. "I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, / And buried him where he fell" implies a transfiguration of the survivor and suggests redemption for the fallen. When "bathed by the rising sun," sorrow is abandoned and turns to the practical matter of interment. The narrator pushes off from both the corpse and the reader at once to retreat back into the fabric of war.
Drum Taps, like most of Whitman's poetry, was eventually immersed into the nebulous missive Leaves of Grass, in this instance the fourth edition. One of many significant effects of these poems is that rather than taking an explicit stand on war they merely describe and the poet’s views on the war are left for the readers to infer. To lend a bit of context Whitman went to Fredericksburg in 1862 to see his wounded brother. After staying some time at the camp he accepted a short-term job in Washington. On his days off he visited the wounded and dying soldiers in the local hospitals, spending his meager wages on gifts for both Confederate and Unionist soldiers. He enjoyed contributing his standard of “cheer and magnetism” to try to lessen some of the sadness and physical pain in the wards. The editor of Drum Taps (1865 ) wrote in his introduction:
This was the secret of his tender, unassuming ministrations. He had none of that shrinking timidity, that fear of intrusion, that uneasiness in the presence of the tragic and the pitiful, which so often numb and oppress those who would willingly give themselves and their best to the needy and suffering, but whose intellect misgives (sic) them. He was that formidable phenomenon, a dreamer of action. But he possessed a Sovran (sic) good sense.
Food and rest and clean clothes were his scrupulous preparation for his visits. He always assumed as cheerful an appearance as possible. Armed with bright new five-cent and ten-cent bills (the wounded, he found, were often "broke," and the sight of a little money "helped their spirits"), with books and stationery and tobacco, for one a twist of good strong green tea, for another a good home-made rice-pudding, or a jar of sparkling but innocent blackberry and cherry syrup, a small bottle of horse-radish pickle, or a large handsome apple, he would "make friends." "What I have I also give you," he cried from the bottom of his grieved, tempestuous heart.
He would talk, or write letters--passionate love-letters, too--or sit silent, in mute and tender kindness. "Long, long, I gazed ... leaning my chin in my hands, passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours, with you, dearest comrade--not a tear, not a word, Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier." And how many a mother must have blessed the stranger who could bring such last news of a son as this: "And now like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his young life at the very outset in her service. Such things are gloomy--yet there is a text, 'God doeth all things well'--the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the soul." It is only love that can comfort the loving.
Many young boys were present in the ranks both North and South, some of them were under age and Whitman's wrote countless letters home for the soldiers that were uneducated or simply hesitant. The self-styled "missionary" to the Army hospitals found great pleasure and duty in writing for the wounded. Through his efforts he came to appreciate the abyss of estranged the soldier's existence from that of the civilian world. Scholar M. Wynn Thomas writes, “…Whitman found th(e) wholesale anonymity of the dead (in the Civil War) very disturbing. He returned to the subject repeatedly in Specimen Days
after the war, noting, for instance, that in one particular war cemetery only eighty-five of the bodies were identified.” The poet’s letters, verse, newspaper articles and notebooks-- shaped a connection between the worlds of the military and the civilian. This surrogate and psychological bridge between two distinct cultures during the Civil War led to the acceptance of the exclusive sufferings. Whitman wrote in his journal:
I have been sitting late tonight by the bedside of a wounded Captain, a friend of mine... in a large Ward partially vacant. The lights were out, all but a little candle, far from where I sat. I sat there by him. . . occupied with the musings that arose out of the scene, the long shadowy Ward, the beautiful ghostly moonlight on the floor.
Perhaps it is against this background that Vigil Strange
was penned with the poignant urge to make certain that the field of the dead are acknowledged, considered, and grieved for. The author keeps a vigil that is both a lament and
a celebration. It is a vigil he can never disregard because it harkens him to both love and death. It’s interesting to note that the original outline of the poem was written to the dead soldier in the third-person singular. However, when the canto was published it had been transformed into the second-person singular amplifying the aura of familiarity and anonymity of the scene. So much so that the reader feels engrossed in the soldiers’ experience and perhaps prompted to reconcile this experience between poet and soldier to the civilian world.
Public Domian text taken from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Drum Taps, by Walt Whitman:
RPO -- Walt Whitman : Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night:
On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night":
Whitman, Walt Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 27, 2004, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.:
Whitman's Wartime Washington: