Aug 10, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 4

This week's class focused on language and theme. I'm constantly amazed by the subtlety of Whitman's poems, and how much he conveys with a simple reversal of words or use of parenthetical pauses. I'm starting to look at his work as a puzzle: every time something odd appears, you can bet it's not just coincidence. Maybe you'll find a puzzle  piece you didn't know was missing, a piece that makes you see the poem at another level. It's fascinating. Here are a few things our instructors, professors Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill,  pointed out:

In "Vigil Strange I kept on the Field One Night," a poem about a soldier keeping vigil for his dying comrade, the placement of the word "strange" is, well, strange. Why not "a strange vigil"? With Whitman's choice of syntax, "strange" attaches itself to both "vigil" and "I," indicating that the "I" is off-balance, strange, as well as the situation. Cool, huh? And Whitman also uses homonyms to great effect, like the pair son/sun:

And there and then, and bathed by the rising sun, my
son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I de-posited;

 It's also curious that in Drum-Taps, the poem that preceded this is "Mother and Babe," so there's a juxtaposition of life and death, the babe sleeping in his mother's arms and the dead soldier in his comrade's. Whitman encountered many dying soldiers when he volunteered at the hospitals and comforted them as best he could, sometimes taking the role of mother (and father, lover, nurse, etc. for that matter) for those dying alone and far from family. That experience probably affected this poem. You can see a similar juxtaposition in the pairing of “A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim” and “A Farm Picture,” the image of the dead soldiers, about to be buried in the field that was a farm field (and will be again) and the image of a farm, cattle feeding on the grass nourished by dead soldiers and the survivors of the war getting nourishment from the cattle.

Another poem, "A March in the Ranks, Hard-Pressed," was inspired by a soldier's story of a church turned hospital, where he saw a young, mortally wounded soldier dying on the altar. Because the notebook Whitman used at the time survived, we get a fascinating glimpse into how he turned the story into a poem. Some of the phrases the soldier used make it into the poem unaltered. The poem is also one long sentence, enforcing the idea of a march, but it's broken by two parenthetical phrases, which turn out to be the most important bits in the poem.

The first phrase is "he is shot in the abdomen," a decidedly unpoetic phrase, a clinical description, and the other is the only metaphorical description in the poem, "the youngster's face is white as a lily," almost too sentimental for Whitman. When you connect the two, that's when the magic happens. The soldier was shot in the abdomen, a fatal wound, he's bleeding out. That's why his face is white as a lily. Why a lily? The boy is cut down in his prime, like a cut lily; you can see its beauty, but it will soon start to fade. We're in a church, so the lily also symbolises the funeral lily, and the Easter lily, a symbol of resurrection. The instructors also pointed out the word "temporarily," and how awkward it is in a poem. But that's precisely why Whitman put it there: the narrator can only staunch the flow of blood temporarily, not stop it, just like the word slows the reader down but doesn't stop the flow of the poem.

At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in
danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)
I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is
white as a lily;)

There's also another inversion: 

But first I bend to the dying lad—his eyes open—a 
half-smile gives he me; 

He me. It brings the narrator and the soldier together, perfect to illustrate that intimate moment.

Our assignment this week was to write about some event or experience that evoked a contradiction in us, like in Whitman's "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun." How can you both hate and love the same thing, find it beautiful and horrifying?


  1. This post is well done; you have given it the beauty of a poem.

    My brother once pointed out to me that in many U.S. stories for teenagers, such as the sports stories he enjoyed, the high school is often called Walt Whitman High. He wondered about that. Now it makes more sense.

  2. Thanks. Can't take credit for the ideas, though, these are just my notes on the lecture. A fantastic course!


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