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Vigil Strange I Kept in the Field One Night

It is a vigil he can never forget because it reminds him of both love and death. 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. It is against this background that a poem like "Vigil Strange" cries out to be read.

Walt Whitman "Vigil Strange" Civil War Poem animatiion

Then it can perhaps be appreciated that the emotional impulse behind the poem is partly the desire to ensure that the battlefield dead are individually recognized, remembered, and mourned. The poem is silent on those subjects, and its withholding, its "vigil of silence," guards against appropriating the soldier within overarching providential or historical designs.

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night

The poem disclaims that appropriation. It refuses to participate in the forgetfulness necessary to transform death into exemplum. Whitman often deploys a legitimating rhetoric of Union by which to repair the strangeness of the Civil War. But in this poem it is the preservation of that strangeness that interests the poet. The lover returns to reclaim the lost soldier, an act resonant with the paradigms of literary sentimentality, but what is being reclaimed precisely is not a public identity but a private relation, a wilderness relation indifferent to shared notions of loss.

The poet pushes off at this moment, not only from the corpse but also from the reader, as if to preserve lines of demarcation threatened by a sympathetic blur of compassion. The intense bonds of compassion, comradeship, and love that Whitman witnessed and formed among the soldiers were a source of democratic sustenance amid the blood-drenched scenes of war.

More by Walt Whitman

These loving bonds formed by men at war also gave Whitman a positive language and social form in which to experience and articulate his own homosexual desire. In the poems of Drum-Taps the lover of the Calamus poems becomes the soldier-comrade and wound-dresser "Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips" , thus heightening the lyric intensity and emotional immediacy of several of the war poems. Modulating formal control with a tone of uttermost woe, Whitman's "strange" vigil suggests that it was the loving affection among men--released and allowed in a wartime context--that enabled him to rise from the "chill ground" of the battlefield and conduct his own burial of the dead in the poems of Drum-Taps and Sequel.

He is a figure of democratic--and homosexual--humanity marching the "untried roads" of the future. The wound that is mortal for one man is immortal for the other. Finding the body, Whitman begins his vigil without tears or words of misery.

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night by hiranm mohn on Prezi

Remorseful for having sped onward in his duty while leaving the younger comrade to die alone, Whitman finds that the vigil is not full of anguish but is "strange," "curious," "wondrous," "mystic," and "sweet" -- almost entirely enigmatic and revelatory. His mourning gives him full title to father and mother and lover of the fallen boy, qualifying him to take part in sacred acts of devotion.

The stark literalness of the concluding line puts an end to the suggestive atmosphere of luminous, animate night that expresses Whitman's inner spaciousness in the center of the poem. His sweet communion in the starlight occurs between traumatic events at the beginning and end: the abruptly dealt wound, the death look, and the brutally plain burial.

The Walt Whitman Archive

These details occur as shocks, defining the limits of time and reality around the boundless sympathy in the center of the poem that reaches across death and upward to the stars. The return to the harsh fact of death underscores Whitman's new attitude that love never reaches its objects; it swells in the solitary heart, creating a cavern of voiceless grief and tenderness.

Boston: Beacon Press, His son is gunned down, and in the heat of battle the person barely has a moment to say goodbye:.


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Late at night after the battle was over, the father returns to the place where his son was shot and finds the body. He keeps vigil over his son throughout the night:.


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He also thinks about how he was unable to save his son because the battle was so swift and fierce. Some elements of the poem are pure Whitman.

Selected Criticism

He also writes the whole poem in one long sentence with a comma at the end of each line. Memorial Day can be a difficult holiday for families who have lost a loved one in war. Your email address will not be published. Posted on May 28, by Debra L. Stang Blog Writer, SevenPonds.


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