Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney :
(Poem #1559) Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night
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 return'd with a look I shall never forget, One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground, Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle, Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my way, Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,) Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind, Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading, Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night, But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed, Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side 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, As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole, Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death, I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,) Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd, My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form, Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet, And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited, Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim, Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,) Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd, I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, And buried him where he fell.
This is one of Whitman's tremendous Civil War poems, which were collected at the time as Drum Taps. Drum Taps, like virtually all of Whitman's poetry, eventually was absorbed into the amorphous blob that is Leaves of Grass, in this case the fourth edition. One of many remarkable things about these poems is that they aren't preachy; that is, they don't overtly take a stand on war in general or the Civil War in particular, they merely describe. Whitman's views on the war are left for you to infer. (Compare this to Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon.) The whole of Drum Taps is much more than the sum of its parts, as all this description has an undeniably powerful cumulative effect. But "Vigil Strange," one of the best, can easily stand on its own as a representative of the rest. As with all of Whitman's good poems, free verse does not mean structureless verse. "Vigil Strange" begins and ends with a short line, bookending the description in between. The lines that begin with "vigil" and an inversion ("Vigil strange," "Vigil wondrous" and "Vigil final") in effect divide this poem into three sections -- in plot terms, roughly that's the battle, the vigil, and the burial. The speaker of the poem, by the way, is obviously not Whitman, who was a non-combatant during the war. (He was a nurse; his non-fictional war memoirs comprise the interesting part of his prose work Specimen Days.) The relationship between the speaker and the dead soldier is complicated and ambiguous (another Whitman signature). It's not altogether clear that they are, biologically speaking, father and son, for there are too many other choices, in particular suggested by the undeniable hints of eroticism. At the very least, we can say that the boy (for obviously he was quite young) represented many things to the speaker, who chooses a variety of words to describe the relationship-"my son," "my comrade," and most interestingly, "my soldier," as if the boy was the speaker's protector. Mirroring this, the speaker's reaction to the death goes through phases: near indifference in the face of the "even-contested battle," followed by the deepest sorrow of the all-night vigil, finally followed by stoic acceptance: the burial is of "my soldier," not "my son." At the final analysis, the altogether personal reaction to a death just retreats into the fabric of the war, the "battle-field spreading," and at daybreak the speaker must reluctantly bury his comrade/son/soldier where he fell, and become once again a soldier himself. Interesting how the night fits into things: The imagery of night and stars is intertwined with the speaker's grieving: the dead boy's face is first seen "in the starlight," as "cool blew the moderate night-wind." Time during the vigil is marked only by the revolution of the stars in the firmament. By contrast, "bathed by the rising sun," the speaker abandons grieving and turns to the practical matter of burial. It is only at night, when not fighting, that the speaker can allow himself the luxury of human emotions; during the day he is a soldier who cannot grieve. I've read this poem probably twenty times, and it never fails to affect me. Mark Penney.