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Poem of the week: Vigil Strange I Kept in the Field One Night by Walt Whitman


Whitman's variety of lineation gives this poem, in which he draws on his own experiences as a field hospital nurse, its originality

With Walt Whitman, born in 1819, American poetry is usually thought to throw off its English ancestry. This may be an over-simplification, given the distinctive qualities of such writers as Longfellow (b 1807), Poe (1809) and the underrated Herman Melville, the latter also born in 1819 – all poets of undoubted originality. But Whitman looks and sounds different. He seems to stride across the traditional rhythm of the line and shape of the stanza, breaking new ground, marching into a bigger, free-er poetic world. He is a poet who carries an advertising hoarding, a man singing himself, yet singing humanity.

This week's poem, Vigil Strange I Kept in the Field One Night is from his 1864 volume, Drum-Taps. Published almost a decade after the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), it reflects the intense maturation process he underwent during the American civil war, and demonstrates how technically radical Whitman is, or seems to be. His punctuation is often weird. His lines seem to rush headlong till stopped, usually by a semi-colon. His word order may be quaint with Latinate inversions ("Long there and then in vigil I stood") and sometimes ungrammatical; his lines expand and contract like tides. And yet at the same time Whitman's verse feels familiar in its strangeness, His rhetorical devices – epanalepsis, anaphora ("Found you in death so cold, dear comrade – found your body …") and the like – are familiar from psalms and scripture. In fact, his modernity seems to consist in his instinct for bringing this ancient music into the poetic text, and using its repetitiveness to heighten the emotional power of his contemporary, yet often archetypal, subject matter.

Whitman's poetry is not un-scannable, though scanning it won't help us enjoy it. Accented lines can always be scanned, if it's a matter of mapping the stressed and unstressed syllables, and we can hang tidy Greek labels on some of them – labels which rarely have perfect descriptive accuracy, any way. The opening line is trochaic pentameter. The next is a hexameter, and the two after that, heptameters. This is a characteristic pattern, the accumulation of stresses line by line. It's the variety of his lineation rather than the destruction of metre which makes Whitman original. It gives his poetry an organic structure, enhancing our sense that, probably like the man himself, it's a natural force.

Here, among the many repetitions, the most audible is the constant chiming of the word "vigil," always connected to an adjective or adjectival clause: "vigil strange", "vigil wondrous and vigil sweet", "vigil of silence", "vigil final for you, brave boy", etc. Here, too, he uses accumulation, so that the final references to "vigil" are the fullest and most complex. They tell us some of the most important facts in the poem (we've heard them before, but now they are most deeply, memorably etched): "Vigil for boy of responding kisses", "Vigil for comrade swiftly slain".

In this and other poems in Drum-Taps, Whitman is drawing on his own experiences as a field hospital nurse (experiences unforgettably set out in his poem The Wound-Dresser) and transferring them to the battle-field. Although not a soldier, he knew the grim realities of war first-hand, and how to make poems from them. But this poem is also a romance. It elevates the grim realities. Death is transformed by a loving and solemn ritual into a near-religious experience.

No one else is present on this battlefield. The speaker sits alone with his dead comrade "in the fragrant silent night". The scene is eroticised and idealised. And, if the poem had ended earlier than it does, around line 15, perhaps, we'd have been forgiven for thinking it, despite the freewheeling style, a shade Keatsian in sentiment. Whitman's genius, here, is to keep going. I think this is often true of his work. The onward impulse isn't merely rhythmical, isn't merely a matter of open road or open heart. He pushes on when the subject matter itself is resistant.

The poem attains its stature with the wrapping and burial of the soldier's body. The wrapping is the main focus, repetitiously but precisely described: "My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, enveloped well his form, / Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet…" The lack of possessive pronoun or article here ("over head", "under feet") emphasises the necessary, romance-rejecting detachment. Death presents not only a sacred mystery, but a practical challenge. The three repetitions of "well" evoke the good nurse conscientiously at work.

The speaker returns to the present, now looking back on the "vigil of night and battlefield dim" and then, shifting further ahead in time, reviewing the tableau of the dawn burial. Nothing prepares us for the terseness of the last line, and yet how right it is. The possessive pronoun of "my soldier", embodies the tender valediction, the last moment of emotion. No more needs to be felt or said. "It is finished."

Vigil Strange I Kept in 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, nor 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.

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