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On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

E. Fred Carlisle

[T]he poet recognizes that the two men did share a reciprocal love that, just possibly, kept them going . . . and thus enabled them to find something of value in the war. The war made the relationship possible, and it gave the friendship, perhaps, a depth and immediacy it might not have had in other circumstances. Therefore, the surviving comrade will remember the personal I-Thou relationship that did exist, as well as recall the death that deprived him of his friend. The old soldier maintains a vigil that is at once a lament and a celebration. It is a vigil he can never forget because it reminds him of both love and death.

from The Uncertain Self: Whitman’s Drama of Identity (Michigan State UP, 1973), 131.

M. Wynn Thomas

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. 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. . . . It’s noteworthy that in draft form the poem referred to the dead comrade in the third-person singular, so that in altering it to the second-person singular, Whitman increased both the sense of mystery and the sense of intimacy. . . . Whitman both felt drawn toward a rapt immersion in the soldiers’ experience (as expressed in the printed version of "Vigil Strange") and impelled to mediate their experience to the civilian world (hence the style of report of the original draft form).

from "Fratricide and Brotherly Love: Whitman and the Civil War" in Ezra Greenspan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman (Cambridge UP, 1995), 37.

Robert Leigh Davis

"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" poses a . . . critique of sentimental paradigms. . . . Strikingly absent from the poem are the capitalized abstractions of other poems in Drum-Taps—"Democracy," "Columbia," "Libertad"—ideological constructs that would subsume the anomaly of the soldier’s death and validate the prosecution of the war. 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. 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’s wordless grief—"not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh"—refuses to embody itself in the sentimental rhetoric by which Whitman, in other moods, sought to regather the dead. The severe abruptness of the poem’s ending signals this discrepancy between public and private orders of meaning. . . . 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.

from Whitman and the Romance of Medicine (U of California P, 1997), 84-85.

Betsy Erkkila

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. 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.

Whitman's "undertone of sweetest comradeship & human love" is particularly strong in the elegy "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," where in the starlight illuminating the darkened landscape of war, the poet-soldier buries his "dear comrade" and "son of responding kisses" in a private ritual of mourning and love. 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.

"Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade," Whitman's common soldier is more than a soldier of war in Drum-Taps. He is a figure of democratic--and homosexual--humanity marching the "untried roads" of the future.

from Whitman the Political Poet. Copyright 1989 by Oxford University Press.

David Cavitch

The best war poem in Drum-Taps concerns Whitman’s vigil beside the body of his fallen comrade. "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" opens at the moment his comrade falls wounded; the two men look at each other with shocked eyes, and their helpless love passes through their fleeting touch. The wound that is mortal for one man is immortal for the other.

[Cavitch quotes the first six lines of the poem]

Finding the body, Whitman begins his vigil without tears or words of misery. 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. 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.

From My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. Copyright 1985 by David Cavitch.

 James Dougherty

Whitman depicts another of the conventional situations of the war's poetry--the battlefield at night, littered with the slain. But he does not stop with the convention. He invests himself completely in the person of the soldier who keeps watch beside his dead son: . . .

The poem has a double subject: the formulaic situation of a soldier's body discovered on the battlefield by a relative or lover and a more individualized evocation of the father's mental quietude during his "vigil." Although less explicitly about memory than "The Wound-Dresser," it is still a poem of reminiscence, promising that the dying and the vigil will not be forgotten. Its implicit context is the camp or the hospital, places where memories are exchanged. The setting of the vigil itself remains unrealized, but the soldier gives a clear sense of his featureless, nightlong meditation, in its mixture of exhaustion, shock, and genuine peace; and so the dearth of visual details supports Whitman's reluctance to violate this inward stillness by setting names to it. Whereas "Come Up from the Fields" clogged its situation with stock figures and stock attitudes in a conventional landscape, "Vigil Strange" enters a space in which the reader can create for himself the soldier's emptiness of mind. That space is, first, the army, which provides both a context for comradeship and also an unsayable explanation for his lassitude. Second, it is the hospital, where the wound-dresser sits, beside men like this, building poems out of silences like his.

In the midst of so many poems that are quick to impose their emotions and opinions on the events of the war, "Vigil Strange" is striking for the reticence of its soldier-persona. His I stands mute and passive in the presence of a Not-Me that exceeds his capacity to respond; and Whitman's imagination embraces that emptiness, not filling its void as he did at the end of "Come Up from the Fields." In Drum-Taps, there are about ten poems in which the struggle between the Soul and the World ceases, opening a brief glimpse of an intensely visualized experience. Most of these are the minor scenes of the war's "interior," genre pictures of the commonplaces of march and bivouac. These events had not got into the books: for these "unnamed lights and shades" there was no vocabulary of conventional phrases and emotions. Many of them assume the viewpoint of an eyewitness like the soldier in "Vigil Strange," speaking in the character of that mourner into which "Satan" had modulated. It is for these poems that Drum-Taps is known today.

From Walt Whitman and the Citizen’s Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Copyright 1993 by Louisiana State University Press.

John Carlos Rowe

Whitman's appropriation of military and political authority reaches its romantic limit when the power of "incarnation" quite literally becomes the power of parental generation and divine regeneration. Poems like "Come Up from the Fields Father" and "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" complement the "Wound-Dresser" by claiming for the poet not simply the voice of mourning but also the power to resurrect the dead.

. . . Vigil" substitutes an intensely personal account of a soldier's death in the field for the "Sentences broken" that announce Pete's wounding to his family in "Come Up from the Fields Father." And the "son" of this poem is also the poet's "comrade," allowing the poet to claim the special intimacy that only veterans of war have for each other:

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

The poet's vigil is earned as a consequence of shared battle, and the body he views so lovingly is inspired by his own sense of miraculous escape from death. As he contemplates this double, "leaning my chin in my hands," the poet has discovered the certain purpose that escaped the more emotional response of the parents in the previous poem: "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" ("Vigil," DT, 492). Even as the poet acknowledges the impotence of mere words before actual death, he does so only parenthetically and within the same aside recognizes what seems to contradict the claim that he cannot save this 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,)" ("Vigil," DT, 492). Ritually wrapping his comrade in his blanket, the poet "envelop'd well his form," and "bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited, / Ending my vigil strange with that" (492). Sweet reads this poem in conjunction with others that invoke the father for the sake of recalling "the healing power of adhesiveness," including "Quicksand Years" and "The Wound-Dresser."

"Vigil" is a strange combination of compassion and arrogant assertion through which "my son" quite literally becomes Christ buried by the poet/god just as the dawn announces not his "son's" resurrection, but that of the poet transfigured: "I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, / And buried him where he fell" (492). It is not, of course, Whitman's purpose to rationalize the carnage of the Civil War by invoking some vague reference to Original Sin and our collective "fall," but rather to suggest how the poetic voice can redeem all those who have fallen in the War. It is the form of the poetry that will not simply chronicle the War but claim the memorializing function that will quite literally "resurrect" poetic vision from the terror of History. By the end of the poem, the fallen comrade has become "my soldier," and he marches for the sake of the poet's triumphant resurrection.

from "Whitman's Body Poetic." in America's Modernisms: Revaluing the Canon--Essays in Honor of Joseph N. Riddel. Ed. Kathryne V. Lindberg and Joseph G. Kronick. Copyright 1996 by Louisiana State UP.

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