27 May 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/22

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday that began after the Civil War, when it was known as "Decoration Day" because southern white women began decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers who fell defending states' rights, or race-based slavery and white supremacy, or their homeland, or their "way of life," or just because they followed orders to fight, or for any number of other reasons. The holiday has since expanded to commemorate the dead American soldiers in all our wars, just unjust and mixed, with all their various personal motivations for fighting. It also has come to mark the informal beginning of the summer season, which means mostly that in our stuffy airless cubicles we complain about how hot it is outside, instead of how cold.

Here is a poem from the Civil War, from Walt Whitman:

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 battlefield 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.

Walt Whitman

This is not a poem about war, or even battle: we are given no information on who is fighting whom, or why, or even where (we can infer that these are Union soldiers in the American Civil War, based on what we know of Whitman's life and the context of the poem within the Drum-Taps section of Leaves of Grass, but if you handed the poem to someone without attribution or context that reader couldn't find this information within the poem itself). There are no mentions of generals or other commanders, or strategy, or what if anything is at stake, and no descriptions of the fighting other than that it is "even-contested." The speaker was presumably on the winning side, whichever it was for that battle, since he could return to where his friend fell and stay there all night and then bury the boy at dawn. Though he later calls the site a battle field, initially it appears in its more basic eternal shape as simply a field.

The dead boy himself is characterized enough to be vivid and his death felt as a loss – he is brave, he is dear, he is a comrade – but he's not so individual that he could only be one particular youth; he stands for all the young men cut off in their youth by war. His age is emphasized: he is referred to repeatedly as a boy and as a sort of son to the speaker (who is presumably a bit older, though still young enough to be a soldier as well). The language the speaker uses around the dead soldier evokes a rich complex of many types of love: that of a comrade, a friend, a parent, a caregiver, even a hint of the erotic: the first time we hear of the responding kisses, the youth is seen in a filial capacity ("son of responding kisses"), but the second time, he is simple "boy of responding kisses." The nineteenth century was in some ways more open to complicated emotional and physical relationships among men than our own supposedly more tolerant time, when all such relationships tend to be reduced to simply sexual ones, so I think it's important to read passages such as this with a view to complications, rather than deciding (as the simplistic tendency often is nowadays) that some predetermined social category of our own time is what the poem is "really" about. (There are too many references to the fallen boy as the speaker's son for a purely sexual reading not to be kind of creepy.) Whitman always and intentionally eludes our easy views. I think the important thing here is that all kinds of possible loves swirl around this figure – and all of them are cut off; in the chant-like nature of the poem, each time we hear of "responding kisses" there follows immediately the reminder never again on earth responding. In the last few lines, the speaker refers again to many of these past and potential identities – son, child, friend, lover, comrade – but they are all finally subsumed into that of soldier, which becomes the boy's final, official, identity. His death makes him an army statistic, though his individuality and the possible meanings of his death – vigil I never forget – remain alive in the speaker.

Speaking of the elusiveness of Whitman, I almost restricted my note here to the use of the word "moderate" in line 8: cool blew the moderate night-wind. It's such a Whitman touch, and such a touch of genius. The tendency of most writers would have been either to make the wind a reflection of the bloody grief-filled mood and the human wreckage of the battlefield or, with sophisticated piquancy, to make the wind a complete contrast, a pleasant breeze over the slaughterhouse. Whitman chooses an exact but neutral word – it's a moderate wind – and you feel he is an accurate observer (a quality which lends credence to his other thoughts and experiences). The speaker's ability to remark the wind detaches him from his life as a soldier and as a mourner and connects him with a deeper world of Nature: not with other animals or living things (living things always cause noise – even trees and grass will sound, when the wind blows through them – but the speaker emphasizes the silent night, the stars silently moving aloft, and the lack even of a sigh or a sob), but with the wind, and the far-away stars, and the night and the sunrise, the mute indifferent unseeing companions of human suffering. There is a kind of peace in surrendering to these forces, and feeling their greater strength. The mourning here lies deeper than immediate sorrow. The self-prompted vigil is a "curious scene." Though the speaker grieves for the boy, the vigil is "wondrous" and "sweet" and the experience "strange" – different from what might be expected. (I'm reminded of the praise of "sane and sacred Death" in Whitman's great elegy for Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.)

This is not a poem about war, or battle; it is very specifically a poem about watching your comrade fall – fall before what should have been his time, and feeling as a result not just the deep human loss but both the indifference and the pity of the ever-renewing universe. Whitman's essential modesty deepens the spiritual effect of the poem; to clarify my point, let me contrast this with a poem I used to love but increasingly do not love, Plath's Lady Lazarus, in which some of the larger-scale and more terrifying world-historical tragedies of the twentieth century are subsumed into the narrator's self-aggrandizing descriptions of herself; depending on your mood and, I suspect, your age, you will find Plath's poem either striking and powerful or narrow and morally indefensible in its use of other people's horrific tragedies as decorative amulets. All poets tend to self-mythologize, but there is something longer-lasting about the detachment and larger awareness of a poet like Whitman.

I took this poem from the Library of America edition of Whitman's Poetry and Prose.


Michael Strickland said...

As you note, there was no gay/straight binary nonsense in the 19th century, the time being slightly more nuanced in their gender based love definitions. However, Walt was a complete homo pure and simple and that's part of what gives the poem its extraordinary power. He doesn't care which side this young man is fighting for. He's a vessel of love and beauty and singularity, and his death is a sad waste.

Good Memorial Day poem choice.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks. If that's how the poem comes across for you, that's fine. But I don't think it is "pure and simple." Whitman himself, in a private and presumably semi-"safe" correspondence with John Addington Symonds, pointedly refused to let his life, let alone his work, be seen purely through a homosexual lens. If you're seeing his connection with the dead soldier mostly as sexual, what do you do with all the references to him as the speaker's son? To reiterate my point, I think Whitman is associating a variety of loves (all now cut off) with the dead boy. And he doesn't actually say that he doesn't care what side the boy is on -- they're on the same side; if he wanted to make a point that the side is irrelevant, he could have held the vigil for a fallen soldier from the other side. It's just one of several things he subtly omits.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

A couple more points:

It's not just a matter of not seeing (male) sexuality in a binary fashion; it's a matter of seeing that men have rich, complicated emotional lives and that all their emotions cannot be reduced to the sexual.

Also, Walt Whitman was a nurse during the Civil War, not a soldier: the speaker of this poem should not necessarily be conflated with the historical Whitman, or even his poetical construct, "Walt Whitman."

I think Whitman is a richer, more complicated poet than he is often given credit for these days, when his work tends to get reduced to fit what we think we know about his sexuality.