25 May 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/21

The Veteran's vision

While my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars are over long,
And my head on the pillow rests at home, and the mystic midnight passes,
And through the stillness, through the dark, I hear, just hear, the breath of my infant,
There in the room, as I wake from sleep, this vision presses upon me:
The engagement opens there and then, in my busy brain unreal;
The skirmishers begin – they crawl cautiously ahead –
I hear the irregular snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles – the short t-h-t! t-ht-t! of the rifle balls;
I see the shells exploding, leaving small white clouds –
I hear the great shells shrieking as they pass;
The grape, like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees, (quick, tumultuous, now the contest rages!)
All the scenes at the batteries themselves rise in detail before me again;
The crashing and smoking – the pride of the men in their pieces;
The chief gunner ranges and sights his piece, and selects a fuse of the right time;
After firing, I see him lean aside, and look eagerly off to note the effect;
– Elsewhere I hear the cry of a regiment charging – (the young colonel leads himself this time; with brandish'd sword;)
I see the gaps cut by the enemy's volleys, (quickly fill'd up – no delay;)
I breathe the suffocating smoke – then the flat clouds hover low, concealing all;
Now a strange lull comes for a few seconds, not a shot fired on either side;
Then resumed, the chaos louder than ever, with eager calls, and orders of officers;
While from some distant part of the field the wind wafts to my ears a shout of applause, (some special success;)
And ever the sound of the cannon, far or near, (rousing, even in dreams, a devilish exultation, and all the old mad joy, in the depths of my soul;)
And ever the hastening of infantry shifting positions – batteries, cavalry, moving hither and thither;
(The falling, dying, I heed not – the wounded, dripping and red, I heed not – some to the rear are hobbling;)
Grime, heat, rush – aid-de-camps galloping by, or on a full run;
With the patter of small arms, the warning s-s-t of the rifles, (these in my vision I hear or see,)
And bombs bursting in air, and at night the vari-color'd rockets.

Walt Whitman

For Memorial Day: a poem, written as the Civil War was ending, about what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In late 1862 the Whitman family received word that Walt's younger brother George, a Union soldier, had been wounded in battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Walt, in early middle-age and already known as the author of Leaves of Grass, traveled south post-haste, where he found his brother alive, with only minor wounds. The poet stayed on in Washington DC for the next three years, nursing wounded soldiers (it was not unusual to have male nurses; it was only during the Crimean War of the previous decade that Florence Nightingale's pioneering work led the way to the modern conception of nursing as a suitable career for women). Whitman must have seen not only the physical costs of the war, but the sometimes longer-lasting psychological ones as well. We sometimes assume that in Whitman's poems the voice is always that of Walt Whitman (or, more exactly, "Walt Whitman"), but here he speaks in a different persona, that of a soldier home from the wars.

We begin with the veteran at peace and at home, with his wife and child asleep around him in the "mystic midnight": a time of quiet, when the mysteries of life pulse strongly but serenely and softly in the silence. The year is unspecified, but Whitman is projecting his speaker into the future here, because it is a time when the wars are long over (or, to use the poem's phrasing, "over long"; the inversion of normal word order elevates the speech above the colloquial). These opening lines are long-breathed and calmly flowing, setting an emotional tone of contentment: the family is gathered together in the peaceful night, the wife slumbering by his side, his infant breathing in the other room (the barely perceptible sound of the child's breathing is beautifully summoned by the lapping phrases "I hear, just hear, the breath. . .").

Then the veteran awakes, and the "vision" presses upon him: a vision is usually seen in a dream or trance, and it conjures up both a sense of something hallucinatory, ghostly, and of something hyper-real, something that forces itself into view by occupying all of your sight. The vision is presented as coming from outside of him, it presses upon him – that is, it exerts an almost physical pressure, pushing itself on him – but it takes place in the speaker's "busy brain unreal." In that line, The engagement opens then and there, in my busy brain unreal, the final word unreal can be read as modifying both the engagement and the busy brain: the battle he lived through (the engagement) and all of his whirling thoughts (his busy brain) become one in the unreal, in the vision. It is a sign of danger that in this nocturnal scene of domestic contentment his brain is suddenly busy: restless, filled with thoughts he can't control.

At this point the lines start breaking up; gone are the long-breathing lines of the opening, to be replaced by short lines, broken by dashes, varied by very long lines (often with parenthetical additions, as if they were other thoughts rushing to the surface, elbowing their way in); the calm, silent picture of the veteran's family home is replaced by flashes of remembered moments, and vivid staccato noises. Whitman's words long predate the invention of the movies, but they prefigure the cinema with their quick cuts and rapid juxtapositions as well as their onomatopoeiatic effects: not only in words like snapshriek, hum, whirr (spelled thus in the original), and crash but also in invented consonant combinations that attempt to recreate and distinguish among the sounds a soldier hears: the t-ht-t of the rifle balls and the s-s-t of the rifles. Even the acrid feel of breathing in the suffocating smoke is brought home.

I'll go into the source for this poem in more detail at the end, as usual, but it's part of a sequence that traces a whole trajectory of war-time feelings, from patriotic pride and fervor to shock and mourning. In short, Whitman recognizes that there is something about war that appeals to human nature, an excitement and potential glory, along with the disillusionment and loss that we tend to associate with war. It is important to recognize this side of war (or to admit its existence). Whitman builds both strands into this poem. There are the realistic details that bring potential death or dismemberment with them (the exploding shells, the grape-shot cutting through the trees) but also memories of his comrades. There is what might seem the odd detail of "the pride of the men in their pieces" (that is, in their particular weapons). Indeed our veteran himself carefully distinguishes among the various types of weapons: the small iron balls (the "grape") from the shotguns, the boom of the cannons, the t-ht-t made by the rifle balls and the hissing s-s-t made by the rifles.

You get the sense of workmen taking pride in their tools, of men feeling that they are involved in something important, and doing it with a craftsman's care (the chief gunner, and the line about him conveys steadiness and efficiency, arranges his piece, selects a fuse of the right length, and then, rather endearingly, leans to one side and is eager to see "the effect" of his shot – not the damage, but the effect, as if he had made an artistic master-stroke and wanted to see if the audience appreciated it). This passage has the important consequence of humanizing the soldiers; without slowing down the swift recollections or going into the quirks of individual characters, Whitman moves the company from generic "soldiers" to particular types of men, ones we can admire.

The Civil War was one of the harbingers of modern warfare in that it was heavily mechanized (hence the vastness of the slaughter). We can see that here in the many types of rifles, shotguns, cannons, and rockets going off. Yet in the midst of this we have remnants of an older type of war, based on a code of personal honor and strength: the young colonel (would an older man know better, have grasped the new situation more keenly? does the colonel's youth carry with it idealism, romanticism, and also recklessness?) leads his regiment, they are in full cry, and he is brandishing his sword. Whitman cuts away, but the fate of the gallant's sword in the face of the enemy's relentless fire is implicit in the next line, in which the speaker sees the gaps cut by their opponent's volleys. The spaces are filled without delay by other men, rushing towards the same fate. The day of the sword is done.

The clouds and the smoke briefly obscure the scene, and there is a lull – a "strange lull," causeless among the chaos, until the battle resumes, louder and more frantic than ever. There is a shout of applause from a distant part of the field: some "special success" but the speaker does not know, and we never find out, what the success was (a hill taken by the men? some individual's particular act of bravery?) – nor do we find out whose success it was. We are never actually told who wins this battle.

The cannons continue blasting "far and near" – and then, in one of those parenthetical remarks that rise insistently with thoughts that the speaker is perhaps trying to suppress, or is partly abashed by, he describes the effect on him of the thundering cannons: rousing, even in dreams, a devilish exultation, and all the old mad joy, in the depths of my soul. Rousing implies not just awakening but something stirring, exciting, enough so to be felt even in dreams: an exultation, one that is felt as devilish, but also an old mad joy (what does old imply here? earlier in the soldier's life, when he first enlisted? or old as in prehistoric, a primal, atavistic thrill in war?) – and he feels this even in his spiritual self, in the very depths of his soul. This fervor is stimulating and also frightening, a profound and terrible insight into the human psyche. (I wonder if Milton is underlying the link between the devilish and the cannons; in Paradise Lost, cannons are invented by Satan during the war in Heaven – see Book 6, from line 470 onward).

With this dark illuminating flash showing the basic human pleasure in violent destruction, the poem starts to draw to its close. The parenthetical remark about devilish exultation is balanced two lines later by one showing the cost of that feeling: the falling, dying, I heed not – the wounded, dripping and red, I heed not – some to the rear are hobbling. Again, the parenthesis holds an insistent thought, one the veteran is trying to suppress; the obvious emotional cost to him is expressed in the broken, abrupt phasing, in which the same pattern is repeated twice: first he spots someone hit by enemy fire, whom he describes in general terms (the falling, the wounded), these terms are then followed by graphic, more painful and exact, descriptions: the falling are dying, the wounded are dripping and red. And each time he claims I heed [them] not: in the rush of battle, he cannot stop and tend to them, but must join with the others in the hastily shifting positions. But now, years later, in his mind, he still clings to the thought that he heeds not the wounded and dying: is it guilt? an attempt to suppress the brutal memories? is he trying to avoid these ghastly inescapable memories of his dying comrades?

The kaleidoscopic details swirl by. In the penultimate line, there is another important parenthesis: these in my vision I hear or see. Whitman gives us a crucial reminder at this point, when we have been swept up by the battle, that the poem opened quite differently: years later, and at peace, before "the vision" began. It's an important reminder because the veteran (and, therefore, we the readers) never actually escape the vision – never actually return in spirit to the slumbering wife and child. In a brilliant final image, the poem ascends above the battlefield into the air, with the sight and sound of the bombs bursting in air, and at night the vari-color'd rockets. There is obviously an echo here of The Star-Spangled Banner (which, though not yet the national American anthem, was a well-known patriotic song): And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, / Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

So Whitman is doing several things here. The use of this song reminds us of the patriotism that is one of the reasons the men are willing to fight. This song also reminds us of another war, the War of 1812, one in a series of wars fought to establish a republic in this country (there are complex issues here, many involving slavery, which I am going to set aside because Whitman himself has set them aside). The anthem also reminds us of the flag, which resonates in the context of this sequence of poems, many of which involve the flag. So there is pride and love of country and the fight for representative government, but there is also the battle at its peak in ways both dangerous and beautiful: mentioning the various colors of the rockets makes them sound like fireworks streaking through the sky, but they were launched with deadly intent. As in the opening of the poem, we are in night-time, not now one of quiet rest, but one in which the sky is torn and exploded by bombs and rockets. War takes over the heavens, and, at a height of noise and violence with all human thoughts and concerns below and behind, we are left hanging at the apex of the veteran's vision, removed from wife and child, caught in remembered glory and terror.

Whitman published Drum-Taps in the spring of 1865; later that year, he expanded the first edition. But after that he gradually began incorporating the poems into Leaves of Grass, rewriting some, cutting others, moving some into other sections of his book. According to New York Review Books, the edition of Drum-Taps that they've just published, edited and with an introduction and notes by Lawrence Kramer, is the first to give readers the book as it originally appeared. It's well worth getting a copy, even if you already own Leaves of Grass; though the stand-alone Drum-Taps and the Leaves of Grass sequence Drum-Taps retain the same trajectory, the earlier book is much broader in its themes, encompassing a wider vision of America as it was and as it should be according to Walt Whitman, with many subtle connections between the poems and a polyphonic use of different voices (Kramer's introduction and notes are very helpful in making some of these connections and pointing out the differences in tone). This poem was one of those retained in Leaves of Grass, in which it is called The Artilleryman's Vision (page 450 in my Library of America Whitman). There are some interesting changes in the poem; for instance, in the later version the mystic midnight is the vacant midnight. I've used the 1865 version.

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