Whitman had a series of careers as a printer, teacher, journalist, and Civil War nurse, but none as important as that of a poet. Born in Long Island in 1819, Whitman was a veracious reader and a lover of words. In 1855, Whitman self-published his groundbreaking work in Leaves of Grass, a book of verse that brought him praise from various literary and public sectors. In 1862 Whitman traveled to Washington, D.C. to care for his brother who was wounded in the Civil War. He stayed in the city caring for the wounded and then took a job as a clerk for the Department of Interior which he later lost when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, found that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, a book he disliked. Throughout the remainder of his life Whitman struggled to pay his bills. Writers from the United States and England who admired his work would often send him money to help defray his expenses. Whitman died in his home in Camden, New Jersey in 1892, a house he purchased from royalties received from a new edition of Leaves of Grass.
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 battlefield 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.
Further Research and Questions for Reflection: Reporting on the Life and Time of Walt Whitman and Reflecting on the Poem, “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night”
- Poems that Whitman wrote during the Civil War were collected in a volume entitled, Drum Taps. Locate the Drum Taps poems and pull out lines from the poem that provide vivid descriptions of the battle fields of the war.
- Whitman referred to three U.S. presidents: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan as “our topmost warning and shame.” Research why he held such strong feelings about the leadership of these men, and why he felt that Abraham Lincoln was such a strong president. Read Whitman’s, “O, Captain! My Captain!,” about the death of Lincoln. Respond to Whitman’s feelings and grief.
- Whitman felt that the strength of the United States was not in its leadership but in the hands of its laborers—patriotic citizens who were responsible for forging the backbone of the country. Read selections from Leaves of Grass and select passages from the poems that lauded the hard work of the common people.
- Many literary critics feel that Whitman was a man of vision. What can you find in Whitman’s writings that support this assumption? Provide examples from his work to back your own thinking.
The questions below refer to the poem, ”Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night”
- What did the dead comrade mean to the speaker of the poem? Who is the speaker? Why do you believe this to be true?
- What occurred for the speaker of the poem during the vigil with the lost comrade? What was he thinking? What was he feeling? What emotions did he go through? Why was he unable to shed a tear?
- What is the importance of keeping vigil? When did the vigil end?
- What feeling are you the reader left with after reflecting on the poem?
An old man bending, I come, among new faces,
Years looking backward, resuming, in answer to children,
Come tell us, old man, as from young men and maidens that love me;
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again—paint the mightiest armies of earth;
Of those armies so rapid, so wondrous, what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements, or sieges tremendous, what deepest remains?
O maidens and young men I love, and that love me,
What you ask of my days, those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls;
Soldier alert I arrive, after a long march, cover’d with sweat and dust;
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge;
Enter the captur’d works.... yet lo! like a swift-running river, they fade;
Pass and are gone, they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys;
(Both I remember well—many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)
But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
In nature’s reverie sad, with hinged knees returning, I enter the doors—(while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow me without noise, and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in;
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground;
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital;
To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return;
To each and all, one after another, I draw near—not one do I miss;
An attendant follows, holding a tray—he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand, to dress wounds;
I am firm with each—the pangs are sharp, yet unavoidable;
One turns to me his appealing eyes—(poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.)
On, on I go!—(open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand, tear not the bandage away;)
The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine;
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard;
(Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood;
Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head;
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, (he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.)
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep;
But a day or two more—for see, the frame all wasted already, and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me, holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out;
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand—(yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
Thus in silence, in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night—some are so young;
Some suffer so much—I recall the experience sweet and sad;
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)