Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Artilleryman's Vision, The" (1865)
Author:
Freund, Julian B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

An entry in the Civil War collection entitled Drum-Taps, this poem was written in 1865, underwent its final revision in 1881, and is included in the "Drum-Taps" cluster of Leaves of Grass. As with other "Drum-Taps" poems, Whitman is portraying scenes from the Civil War. Presented as a dream or a vision, this particular poem represents the horrors of war (like those depicted by World War I poets Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Siegfried Sassoon) which the twentieth-century reader associates with the flashbacks of men suffering shell-shock after Vietnam or World Wars I and II.

Whitman's artilleryman describes himself as lying alongside his slumbering wife in a midnight stillness at home, punctuated only by the breath of the couple's infant. As the speaker wakes from sleep, a vision "presses upon me." Then, as he has done in earlier writings on the Civil War, Whitman graphically describes recollected horrors of past battles in a "fantasy unreal," complete with sound effects of rifles discharging, shells exploding, and pistols crackling. The nightmare quality of the poem is replete with images of troops crawling, shells shrieking and exploding, and grape shot humming and whirring like wind as it twists its way toward human flesh. Unique to the artilleryman is the somewhat impersonal nature of his contribution to the event. He fires his cannon and then leans to the side in order to evaluate the carnage he has caused. But this impersonality is soon replaced by a "devilish exultation" and "old man's joy," which rises from the depths of his soul as he then averts his eyes from the bloodshed he has just caused.

This poem reveals Whitman's fascination with photography. The Civil War was the first photographed war, and Whitman includes many comparable word pictures, not only of battle scenes, but also of soldiers at rest in camp. His lament at the conclusion of the war that "the real war" will never get into books (Whitman 778) is readily countered by his Civil War portraits such as this poem and others in the "Drum-Taps" cluster.

Bibliography

Folsom, Ed. Introduction. "This Heart's Geography's Map": The Photographs of Walt Whitman. Special issue of Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4.2–3 (1986–1987): 1–5.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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