Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Bivouac on a Mountain Side" (1865)
Author:
Schwiebert, John E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Composed during the Civil War, "Bivouac on a Mountain Side" was first published in Drum-Taps (1865) and incorporated into the body of Leaves of Grass in 1871 as part of the "Drum-Taps" cluster, where it remained through subsequent editions. "Bivouac" is one of several "Drum-Taps" poems remarkable for their concise and photographic precision of imagery.

The poem depicts an army halting at close of day. The speaker's eye takes in a valley, "barns and...orchards," a mountain spread with "clinging cedars," and—punctuating the scene—the "numerous camp-fires" and "large-sized" shadows of men and horses. The poem offers a view that is both arrestingly literal and symbolic. The literal image, which seems to be almost instantaneously observed by the speaker's eye, invites comparison with the then-nascent art of photography, which fascinated Whitman. At the same time, items like the "large-sized" shadows and "eternal stars," with their intimation of the larger-than-life struggle in which these troops are involved, seem to suggest the profounder significances Whitman continually observed in the war.

Bibliography

Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. 1941. London: Oxford UP, 1974.

Waskow, Howard. Whitman: Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's "Drum-Taps" (1865) and "Sequel to Drum-Taps" (1865–6): A Facsimile Reproduction. Ed. F. DeWolfe Miller. Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959.


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