Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame" (1865)
Author:
Lulloff, William G.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was originally published in Drum-Taps (1865) and appeared again when Whitman reissued Drum-Taps along with Sequel to Drum-Taps (Since the Preceding Came from the Press): When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd and Other Pieces (1865–1866). The poems in both volumes were added to Leaves of Grass in 1867 as annexes and many were included in the "Drum-Taps" cluster in the 1871–1872 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. The date of composition of the poem is not possible to determine; however, many of the poems in the "Drum-Taps" collection probably were written when Whitman was at home in Brooklyn in 1861–1862.

The speaker in the poem is an invented persona who relates his thoughts as he sits by the "bivouac's fitful flame." With the reminders of the war all around, the speaker focuses on his thoughts "Of life and death, of home and the past and loved." Like many others in the "Drum-Taps" cluster, this poem paints a word picture of a Civil War scene. Here the battlefield scene serves as a contrast with the thoughts of the narrator. His thoughts are not of war but of "those that are far away." The thoughts come winding around the speaker in a procession, and he absorbs the experiences—the memories invoked by this procession of thoughts. The narrator's consciousness alternates between the "tender and wondrous" procession of thoughts and the stark reality of the camp: tents, woods, and fire. Whitman's free verse is given form by the same alliterative opening and closing words. Personification invests the scene around the speaker with life: the "fitful flame" and "shrubs and trees...watching me."

Bibliography

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

Schwiebert, John E. Whitman's Poetic Technique and Style in the Short Poem. New York: Lang, 1992.

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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