Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown, A" (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.

Written during the Civil War, "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown" was first published in Drum-Taps (1865). It was incorporated into the body of Leaves of Grass in 1871 as part of the "Drum-Taps" cluster, where it remained through subsequent editions. Whitman bases the poem on an account of the battle of White Oaks Church as related to him by a soldier in one of the hospital wards. With its attention to raw and horrific detail, the poem exemplifies Whitman's realistic, reportorial style of war poetry at its best.

Retreating after battle in the middle of the night, the speaker and the "remnant" of the army to which he belongs come upon "a dim-lighted building" (a church), functioning as an impromptu hospital. They encounter bloody forms of dead and wounded soldiers, among them a lad "shot in the abdomen" and with a face "white as a lily." The speaker moves to stanch the young man's wound; as the lad dies the speaker and his comrades are summoned to resume their retreat.

The poem conveys a nearly overwhelming sense of disorientation and confusion. Rather than moving toward some determinate goal, the speaker and troops are in much the same position at the poem's end as they were at the beginning—in haste and darkness, "the unknown road still marching." The poem's twenty-five lines are composed of a single sentence that weaves through a bewildering maze of images: "Faces, varieties, postures beyond description . . . Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood," and so on. While this layered sequence of images suggests the familiar Whitmanesque catalog, the effect differs strikingly from that of earlier Whitman catalogs: rather than conveying feelings of oneness and connection, it is a catalog of lurid shapes, discombobulated forms, anatomical smells and fragments, and random cries, shouts, and screams. Nevertheless, here—as in even the grimmest and most disturbing of the "Drum-Taps" poems—a symbol of hope appears, as the "lily" face of the lad suggestively illumines the chaos and darkness of the scene.

Bibliography

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

Glicksberg, Charles I., ed. Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1933.

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


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