Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" (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.

"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" (1865) was first published in Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps (1865). The poems in the Drum-Taps volume, along with those in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), were eventually incorporated into Leaves of Grass, where most of them, including "Vigil Strange," ended up in the "Drum-Taps" cluster.

The poem relates a Civil War incident that the poet may either have witnessed or experienced when he visited the front; however, critics do not agree as to the source of the incident that served as the impetus for the poem. Emory Holloway believes that Whitman is the first person narrator in the poem. Holloway suggests that Whitman may have lived the incident in the poem when he went to Culpepper, Virginia, in the company of General Lyman Hapgood. Holloway alleges that during the visit to the front Whitman "kept vigil all night with the body of a fallen comrade" (219). On the other hand, M. Wynn Thomas ascribes the narration to a persona invented by Whitman. He reads the poem literally and states that both the father and the son are soldiers. When the son is killed the father advances in battle and then, at the end of the day, returns to the scene of the son's death and buries him "where he fell." Whitman may have meant for the soldier to be a composite American. Whatever his intent, the poem's power lies in its dramatic narrative.

The poem is a dramatic monologue in which the narrator feels all the emotional impact of his comrade's death, yet he seems to transcend to a spiritual level. He carries out his "vigil" in the starlight, feeling the "cool . . . moderate night-wind." The repetition of the word "vigil" from the title throughout the poem becomes the "central 'meaning'" (Miller, Critical 159). The narrator must surely feel anguish as he returns to his fallen companion, yet no anguish is overtly expressed. Only the lonely "vigil of night and battlefield dim" fills the thoughts of the narrator. The speaker, the dead comrade, and the universe are linked by the experience. As the soldier waits under the stars for the dawn, he is aware of his comrade's death and that he is powerless to save a person whom he cared for and loved. "I think," the narrator states, "we shall surely meet again." That line in the poem marks a change in the narrator's voice. Until then he speaks directly to the dead "son-soldier," but after that line to the end of the poem, the narrator speaks not to the dead comrade, but in a detached voice refers to the comrade in third person as he goes about burying the body. Miller regards this poem as "one of the really great poems in the language" (Critical 158).

Bibliography

Holloway, Emory. Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. 1926. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1969.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

____. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne, 1962.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.

____. 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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