Selected Criticism

"Cavalry Crossing a Ford" (1865)
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, "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" 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 of Leaves. "Cavalry" is one of several "Drum-Taps" poems remarkable for their concise and photographic precision of imagery.

The poem depicts a unified scene of varied images rendered in a single moment. The literal image, which seems to be almost instantaneously observed by the speaker's eye, invites comparison with the then nascent art of photography. Yet the poem's spare imagery deftly shades into the symbolic. Depicting individual figures ("each person a picture") engaged in collective action, the poem exemplifies Whitman's balanced celebration of the individual and the democratic "en-masse"—the individualism tempered by community and comraderie that he sees as indispensable to the survival of union and democracy.

Some critical interest (e.g., Howard Waskow, John Schwiebert) has focused on the roles readers play in "Cavalry" and other "imagistic" Whitman poems. Lacking the strong and rather discursive speaker-persona of "Song of Myself," these poems focus more exclusively on the image itself, without authorial guidance or explanation, thus emphasizing the reader's creative role in making meaning. Such a view coincides with Whitman's own contention that a poem should not be a finished product but a beginning, that the reader "must himself or herself construct indeed the poem" (Whitman 425).


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

French, Roberts W. "Reading Whitman: 'Cavalry Crossing a Ford.'" The English Record 27 (1976): 16–19.

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

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

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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