Betsy Errkila: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

The intense bonds of compassion, comradeship, and love that Whitman witnessed and formed among the soldiers were a source of democratic sustenance amid the blood-drenched scenes of war. These loving bonds formed by men at war also gave Whitman a positive language and social form in which to experience and articulate his own homosexual desire. In the poems of Drum-Taps the lover of the Calamus poems becomes the soldier-comrade and wound-dresser ("Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips"), thus heightening the lyric intensity and emotional immediacy of several of the war poems.

Whitman's "undertone of sweetest comradeship & human love" is particularly strong in the elegy "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," where in the starlight illuminating the darkened landscape of war, the poet-soldier buries his "dear comrade" and "son of responding kisses" in a private ritual of mourning and love. Modulating formal control with a tone of uttermost woe, Whitman's "strange" vigil suggests that it was the loving affection among men--released and allowed in a wartime context--that enabled him to rise from the "chill ground" of the battlefield and conduct his own burial of the dead in the poems of Drum-Taps and Sequel.

"Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade," Whitman's common soldier is more than a soldier of war in Drum-Taps. He is a figure of democratic--and homosexual--humanity marching the "untried roads" of the future.

Details

Title Betsy Errkila: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Betsy Erkkila Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Whitman the Political Poet
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