David Cavitch: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

The best war poem in Drum-Taps concerns Whitman’s vigil beside the body of his fallen comrade. "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" opens at the moment his comrade falls wounded; the two men look at each other with shocked eyes, and their helpless love passes through their fleeting touch. The wound that is mortal for one man is immortal for the other.

[Cavitch quotes the first six lines of the poem]

Finding the body, Whitman begins his vigil without tears or words of misery. Remorseful for having sped onward in his duty while leaving the younger comrade to die alone, Whitman finds that the vigil is not full of anguish but is "strange," "curious," "wondrous," "mystic," and "sweet" -- almost entirely enigmatic and revelatory. His mourning gives him full title to father and mother and lover of the fallen boy, qualifying him to take part in sacred acts of devotion. . . .

The stark literalness of the concluding line puts an end to the suggestive atmosphere of luminous, animate night that expresses Whitman's inner spaciousness in the center of the poem. His sweet communion in the starlight occurs between traumatic events at the beginning and end: the abruptly dealt wound, the death look, and the brutally plain burial. These details occur as shocks, defining the limits of time and reality around the boundless sympathy (in the center of the poem) that reaches across death and upward to the stars. The return to the harsh fact of death underscores Whitman's new attitude that love never reaches its objects; it swells in the solitary heart, creating a cavern of voiceless grief and tenderness.

Details

Title David Cavitch: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David Cavitch Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman
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