James Dougherty: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

Whitman depicts another of the conventional situations of the war's poetry--the battlefield at night, littered with the slain. But he does not stop with the convention. He invests himself completely in the person of the soldier who keeps watch beside his dead son: . . .

The poem has a double subject: the formulaic situation of a soldier's body discovered on the battlefield by a relative or lover and a more individualized evocation of the father's mental quietude during his "vigil." Although less explicitly about memory than "The Wound-Dresser," it is still a poem of reminiscence, promising that the dying and the vigil will not be forgotten. Its implicit context is the camp or the hospital, places where memories are exchanged. The setting of the vigil itself remains unrealized, but the soldier gives a clear sense of his featureless, nightlong meditation, in its mixture of exhaustion, shock, and genuine peace; and so the dearth of visual details supports Whitman's reluctance to violate this inward stillness by setting names to it. Whereas "Come Up from the Fields" clogged its situation with stock figures and stock attitudes in a conventional landscape, "Vigil Strange" enters a space in which the reader can create for himself the soldier's emptiness of mind. That space is, first, the army, which provides both a context for comradeship and also an unsayable explanation for his lassitude. Second, it is the hospital, where the wound-dresser sits, beside men like this, building poems out of silences like his.

In the midst of so many poems that are quick to impose their emotions and opinions on the events of the war, "Vigil Strange" is striking for the reticence of its soldier-persona. His I stands mute and passive in the presence of a Not-Me that exceeds his capacity to respond; and Whitman's imagination embraces that emptiness, not filling its void as he did at the end of "Come Up from the Fields." In Drum-Taps, there are about ten poems in which the struggle between the Soul and the World ceases, opening a brief glimpse of an intensely visualized experience. Most of these are the minor scenes of the war's "interior," genre pictures of the commonplaces of march and bivouac. These events had not got into the books: for these "unnamed lights and shades" there was no vocabulary of conventional phrases and emotions. Many of them assume the viewpoint of an eyewitness like the soldier in "Vigil Strange," speaking in the character of that mourner into which "Satan" had modulated. It is for these poems that Drum-Taps is known today.

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Title James Dougherty: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Dougherty Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Walt Whitman and the Citizen’s Eye
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