John Carlos Rowe: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

Whitman's appropriation of military and political authority reaches its romantic limit when the power of "incarnation" quite literally becomes the power of parental generation and divine regeneration. Poems like "Come Up from the Fields Father" and "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" complement the "Wound-Dresser" by claiming for the poet not simply the voice of mourning but also the power to resurrect the dead.

. . . Vigil" substitutes an intensely personal account of a soldier's death in the field for the "Sentences broken" that announce Pete's wounding to his family in "Come Up from the Fields Father." And the "son" of this poem is also the poet's "comrade," allowing the poet to claim the special intimacy that only veterans of war have for each other:

 

When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,

One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall

        never forget,

One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the

        ground.

 

The poet's vigil is earned as a consequence of shared battle, and the body he views so lovingly is inspired by his own sense of miraculous escape from death. As he contemplates this double, "leaning my chin in my hands," the poet has discovered the certain purpose that escaped the more emotional response of the parents in the previous poem: "Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word, / Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier" ("Vigil," DT, 492). Even as the poet acknowledges the impotence of mere words before actual death, he does so only parenthetically and within the same aside recognizes what seems to contradict the claim that he cannot save this boy: "(I could not save you, swift was your death, / I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)" ("Vigil," DT, 492). Ritually wrapping his comrade in his blanket, the poet "envelop'd well his form," and "bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited, / Ending my vigil strange with that" (492). Sweet reads this poem in conjunction with others that invoke the father for the sake of recalling "the healing power of adhesiveness," including "Quicksand Years" and "The Wound-Dresser."

"Vigil" is a strange combination of compassion and arrogant assertion through which "my son" quite literally becomes Christ buried by the poet/god just as the dawn announces not his "son's" resurrection, but that of the poet transfigured: "I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, / And buried him where he fell" (492). It is not, of course, Whitman's purpose to rationalize the carnage of the Civil War by invoking some vague reference to Original Sin and our collective "fall," but rather to suggest how the poetic voice can redeem all those who have fallen in the War. It is the form of the poetry that will not simply chronicle the War but claim the memorializing function that will quite literally "resurrect" poetic vision from the terror of History. By the end of the poem, the fallen comrade has become "my soldier," and he marches for the sake of the poet's triumphant resurrection.

Details

Title John Carlos Rowe: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kathryne V. Lindberg, Joseph G. Kronick Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Whitman's Body Poetic
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