Robert Leigh Davis: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" poses a . . . critique of sentimental paradigms. . . . Strikingly absent from the poem are the capitalized abstractions of other poems in Drum-Taps—"Democracy," "Columbia," "Libertad"—ideological constructs that would subsume the anomaly of the soldier’s death and validate the prosecution of the war. The poem is silent on those subjects, and its withholding, its "vigil of silence," guards against appropriating the soldier within overarching providential or historical designs. The poem disclaims that appropriation. It refuses to participate in the forgetfulness necessary to transform death into exemplum. Whitman often deploys a legitimating rhetoric of Union by which to repair the strangeness of the Civil War. But in this poem it is the preservation of that strangeness that interests the poet. The lover returns to reclaim the lost soldier, an act resonant with the paradigms of literary sentimentality, but what is being reclaimed precisely is not a public identity but a private relation, a wilderness relation indifferent to shared notions of loss. The poet’s wordless grief—"not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh"—refuses to embody itself in the sentimental rhetoric by which Whitman, in other moods, sought to regather the dead. The severe abruptness of the poem’s ending signals this discrepancy between public and private orders of meaning. . . . The poet pushes off at this moment, not only from the corpse but also from the reader, as if to preserve lines of demarcation threatened by a sympathetic blur of compassion.


Title Robert Leigh Davis: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert Leigh Davis Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Whitman and the Romance of Medicine
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