Gender During Wartime

Study Questions for Part Two

Each of the following questions centers around a poem first published in Whitman's Drum-Taps in 1865. After reading each poem, try to answer the bulleted questions.

"The Artilleryman's Vision"
"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"
"Spirit Whose Work is Done"


"The Artilleryman's Vision"

WHILE my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars are over
And my head on the pillow rests at home, and the vacant midnight
And through the stillness, through the dark, I hear, just hear,
         the breath of my infant,
There in the room as I wake from sleep this vision presses upon
The engagement opens there and then in fantasy unreal,
The skirmishers begin, they crawl cautiously ahead, I hear the
         irregular snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles, the short t-h-t! t-
of the rifle-balls,
I see the shells exploding leaving small white clouds, I hear
         the great shells shrieking as they pass,
The grape like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees,
         (tumultuous now the contest rages,)
All the scenes at the batteries rise in detail before me again,
The crashing and smoking, the pride of the men in their pieces,
The chief-gunner ranges and sights his piece and selects a fuse
         of the right time,
After firing I see him lean aside and look eagerly off to note
         the effect;
Elsewhere I hear the cry of a regiment charging, (the young
         colonel leads himself this time with brandish'd sword,)
I see the gaps cut by the enemy's volleys, (quickly fill'd up,
         no delay,)
I breathe the suffocating smoke, then the flat clouds hover low
         concealing all;
Now a strange lull for a few seconds, not a shot fired on either
Then resumed the chaos louder than ever, with eager calls and
         orders of officers,
While from some distant part of the field the wind wafts to my
         ears a shout of applause, (some special success,)
And ever the sound of the cannon far or near, (rousing even in
         dreams a devilish exultation and all the old mad joy in the
         depths of my soul,)
And ever the hastening of infantry shifting positions,
         batteries, cavalry, moving hither and thither,
(The falling, dying, I heed not, the wounded dripping and red
         I heed not, some to the rear are hobbling,)
Grime, heat, rush, aide-de-camps galloping by or on a full run,
With the patter of small arms, the warning s-s-t of the rides,
         (these in my vision I hear or see,)
And bombs bursting in air, and at night the vari-color'd rockets.
                                                                           (Emphases added)

  • How does the poem manage relations between the domestic scene and the scene of war?
  • How similar are Dickinson's representations of the homefront and the war front in her poems?
  • What's the relation between the "frame story" of the poem--the details about the wife and child, for example--and the rest of the poem?
  • Where does the "vision" begin and end, and what is the place of sight in the poem more broadly? What about the other senses--hearing, touch?
  • What readings become available when you recognize that the words "infant" and "infantry" share a common root, meaning "unable to speak"?
  • Why should the poem quote what will become the national anthem of the United States (in 1931) in its last line?


"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;
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,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested
Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again
        I made my way,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body
        son of responding kisses, (never again on earth
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool
        blew the moderate night-wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the
         battlefield spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long
         I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side
         leaning my chin in my hands,
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,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward
Vigil final for you brave 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, )
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the
        dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and
        carefully under feet,
And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in
        his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and
        battle-field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how
       as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in
       his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

  • Is this poem an elegy?
  • How does Whitman negotiate between the languages of the battlefield and the languages of the family and the home?
  • Note the different terms that refer to the slain soldier: "son," "comrade," "boy," "soldier." How do these different terms of address put pressure on the poem?
  • To what extent does the speaker simply tell his story and to what extent does he justify what's happened or what he's done? Where do you see in the poem the tensions between these two modes?
  • Consider some of the theoretical contexts that Stephanie Browner offers on her website "Wounded Bodies in Whitman's War Writings." How might these illuminate this poem?
  • What's the relation between the poem "itself" and its many parenthetical inclusions/intrusions?
  • "Strange" originally comes from a Latin root meaning, "external," or "extraneous": what about outsides and insides in the poem? Now "strange" has come most readily to mean "foreign" or "alien": what, finally, is "strange" about this vigil?
  • In the fourth section of "Six Narratives" (Dark Fields of the Republic), Adrienne Rich quotes from Whitman's "Vigil Strange . . . ." How does the allusion function in Rich's poem? What are the consequences of bringing a poem about the Civil War into her late-twentieth-century collection which takes its name from the final line of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925)?



"Spirit Whose Work is Done"
Washington City, 1865

SPIRIT whose work is done-spirit of dreadful hours!
Ere departing fade from my eyes your forests of bayonets;
Spirit of gloomiest fears and doubts, (yet onward ever
       unfaltering pressing,)
Spirit of many a solemn day and many a savage
       scene--electric spirit,
That with muttering voice through the war now closed, like
       a tireless phantom flitted,
Rousing the land with breath of flame, while you beat and
       beat the drum,
Now as the sound of the drum, hollow and harsh to the last,
       reverberates round me,
As your ranks, your immortal ranks, return, return from the
As the muskets of the young men yet lean over their
As I look on the bayonets bristling over their shoulders,
As those slanted bayonets, whole forests of them appearing
       in the distance, approach and pass on, returning
Moving with steady motion, swaying to and fro to the right
       and left,
Evenly lightly rising and falling while the steps keep
Spirit of hours I knew, all hectic red one day, but pale as
       death next day,
Touch my mouth ere you depart, press my lips close,
Leave me your pulses of rage-bequeath them to me--fill me
       with currents convulsive,
Let them scorch and blister out of my chants when you are
Let them identify you to the future in these songs.

  • How does this poem project relations between nature and culture, or more particularly, between "forest" and the military?
  • Does the poem, like the returning men, "keep time"? How is "time" kept in the poem? (Can time be "kept"?) What time is it, or is it more than one time?
  • The title of the poem invokes the idea of completion: what's been finished, and what's left to do?
  • Compare the poem's ending kiss with the end of "The Wound-Dresser." Kisses, of course, can generate a range of meanings--public and private, familial and political. How does the kiss work in this poem and why does it matter?


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