Michael is quite the poetry buff, and he and I both agreed that highlighting a particular poem each week on the blog would be a fun exercise, so I’m kicking off the tradition with a powerful poem from Walt Whitman.  Part of the Drum Taps section of Leaves of Grass, which were all about war (inspired by the Civil War that raged on around him), this is “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 battle,
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 responding,)
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 night,
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 stole,
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 responding,)
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.

I remember being haunted slightly by this poem when I first read it, and the chills returned upon selecting it.  A haunting, tragic poem that likely highlighted an unfortunate commonity during war – the death and burial of a family member.  This one is particularly harsh, as a father must witness his own son get shot down, continue fighting until night fall, stare as his lifeblood slowly withers away, and dig out the grave at the site where he fell.  Whitman’s choice of words is excellent, capturing the awkward reality of the situation quite well.  You can see the father’s brain trying to understand the terror it witnessed, but the grim situation they are surrounded by prevents him from fully embracing and accepting it.  After the burial of his son, he would likely return to the frontlines for another day of combat…only this day, he would go it alone.  A sad, well-crafted piece from one of America’s legends.

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