Friday, February 09, 2007

Poetry Blogging Walt Whitman

I never thought I'd put Walt Whitman into a poetry blog. I'm not a big fan, I have to admit. But my poetry class did such a wonderful job talking about a couple of his poems today that I'm totally elated.

We're doing a section on war poetry, having started with Lovelace's "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars." We're comparing the ways they imagine war, the parts they focus on or leave out, the sense of distance or intimacy from the experience, and so forth.

Here's Lovelace. I'm not quite sure what to make of the moves from "thy" to "you" to "thee" here. But dang, he packs lots into a few lines. Off to, I think, the English Civil War.

T E L L me not (Sweet) I am unkinde
That from the Nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet minde,
To War and Armes I flie.

True ; a new Mistresse now I chase,
The first Foe in the Field;
And with a stronger Faith imbrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield.

Yet this Inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Deare) so much,
Lov'd I not Honour more.

And now Whitman, writing about the US Civil War.

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 battle-field 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 bet some of you can guess where I'm going with the war stuff. If you're thinking Owen and Jarrell, you'd be right. Anyone have suggestions for post WW II war poetry?


  1. I really enjoyed the Lovelace poem, thanks for opening my eyes to it. Was "you" less personal and more formal than "thee"? Hmm... It's interesting how modern that poem feels--especially with the parentheticals and the "A Sword, a Horse, a Shield", which reminds me of a line in what I think shall be my poem du jour.

    Will keep a feeler out for post-WWII poetry...

  2. Right, Minnehaha, "thee" is more intimate. It can also show a power differential (in the way that we can show power differentials in using first names vs a title and surname).

    You can show distance, or respect.

    Part of the difficulty is that the use of "thee" is dropping during the period, and "you" is becoming less marked as formal or distant. It's one of those language changing through time things.

    But here, I think it's marked because he's changing mid-stream.

  3. That is interesting indeed.... reminds me of when school tried to train us not to say the Hail Mary with thee, thou, thy... and how strongly we resisted!

  4. Anonymous5:40 AM

    How about "Here Bullet" by Brian Turner, a creative writing MFA serving in Iraq. Here's the title at Amazon:

    Very well written, excellent imagery and tropes. No tortured syntax or "experimental" use of language.

  5. Thanks for the suggestion! I found a couple poems on line through NPR.