Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Text Discussion #6: O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy - Drum Taps

I want to explain for a moment how these poetry discussions will take shape.  I will first publish the whole poem (with two exceptions I will note as they come up in the rotation).  Like the earlier posts, I'll italicize the words the composer chose to set if they did not set the whole poem.  Following the poem I'll lay out my interpretation based on these points:
  • What I thought the poem was about
  • How I interpret Whitman's use of various words and tone
  • Discussion of any symbolism I see, if any
These are all very subjective points and I'm sure others will have different opinions.  That is one reason why I'm writing this blog.  I want to hear those other opinions, and if I think they are better than mine, I'd be willing to examine them further.  I'm also going to try to approach these texts separate from the music.  Sometimes that will be easy as I haven't begun musical work on all of the pieces yet.  Sometimes that will be difficult because the composer's interpretation is already ingrained.  When I discuss the song itself, that is when I will put the two interpretations, mine and the composer's, side by side to see where they are alike, where they are different, and how those differences can be reconciled.

With that, our first poem.

O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy

O tan-faced prairie-boy,
Before you came to camp came many a welcome gift,
Praises and presents came and nourishing food, till at last among the recruits,
You came, taciturn, with nothing to give--we but look'd on each other,
When lo! more than all the gifts of the world you gave me.

In my eyes, this is a very straight-forward poem.  I imagine a Union camp in the middle of a muggy summer.  The veterans are going about their duties when fresh recruits arrive.  The speaker in this poem has been used to the regular gifts that come into the camp, like any soldier receiving regular care packages from home.  He has grown so used to them and to the drudgery of life outside of battle that he is looking for something new, something that will give him hope.

He finds it in this new recruit.  He sees the boy (a word that can probably be taken quite literally, 14-16 years of age most likely), and for some reason is drawn to him, perhaps a resemblance to a brother or close cousin, or maybe even a known relative.  The boy is quiet, sullen, unsure of his future and probably quite scared.  He has come to camp with a brave face on as he acts the part of a man.  When the speaker catches the eye of the new recruit, something in the boy is drawn to the speaker as well.  That is when this gift is given.

The obvious question for this poem is the gift, what is it?  I think it's easy.  It's a smile or a gesture of recognition, depending on if you think the speaker knows the boy or not.  I come to this decision by going in the opposite direction of the penultimate line of the poem.  The boy is there, very stern and with nothing to give but something spiritual or physical, such as a smile.  When he sees the speaker, he gives that gift because I think the boy is relieved to see someone who he thinks (for whatever reason) is going to make his new life easier.  It's quite moving when you think of it like that.  Prairie sunshine comes to camp and reminds the speaker of something better, something hopeful.


  1. I always thought it was Walt falling in love with him at first sight. And the return smile made him happy.

  2. For me it is about a strong feeling of attraction that an older man has for a young boy; on the surface they seem incompatible, from different social classes, with the younger man not even seeking this love. The older man has everything he could wish for in life, except love. The moment when he sees this boy, he falls in love at first sight, and it is this feeling of awakening, of vibrancy and of passion that he finds rewarding and fulfilling - and in this sense even though the boy has given him nothing in the literal sense, he has given him everything in the spiritual sense.