Dirge for Two Veterans
The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.
Lo, the moon ascending,
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
Immense and silent moon.
I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they're flooding,
As with voices and with tears.
I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring,
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.
For the son is brought with the father,
(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans son and father dropt together,
And the double grave awaits them.)
Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.
In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,
('Tis some mother's large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)
O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you sooth me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
This and the next poem we'll discuss are the two poems on the program that I find most moving. Other poems cause a deep reaction and affect me, but these two poems are the only ones that stop me in my tracks with their imagery and tone.
This poem first appeared in Sequel to Drum Taps that was published shortly after the original volume. The formal structure of this poem is, again, pretty uniform throughout. Gay Wilson Allen points out (see this post for citation), the rhythmic pattern of the stanzas generally adheres to 3-4-6-3 pattern of strong syllables (pg. 216). Each verse of this poem builds on the last to paint the scene of the procession.
It is dusk on a Sunday evening as the speaker looks out his window (I imagine he is above the crowd and not an active participant because the language presented here suggests that the speaker is looking down on what is happening rather than actually being inside the procession or crowd of onlookers). The serenity of the first lines of the poem are immediately spoiled by the specter of a newly dug grave. This isn't just a regular grave, though. It is a double grave, large and foreboding, something that stops you and causes you to just stand and stare as you ponder its significance. Over this, Whitman beautifully translates the exchange of day and night by pointing out the moonrise in the east just after talking about the fading rays of the western setting sun. He describes the moon's beauty as it ascends over the houses by using the less frequently used definition of the word "ghastly", I would even argue that he goes so far to change the connotation of the word from meaning something frightful and ugly, to something hauntingly beautiful. I say that because of the other words Whitman uses to describe this moon: "silvery round", "beautiful", "immense and silent". It's very fitting for the macabre scene that has been laid out. It also brings a touch of beauty to a grim setting, setting up the suggestion that there is something beautiful in the soldiers' sacrifice.
As the sound of the bugles and drums enter the scene, they are still out of sight. Their sound precedes them, monopolizing the environment with the steady beating of the death-march. As the procession approaches, our witness is affected more and more by what he is hearing. The pounding of the drums "strikes him through and through," suggesting that pounding literally moves him, causes him to physically shake with each stroke of the mallet, like a gun-shot causes one to reflexively twitch. As the two dead soldiers pass below him, he is completely overwhelmed by the image and the sound of the march. It has invaded not only the space around him, but it has taken over his senses and made way inside his body as well, Whitman says it "enwraps" him. He is no longer a passive on-looker, he is now so affected by what he's seeing and the story it suggests (a father and son killed together in battle) that he is overcome with love for the soldiers despite not knowing who they are.
This causes him to see his surroundings differently. The moon is no longer "immense and silent". It is now vested with a specific emotion, sorrow, and takes on the quality of a mother's face looking down on her husband and son as they make their way to their grave, the gateway they must pass through to be with her again. As the pair gets closer to that gateway, her faces grows brighter with expectation. As she is sorrowful for their fate, she anticipates the reunion.
The speaker takes comfort now in the death march and the soft light of the moon. They become tokens of respect for the soldiers and entice the speaker to give all he can. He sees that the dead have their music, have their light, and now only need love. That he gives without hesitation and unconditionally.
Setting this poem in the gloaming and just after nightfall seems odd to me. I understand why Whitman chose to do it, however. The image of the moon has been used as a powerful language tool throughout literature. It evokes a peacefulness and has the ability to color the most gruesome scenes as more palatable and easier to talk about. So, in order for Whitman to have that tool, the setting had to accomodate. The explanation could also be something as simple as an old custom I'm not familiar with or a real funeral he witnessed with a timing dictated by necessity. The setting is very effective, none-the-less, and I don't take issue with it. I just want to point it out as something unique and influential on the interpretation.