Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night
(word in italics indicates cuts by Richard Pearson Thomas)
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 was your death,
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 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.
One of the questions I keep coming across with this poem is the question of whether or not this is describing a father/son relationship, a close relationship among comrades, or if this is another poem in which homoeroticism is again on display. After reading this and becoming familiar with it, I'm sticking with my initial reaction, that is the reaction that this is about a father losing his son on the battlefield. To me, the emotions expressed here best fit that relationship. The father is obviously proud of his son and awards him the compliment of calling him a comrade, an equal in the ranks. It implies a relationship that extends to true friendship as well as the given familial relationship. Plus the expression of ownership ("my son," "my comrade," "my soldier") leads me more toward a father speaking of his son rather than a man talking about a close friend or a lover.
This is the poem on the program that resonates with me most. It's very immediate and always leaves me still and speechless after reading it. M. Wynn Thomas, in his essay, "Fratricide and Brotherly Love," in the Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman (Greenspan, Ezra. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), says that one likely source or inspiration for this poem comes from his brother George's experience in battle. "When [Whitman] had moved to Washington directly after first finding George in Falmouth camp, Whitman sent a letter home to his mother in which he particularly mentioned the name of George's cook, Tom: 'Tom thinks all the world of George--when he heard he was wounded, on the day of the battle, he left every thing, got across the river, and went hunting for George through the field, through thick and thin'" (pg. 38). This along with the countless other stories Whitman heard while serving in the hospitals probably contributed to this poem.
This poem is interesting in that it is addressed both to the dead soldier-son and to the reader. The father directly addresses the son in the first two sections of the poem, the death and vigil. However, in the final section--the burial--he turns to the reader and speaks of the son in the third person. Thomas also mentions this in his essay, saying that the original draft of the poem used the third person singular throughout the poem. The question then becomes, why switch the voice in the end? I would say the switch to the third person makes the death and the finality of the burial more tangible. Throughout the poem we are lulled into the feeling that we are witnessing a conversation between two people, sometimes forgetting that one of the participants in that conversation is dead. When dawn comes and it is time to bury his son, the voice changes and we are hit with the reality that the son is dead and speech directed to him will not be returned any more. Now the son is "he" rather than "you" and this combined with the description of him being wrapped in his shroud and dropped in the ground give the last part of the poem an impact that is made stronger by this switch in voice.
So, what do we see in this poem? As I said earlier, it is in three sections. The first is the killing of the son "Vigil strange"..."the even contested battle"), followed by the father's return for the vigil ("Till late in the night"..."we shall surely meet again"), and ending with a burial ("Till at latest lingering of the night"..."And buried him where he fell"). The death is swift with the son being cut down at the very beginning of the fight. The father looks back in shock on his fallen son, there is a brief moment of a wordless good-bye, then the father fulfills his duties as a soldier and runs back to the battle. When he returns for the vigil his son is long dead. There is no mention of how much time has passed, only that it is late that same night and the stars are bright. We are told of a vigil that is silent and void of tears and, really, any outward signs of grief. The image we are presented with is one of a man sitting quietly beside a body. Someone passing by would have no idea whether the live one had any connection at all to the dead one. However, to the father, these are the sweetest hours and he doesn't wish to cloud them with selfish demonstrations of grief that would not even be witnessed by the only other person present. Instead he intends to focus on being with the body and reflecting on his son's sacrifice and their life together. With the dawn comes the need to put his son to rest. He digs a "rude dug grave," uses his son's blanket as a shroud and buries him on the spot where he fell.
The imagery at work here is really quite stunning. You sense the darkness of the night illumined only by the stars, the grass the father is sitting on, the breeze of the night, your chest tightens more and more the further you read and, once the son is buried, you're left with a sense of "what next?" which is probably the same feeling the father had once he had finished shoveling the dirt back into place.