Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night by Walt Whitman

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.

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45478/vigil-strange-i-kept-on-the-field-one-night

I wrote previously about my 8th grade English teacher who loved Walt Whitman.  I hadn’t read this poem in 20 years.  It is far more moving now.

I also think about the PBS American Experience episode Death and the Civil War, which described how the Civil War changed how Americans thought about death, and the government’s responsibility to the dead in war.  Before the Civil War, the culture expected people to die at home, surrounded by friends, and people would often take photographs of their deceased relatives shortly after they had passed.  Soldiers realized that this was not possible in war, so they would form pacts with other soldiers.  They agreed to write to each other’s families and relay their final moments.  I can imagine the soldier in Walt Whitman’s poem doing that for his “son and soldier.”

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