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Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”

April 15, 2017

Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”

This date in history President Abraham Lincoln died after being shot the night before while he and Mary were watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The Civil War over which he had overseen a bloody victory had essentially ended just four days earlier.

Earlier still in the War of Rebellion as the Union forces called the Civil War, or the War of Secession as the Confederate forces called it, the good grey poet Walt Whitman had written Drum-Taps, a collection of war poems, Here is “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”:

A SIGHT in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by
the hospital-tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there,
untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen
blanket,
Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

 
Curious, I halt, and silent stand;
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest,
the first, just lift the blanket:
Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with
well-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the
eyes?
Who are you, my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—And who are you, my
child and darling?
Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?

 
Then to the third—a face nor child, nor old, very
calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory:
Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of
yours is the face of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he
lies.

 

In this elegy, written well before the death of Lincoln, Whitman mourns three soldiers who died just hours before. He states rather clearly that their martyrdom is comparable to that of Christ. Obviously the words were to take on even more meaning after the events that night at Ford’s Theatre.

On This Date in History: Lee Surrendered to Grant

April 9, 2017

North South flags

Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps

On this date in 1865 General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States of America.

For those of us for whom literature matters greatly, probably no literature of the American Civil War matters as much as Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry, Drum Taps. Here are two poems “Beat! Beat! Drums” and “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.”

 

Walt Whitman

BEAT! BEAT! DRUMS!

1

BEAT! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a
force of ruthless men,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying:
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must
he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or
gathering his grain;
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill
you bugles blow.

2

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in
the streets:
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or specu-
lators —Would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt
to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case
before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder
blow.

3

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s en-
treaties;
Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie
awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud
you bugles blow.

CAVALRY CROSSING A FORD.

vaWhitesFord
A LINE in long array, where they wind betwixt green
islands;
They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the
sun—Hark to the musical clank;
Behold the silvery river—in it the splashing horses,
loitering, stop to drink;
Behold the brown-faced men—each group, each person,
a picture—the negligent rest on the saddles;
Some emerge on the opposite bank—others are just
entering the ford;
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind.

Many of Walt Whitman’s war poems embody the very spirit of civil conflict, picturing war with a poignant realism and a terrible, tender beauty. Unlike poems from other wars, such as those from World War I or those from Vietnam, these and other poems in Drum Taps make no attempt to resolve the tension between a romantic glorification of the Civil War and a rigorous anti-war stance.

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