Happy Birthday to the Bard of American Democracy

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Walt Whitman in a photo by Matthew Brady

Walt Whitman, born this day in 1819 in West Hills, New York, presents a rare combination in American letters. The hang ups of literary critics pondering his sexual identity and the erotic character of Leaves of Grass are distractions.  He broke the boundaries of poetry with his essay-like musings on the nation’s political character, the worth of free labor, and the necessity (as well as tragedy) of the U.S. Civil War. His journalistic writing is some of the best of his times on topics ranging from the founding of the Free Soil Party to the rise of baseball as the national sport. Old-fashioned as the term may be, I still favor the appellation “the bard of American democracy” as an apt description of Whitman’s ability to poetically “sing” about the founding values that shaped 19th century American political and economic practices for the good.  In addition, no American poet ever captured an understanding of the character and significance of an American president like Walt Whitman did with Abraham Lincoln. 

So, it is fitting today to let one small sample of Whitman’s poetry speak for him. The eerily beautiful “Vigil Strange” is among the most moving of his Civil War poems from Drum-Taps, which was published in 1865 before it was later incorporated into Leaves of Grass.

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night

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.

(1865)

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