Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
During the Civil War, Whitman served as a nurse in hospitals for wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. He never experienced combat on the battlefield, but he heard from the veterans whom he treated tales of the horrors of combat. Whitman puts to use the soldiers’ stories in “The Artilleryman’s Vision” and other Drum-Taps poems. The Drum-Taps collection comprises forty-three poems that take the reader from the war’s beginnings in 1861, through the conflict, and toward its conclusion four years later. Some of the final poems of the collection present the hope of reconciliation between the warring sides in the bloody conflict that resulted in the loss of more than 600,000 lives.
In “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” however, Whitman suggests that the war will not be forgotten quickly. The memories of battle remain with Whitman’s speaker long after the conflict has ended. They interrupt the artilleryman’s attempt to resume a normal life after he has been mustered out of the armed service. He has a wife, an infant child, and a home, but the memories of war intrude upon the peace that he has attempted to create in his postwar life. Perhaps these nighttime visions will continue to break the artilleryman’s peaceful sleep for the rest of his life.
In this poem, Whitman shows that he was aware that wartime memories can continue to haunt a veteran long after the fighting has stopped. Twentieth century psychologists used terms such as shellshock and post-traumatic stress syndrome to identify the postwar experiences of men like Whitman’s Civil War veteran. Ernest Hemingway and other twentieth century writers who attempted to portray realistically the psychology of men at war created soldiers and veterans like the artilleryman of Whitman’s poem, men who continued to experience the shocks of combat during their postwar lives.
Whitman’s artilleryman is a universal soldier. Readers acquainted with Whitman’s life will realize that the poet is depicting the disturbing nighttime visions of a man who has fought in the American Civil War, but Whitman’s veteran lacks a specific identity—he is neither Yankee nor Confederate—and Whitman’s description of his battle contains no specific details to indicate his war’s time and place. In “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” Whitman has depicted with psychological verisimilitude the state of mind of many individuals who have participated in armed combat.