The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Walt Whitman’s seven-line, one-sentence poem, “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” records an ordinary scene in the American Civil War: the crossing of some unnamed river by a nondescript unit of cavalry. While the poem is ostensibly a simple sketch of these soldiers, by showing the soldiers from a variety of vantage points, the poet challenges the reader’s notion of the term “cavalry,” replacing the militaristic term with the image of a group of individual men.
As if the poet were drifting downstream in a canoe, the poem begins by viewing the soldiers from afar, as a “line in long array.” He moves close enough to see that “each person [is] a picture,” then moves away again. All the while, the flags are visible, fluttering “gaily in the wind” above the soldiers.
The poem’s title presents a clear, concrete image. However, the language of the first line is oddly abstract. Instead of a group of soldiers, the poet shows “a line” winding between “green islands.” The soldiers are fused as one (the line), and the only concrete noun in the first line is the “islands.” The emphasis here is on the aesthetic imagery, not the marshal nature of the scene. From the poet’s perspective, this military unit is more of an adornment or adjunct of the natural world than a fighting force.
In the second line the soldiers start to become distinct. The poet notes the flash of the soldiers’s arms and describes the “musical...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
One of the difficulties of “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is that it appears so effortless, so artless. It seems as if the poet simply wrote about what he saw, without adornment. In fact, however, the poem is highly artful. First, the poet’s language controls the pace and flow of the poem, alternately slowing and speeding the reader along. Second, the apparent artlessness of the poem masks the speaker’s presence and control of the poem.
The poem is written in free verse. The first five lines contain from fourteen to twenty-three syllables per line and are broken into a series of three-stress units or phrases, such as “Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink.” The three-stress phrases—“Behold the silvery river,” “in it the splashing horses,” and “loitering stop to drink”—slow the pace of the poem. Each of these units ends with an accented syllable, causing the reader to pause momentarily. The effect is to create lines that contain a series of semiautonomous images. These semiautonomous phrases mirror the cavalrymen themselves. Just as the group of cavalry is made up of individuals, “each person a picture,” so too the poem is made up of phrases, each one a picture, each one contributing its part to the whole.
However, the last two lines differ markedly from the first five. These lines contain only eight and eleven syllables, with four and five stresses, respectively. The lines are...
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“Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is written in free verse, which means it adheres to no set pattern of rhyme or meter. Instead, it is organized around units composed of images and incorporates consonance and assonance in order to heighten the musicality of its verses.
Imagery refers to language used to communicate a visual picture or impression of a person, place, or thing. Images are usually defined as either fixed or free. “Fixed images,” also sometimes called “concrete images,” are specific and detailed enough so as to leave little to the reader’s imagination. In contrast, free images are more general and depend upon the reader to provide specificity. In “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” for example, Whitman provides a series of images (both fixed and free) to present for the reader the larger picture of the cavalry troop. He writes of the “silvery river” and “the splashing horses loitering . . . to drink,” as well as the image of sunlight glinting off the “brown-faced” cavalry soldiers’ guns. The culmination of these “images,” then, is the larger “image” of the cavalry as a whole.
Consonance refers to close repetitions of similar or identical consonant sounds where the main vowel sounds of the words are different. When such repetitions occur most frequently at the beginning of a succession of words, such consonance is called alliteration. When the repetitions come at the ends of words, they are known as slant...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
Write a poem that gives an impressionistic description of something happening near where you live, viewing it from a far distance.
Research the guidon flags of different regiments of the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War and report on the stories behind some of them.
Explain how the last line changes the tone of this poem. Explain how it changes the poem’s meaning.
Find memoirs of people who served in the armed forces during recent campaigns, such as the actions in the Persian Gulf or in Bosnia, and compare the ways they describe travel between battles with the way Whitman describes this army.
Some rivers could be crossed on horseback, while others were just too wild. Find out what conditions would apply: what depth is safe to take horses across, what current they can resist, etc. Report your findings.
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A 1987 video entitled Walt Whitman, from the Great Works of American Literature series, is available from Focus Media Inc. It is written by Elizabeth Ralph and directed by Jim Cronin.
Dover Press has an audiocassette edition of Walt Whitman’s Selected Poems, from their “Listen and Read” series, recorded in 1987.
Mystic Fire Audio has a 1997 cassette selection of Whitman’s poems available in its Voices and Visions series, entitled simply Walt Whitman.
The audiocassette The BBC Collection of War Poetry uses music and sound effects to bring the best war poetry from throughout the ages to life.
The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive available at http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/whitman/ index.html (last accessed April 2001) has links to works by Whitman, reviews of his poetry, biographical information, etc. It is maintained by Charles B. Green (August 10, 1999).
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What Do I Read Next?
A good anthology of poetry from the Civil War, broken down into “Confederate Poetry” and “Union Poetry,” can be found at http://www. civil-war.net (October 15, 2000).
Twentieth-century poet Robert Frost was a great admirer of Whitman, and his work certainly shows Whitman’s influence. All of Frost’s poetry is available in Poetry of Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, published by Henry Holt in 1979.
Emily Dickinson wrote at the same time as Whitman. Her poem “I Like to See It Lap the Miles,” available in The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (1890), resembles “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” in terms of visual perspective.
A good overview of Whitman’s works, including this poem, is available in The Viking Portable Walt Whitman (1945), edited by Mark van Doren.
There are many good anthologies of Whitman’s works, but fans of “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” might be interested in finding a copy of Walt Whitman’s Civil War, compiled from published and previously unpublished sources in 1961 by Walter Lowenfels.
The book Walt Whitman’s Camden Conversations, selected and arranged by Walter Teller in 1973, contains a number of quotations from the poet in the later years of his life, including a section with his thoughts about war.
In 1981, Jim Perlman, Ed Folsum, and Dan Campion compiled a collection of essays, poems, and reviews...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bly, Robert, “Understanding the Image As a Form of Intelligence,” A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poet- ics, edited by Friebert, Walker, and Young, Oberlin College Press, 1997, pp. 101–09.
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry, 4th ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Buell, Lawrence, ed., Introduction to Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose, by Walt Whitman, Random House, 1981, pp. xix–xliv.
Colum, Padraic, in New Republic, June 14, 1919, pp. 213–15.
Davis, Kenneth C., Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, William Morrow and Co., 1996, p. 152.
Hass, Robert, Twentieth Century Pleasures, Ecco Press, 1984, pp. 269–308.
Jarrell, Randall, “Some Lines from Whitman,” in Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, edited by Bradley and Blodgett, W. W. Norton & Company, 1973, pp. 882–88.
Lawrence, D. H., “Whitman,” in Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, edited by Bradley and Blodgett, W. W. Norton & Company, 1973, pp. 842–50.
Marinacci, Barbara, O Wondrous Singer! An Introduction to Walt Whitman, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1970, p. 228.
Simic, Charles, “Images and Images,” in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, edited by Friebert, Walker, and Young, Oberlin College Press, 1997, pp. 95–7.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.
Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.
Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Reynolds, David S., ed. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.
Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983....
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