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...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
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The “they” of the first line refers to the soldiers who make up the cavalry troop mentioned in the title. This abrupt beginning differs greatly from the majority of Whitman’s verse, in which he uses the first-person “I” as the filter through which the poem is conveyed. Here, the “I” of the poem, the speaker, is merely implied. Instead of coloring the scene with his own perception, he relates it journalistically— objectively and with a nonjudgmental tone—presenting the image of the cavalry as it crosses a ford, a shallow place in a river. The scope of the image is so broad as to imply that the scene is being viewed from a distance and likely from some higher ground. The whole of the cavalry is presented as a vast single line twisting and turning snake-like through the landscape. The “arms” that glint sunlight in the second line refer then to the cavalry soldiers’ rifles, and the “Hark,” which simply means “listen,” serves both as a command and an entreaty. In this manner, the speaker both asks and tells the reader to see the scene for himself or herself. It is as though he imagines the reader standing alongside him, hearing “the musical clank” of the distant soldiers’ guns. While this is not a logical possibility, the speaker of the poem helps (or forces) the reader to visualize the scene by supplying images and cues. In addition, the use of assonance and consonance in these lines adds to the poem’s...
(The entire section is 756 words.)