Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night

by Walt Whitman
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What are the central ideas of the poem "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" by Walt Whitman?

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In the poem "Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night" by Walt Whitman , the narrator tells of his son and comrade by his side falling wounded on a battlefield. They touch hands, and then the narrator rushes off to fight in the battle. When he...

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In the poem "Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night" by Walt Whitman, the narrator tells of his son and comrade by his side falling wounded on a battlefield. They touch hands, and then the narrator rushes off to fight in the battle. When he returns that night, his comrade is dead. The narrator keeps vigil for hours as the night passes, and then as dawn appears, he carefully bundles up his comrade in a blanket and buries him.

During the Civil War, Whitman visited his brother, who had received a slight wound, in Washington DC and then moved with compassion by the multitudes of wounded soldiers, he served as a nurse to the men. Later he compiled his poems about the war, of which "Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night" is one, into a volume called Drum Taps.

There are several central or predominating ideas in this poem. One is the bond of loving comradeship. The relationship between the narrator and the fallen soldier is ambiguous. Several times he calls him "son," so it is possible that the poem is about a father-son relationship, but this is not at all clear. Historians and literary critics agree that Whitman was either homosexual or bisexual, and the man who has fallen may be the narrator's lover. This is suggested by the twice-repeated phrase of "responding kisses." Calling the fallen man "son" and "boy" may merely be a reflection of the man's younger age in comparison to the narrator. Either way, the narrator loved the dead man intensely.

Another central idea of the story is the nature of grief. The narrator obviously grieves for his fallen comrade. He manifests this by standing vigil over his body, a time he describes as "wondrous" and "sweet." Although he faithfully loved and cared for his comrade while he was living, now that he is dead, he mourns for him. His grief is also expressed in the meticulous way that he wraps up the body before putting it in the "rude-dug" grave, a task that finalizes his vigil.

Finally, another central idea in the poem concerns the losses suffered in war. The narrator is deprived of a loved one, although he adds the thought "I think we shall surely meet again." Still, in this life at least, the burial of his friend expresses a finality that would not have come about had it not been for the war.

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The central ideas in this poem by Walt Whitman revolve around the subjects of war, loyalty, pain, and love. The persona in the poem seems to be part of a group of soldiers who are at war against another force. In the course of their battle with opposing forces, his comrade is slain. The poem then becomes an outpouring of the pain mixed in with the love than he felt for his comrade, the slain soldier. It also appears that the still-living soldier regarded the slain soldier as a father would a son. This explains the bond of love that the persona feels for the slain soldier.

The speaker of this poem, who is a soldier, stays up all night, holding vigil both to honor his slain comrade and son and to pay tribute and show his last respects to the soldier who was slain at war. Although he is going to keep moving forward, the pain, grief, and love that he feels are beyond words, as seen on the line that says,

Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word.

The persona also demonstrates the strict manner in which soldiers could deal with the ever-present possibility of death in the battlefront.

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Throughout the poem "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night," Whitman illustrates a soldier reminiscing about his friend's death in battle and describes how the soldier had to bury his friend on the same night. Whitman explores the ideas of death, peace, eternity, friendship, compassion, and love throughout the poem. When the soldier returns to his friend on the battlefield to find him dead, the soldier holds a vigil. The soldier's calm demeanor suggests that he is contemplating the cycle of life and death. He is at peace with the fact that his friend has passed away and displays his compassion by holding a vigil for the dead soldier on the battlefield. The soldier also expresses his love for his fallen comrade and mentions that one day he will meet with him again. This statement suggests that the soldier believes in an afterlife where he will see his friend again. Whitman also illustrates how war creates intimate bonds between soldiers and depicts their relationships throughout the poem. Holding a vigil for a fallen comrade is a striking image that portrays a range of emotions and concepts that can be examined independently. 

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This poem treats of the feelings of a soldier for his fallen “son,”  a very human, compassionate connection with the other men “of flesh and bone” in the battle.  The narrator returns to the body after the day’s fighting is over:   “Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading” and expresses both his grief and his understanding that his comrade still smiles, even though not on this earth.  Larger than just a war loss, the poem expresses the contemplation that occuirs with any loss, the grief mixed with an understanding of how the world works.  The narrator’s calmness (and there is no doubt that the narrator is Whitman himself) lends a dignity and a complexity to the emotions of experiencing the death of any man, although set in a Civil War environment.  The imagery suggests putting a child to sleep at night, “tucking him in” so to speak.

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