The Artilleryman's Vision

by Walt Whitman

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What is the theme of the poem called "The Artilleryman's Vision?"

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The main theme of Walt Whitman’s “The Artilleryman’s Vision” is the overwhelming horrors of war. The poem begins with a peaceful, idyllic, domestic scene. The speaker lies with his wife by his side. All is still and quiet except for the breathing of his infant child. However, the speaker is then troubled with memories of war from his past, which intrude upon and disturb the present. The horrors of the war are so powerful as to overwhelm the past and flood into the present. His present domestic contentment is contaminated by the irrepressible past.

The horrors of the war also overwhelm the speaker’s senses. He hears “the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle-balls” and the “great shells shrieking as they pass,” and he sees the “shells exploding” and the “crashing and smoking” of the “scenes at the batteries.” Throughout the middle part of the poem, there is repetition of the phrases, “I see,” and “I hear,” emphasizing just how much the memories of war still have the power to overwhelm the speaker. This impression is then compounded when the speaker says that, “I breathe the suffocating smoke.” The horrors of the war seem so real that they seem to seep into the speaker’s lungs with each breath he takes.

The poem finishes with lines beginning “And ever,” in one instance to describe the “sound of the cannon far or near,” and in the second instance to describe the “hastening of infantry shifting positions.” The impression created by the repeated phrase, “And ever,” is that these memories cannot be contained. The speaker seems exasperated with, but resigned to, the prospect that these memories will always haunt him. They will always return to overwhelm his present.

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The theme of the “Artilleryman’s Vision” by Walt Whitman lies in the universal response to war long after a soldier returns from combat.

Through the narrator of his poem, Whitman speaks of the deep rooted, long lasting memories that surface repeatedly for those who experience combat. Whitman’s poem describes action during the Civil War and tells of a soldier’s reaction to his experience. It disrupts his peaceful home life; a wife and an infant sleep peacefully next to him yet he is jolted awake. This experience is common in those who return from any type of combat. They are hauntingly aware of the actions in their realistic dreams and flashbacks. This affliction has gained notoriety of late as it is now termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and  is the focus of veteran’s affairs advocacy groups. The theme of anguish in this poem is enduring.

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