The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Walt Whitman’s “The Artilleryman’s Vision” records the nighttime apparitions of a Civil War veteran after the war has ended. Although “the wars are over long” and this former artilleryman is lying in the safety of his own bedroom, with wife and infant nearby, the memories of fierce battles remain with him, surfacing after midnight in a nightmarish mental picture. “There in the room as I wake from sleep this vision presses upon me,” Whitman’s speaker, the artilleryman, informs us.

The vision presents the commencement of a Civil War battle in which the artilleryman has participated. The details of the battle are still sharp and precise in this former soldier’s mind. The artilleryman, whom Whitman does not identify as either a Union or a Confederate soldier, again sees the skirmishers “crawl cautiously ahead” and then hears the “t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle-balls.” He catches sight of “the shells exploding leaving small white clouds,” and he hears “the great shells shrieking as they pass” and the grapeshot “like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees.” The “scenes at the batteries rise in detail,” “the pride of the men in their pieces,” the careful work of the chief gunner who aims his cannon. After the cannon fires, the artilleryman “lean[s] aside and look[s] eagerly off to note the effect.”

The entire sweep of the battle appears to the insomniac artilleryman. He hears the cries of...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like Whitman’s earlier poems, most of those included in the Drum-Taps collection, including “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” are written in free verse. In his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman had described America as “a teeming nation of nations,” saying, “Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses.Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves.” To capture in poetry the spirit of America, Whitman developed a rambling free-verse style that broke with established poetic conventions. Whitman’s poems generally eschew traditional rhyme and meter, presenting instead a burst of detail and emotion in free verse—“barbaric yawps,” as he once called them.

The poems published before Drum-Taps generally concern Whitman’s own experiences and emotions as he grows from childhood to adulthood, takes in his teeming nation, and develops his poetic voice. Poems such as “Song of Myself” (1855), “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859), and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” (1860) comprise long emotional outbursts that celebrate the self, placing Whitman squarely within the traditions of American Romanticism. With Drum-Taps, however, Whitman moves in a new direction. The Drum-Taps poems, like “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” are generally shorter...

(The entire section is 505 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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