The Artilleryman's Vision

by Walt Whitman

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The Poem

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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 infantry units as they charge into battle and sees a colonel brandishing his sword at the head of the column. He observes the “gaps cut by the enemy’s volleys” as men fall wounded and dead on the field. He breathes “the suffocating smoke” that descends upon the battlefield, obscuring the action. After a momentary lull, the activity on the battlefield resumes with greater intensity, a “chaos louder than ever.” Infantry units shift positions, and cavalry and artillery batteries move “hither and thither.” The artilleryman again experiences the “Grime, heat, rush” of battle as aides-de-camp gallop by amid the “patter of small arms, the warning s-s-t of the rifles.”

Though this nighttime battle vision seems troubling, the artilleryman reveals that war still holds for him some perverse appeal. This veteran confesses that the sound of the cannons is now “rousing even in dreams a devilish exultation and all the old mad joy in the depths of [his] soul.” In this battle in his imagination, Whitman’s artilleryman tries to suppress some of the more frightening aspects of war: “The falling, dying, I heed not, the wounded dripping and red I heed not, some to the rear are hobbling.” Hence, this war veteran holds in his memory both the horrors of battle and the “old mad joy” of combat. These memories remain persistently alive long after the battles have ended. The poem concludes not with the artilleryman’s return to peaceful slumber but with the battle still raging, with “bombs bursting in air, and at night the vari-color’d rockets.”

Forms and Devices

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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...

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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 than those contained in earlier editions of Leaves of Grass. Whitman often removes his own personal voice from the poem. In some Drum-Taps poems, his speakers are soldiers, nurses, and other participants in the war; other poems are presented from an objective point of view. In “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” Whitman wisely allows the artilleryman to tell his own story.

The Civil War is partly responsible for ushering realism into American literature, and Whitman’s Civil War poems are marked by realistic detail. In “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” the speaker attempts to record the sights, sounds, and even smells of the battlefield. The artillery shells explode “leaving small white clouds.” The chief gunner “sights his piece and selects a fuse of the right time.” The rifles fire with a “t-h-t! t-h-t!” sound, the shells shriek as they pass, and the grapeshot flies “like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees.” The artilleryman breathes “the suffocating smoke” of the battlefield. Whitman presents these details randomly, in a rambling prosaic style that conveys the chaos of battle.

The poem’s dramatic intensity hinges on the juxtaposition of details. The poem opens with the artilleryman resting peacefully in his bed. His head “on the pillow rests,” and in the darkness he “hear[s], just hear[s], the breath of [his] infant.” These details, depicting domestic safety and tranquility, contrast sharply with the details of war presented later in the poem. The infant’s quiet breathing gives way to the “irregular snap! snap!” of the skirmishers’ rifles and the shrieks and whirr of the ordnance from the artillery pieces fired during the battle. The peaceful opening scene of man, wife, and child asleep gives way to the battlefield scenes depicting the chaos of war.


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