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 clank” of their equipment. Moving closer still, the loitering horses become clear in line 3. Finally, in line 4, the reader sees the soldiers themselves, “brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture.” These men are veterans, their faces tanned by long months in the field. They lean negligently in their saddles. The word “negligent” here suggests confidence and self-possession rather than disregard.
In the next line, the poet begins to pan back; perhaps he is drifting downstream from the soldiers. The reader now sees the soldiers as a group again, still a line stretched across the river. The line is still winding; some soldiers leave the river as others enter it—a river of soldiers crossing the river of water.
Up to this point in the poem, the syntax of the sentence has bound everything together. Commas, dashes, and imperative commands, such as “behold,” direct the reader to one thing, then another. Each of these images is somehow independent, self-reliant. However, the final two lines are connected to the rest of the poem by a conjunction: “while.” The conjunction emphasizes that the red, white, and blue flags that fly in the last two lines do so as everything else in the poem happens.
In these last two lines, the image of the flags contrasts markedly with the rest of the poem. Whereas the first five lines of the poem describe men and nature intertwined, the flags are set apart. While the men are veterans, the flags are bright and clean— “scarlet” and “snowy white,” they have not been dimmed and dirtied by months of campaigning. Further, their gay fluttering is at odds with the negligence of the soldiers. Thus the reader is left to wonder whether the flags act as a unifying image, or as something distinct from the river, the horses, and the men.
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...
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