The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 552 words.)

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