Critical Overview

“Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is in many ways indicative of Whitman’s shorter poems, especially in the vivid description of the scene. The poem differs in the manner in which the speaker situates himself on the periphery of the scene. While the majority of Whitman’s work is written in the firstperson, and usually the “I” of the poem is the center of the action or scene, in “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” the first-person “I” of the poem is merely implied and serves solely as a distant observer. This is particularly important in light of the fact that Whitman’s biggest critical proponents argue precisely that what distinguishes his poetry is his selfreferential, egocentric outlook on the world. As John Updike explained in his essay “Whitman’s Egotheism,” Whitman’s poetic egotism is “suffused and tempered with a strenuous empathy” and serves to recognize “each man’s immersion in a unique and unexchangeable ego.” In other words, Whitman espouses not only his individuality but the individual nature of all persons. Yet in “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” the individual characters observed in the scene are never quite distinguished from the larger military group.

In slight contrast to this interpretation of “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, in their book Understanding Poetry, suggest that the original unity of the cavalry as depicted in the first line “dissolves into details.” They point...

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