Cavalry Crossing a Ford Forms and Devices

Walt Whitman

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of the difficulties of “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is that it appears so effortless, so artless. It seems as if the poet simply wrote about what he saw, without adornment. In fact, however, the poem is highly artful. First, the poet’s language controls the pace and flow of the poem, alternately slowing and speeding the reader along. Second, the apparent artlessness of the poem masks the speaker’s presence and control of the poem.

The poem is written in free verse. The first five lines contain from fourteen to twenty-three syllables per line and are broken into a series of three-stress units or phrases, such as “Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink.” The three-stress phrases—“Behold the silvery river,” “in it the splashing horses,” and “loitering stop to drink”—slow the pace of the poem. Each of these units ends with an accented syllable, causing the reader to pause momentarily. The effect is to create lines that contain a series of semiautonomous images. These semiautonomous phrases mirror the cavalrymen themselves. Just as the group of cavalry is made up of individuals, “each person a picture,” so too the poem is made up of phrases, each one a picture, each one contributing its part to the whole.

However, the last two lines differ markedly from the first five. These lines contain only eight and eleven syllables, with four and five stresses, respectively. The lines are...

(The entire section is 496 words.)