Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Civil War was a time of great upheaval for Whitman personally, as well as for the nation. One of the major themes of his pre-Civil War poetry is the unity of the nation. When the United States fell into civil war in 1861, Whitman was momentarily stunned into silence. He wrote a few jingoistic recruitment poems, such as “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” but in late 1862 Whitman discovered that his brother, George Whitman, had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Walt quickly went to the front to find his brother, who was only slightly wounded, and stayed with the army for several months. From his experiences at the front, Walt Whitman began to compose a series of short, sketchlike poems, of which “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is the most well known. In these poems, Whitman attempts to persuade not through argument and personality, as he does in his earlier poetry, but through the arrangement of imagery.

In this Imagistic poem, the speaker is much quieter than that of his earlier work. This speaker, unlike that of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” avoids transcendent claims. The soldiers who “emerge on the opposite bank” are no different from those “just entering.” Instead, Whitman portrays one of the key themes of his poetry: the relationship between “simple separate person” and “the word Democratic, the word En-Masse,” as he wrote in “One’s-Self I Sing,” the opening poem of Leaves of Grass. In the poem, the soldiers are...

(The entire section is 473 words.)


(Poetry for Students)

To the speaker of the poem, the soldiers that are described here have no individual identities but are important in...

(The entire section is 950 words.)