Walt Whitman

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night by Walt Whitman

‘Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night’ by Walt Whitman is an emotional poem that describes a soldier’s night-time vigil alongside the body of his fallen comrade. 

This piece was first published in Drum-Taps in 1865. This piece was later included, as were all those published in Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps, in Leaves of Grass. It’s unclear whether or not the poet actually witnessed or experienced the events described in the poem. There are mixed opinions in regard to whether the event happened at all or if the poet created it in order to pen this poem. 

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night
Walt Whitman

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
Till late in the night reliev’d to the place at last again I made my way,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word,
Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear’d,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,
And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.
Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night by Walt Whitman


Summary 

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night’ by Walt Whitman is a moving poem about a father’s vigil after his son’s death.

The poem is written from the father’s perspective and describes how the speaker lost his son on a battlefield. The father, also a soldier, had to fight on. He only returned that night to sit with his son’s body and remember their love and times together. He honored his son with this vigil and then buried him when the sun came up. 

Structure and Form 

‘Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night’ by Walt Whitman is a dramatic monologue. The poem is made up of twenty-six lines written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The style of the lines should be familiar to readers who know Walt Whitman’s poetry. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line of text. This could be through the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, “Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle.” 
  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “dropt” and “say” in line two and “made my” in line five. 
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-3

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;

When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,

One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget,

In the first lines of this piece, the poet begins by utilizing the line that later came to be used as the title. The speaker is a father looking on his “comrade,” or son, who has “dropt at” his side that day. He’s passed away earlier in the day, something that’s described in more detail as the lines progresses. The father had looked into his son’s eyes and saw a look that he’s never going to forget. It’s something that no parent wants to see or would ever strive to see again. 

Lines 4-8 

One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground,

Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,

Till late in the night reliev’d to the place at last again I made my way,

Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)

Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind,

In the next lines, Whitman’s speaker describes touching his son’s hand as he lays on the ground. But, he didn’t have long to pause with his fallen son and comrade. He had to rush on into the “even-contested battle.” 

It was later that night that the father found his son again and sat at his side. There, he describes his son’s face, “bared…in the starlight.” The natural elements are present and described as though the father was paying a great deal of attention to everything around him.

Lines 9-13 

Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,

Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,

But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,

Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands,

Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word,

The speaker continues on, describing the vigil he held beside his son’s body with the battlefield around him. This is an interesting example of juxtaposition. The father feels a great deal of love for his son and comrade while all around him is the evidence of death and hatred. 

Despite his loss, the vigil was quite important to him. He didn’t cry but instead appreciated his son’s love. He gazed “on the earth partially reclining” while sitting by his son’s side, with his chin in his hands. He passed hours this way without speaking or crying. Instead, he contemplates the world and his relationship with his son. 

Lines 14-17 

Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,

As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,

Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,

I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)

The speaker also describes the vigil as one of love and death. The latter did not extinguish the former in this instance. He expands his descriptions to appreciate the stars above, an allusion to heaven and the place where “we shall surely meet again.” Readers will likely experience some lines of this poem, like line seventeen, as more prose-like than verse-like. They are quite long, and while they do use poetic techniques, they also feel like the writing one might find in a letter or diary. 

Lines 18-26 

Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear’d,

My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his form,

Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,

And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,

Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,

Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)

Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d,

I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,

And buried him where he fell.

In the last lines, the speaker says that he stayed by his son’s side until the dawn appeared on the horizon. Then, he wrapped his son in a blanket and tucked it around his head and under his feet. He couldn’t take his son from that place. Instead, as the sun rose, he dug a small grave and left his son there. 

The poem ends with the speaker acknowledging that his son is also a fellow soldier and comrade. He was “swiftly slain” and will never “again on earth” respond to his father’s kisses. The speaker suggests that he’s never going to forget the moments as the sun rose and he folded his son into his blanket, burying him where he fell. 

FAQs 

What is the tone of ‘Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night?’ 

The tone is solemn and peaceful. The speaker acknowledges his son’s death, but he doesn’t cry or suggest that he will fall into a depression. He honors his son throughout the night with his vigil and then buries him in a shallow grave in the morning. 

What are the themes at work in ‘Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night?

The themes at work in this poem include death, love, and honor. The father does not sob for his son’s death. Instead, he honors him with a vigil while remembering their lives together. 

What is the purpose of ‘Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night?

The purpose is to express the experience of someone during the Civil War who lost his son and fellow soldier. It’s unclear if the speaker was a real person, and if they were, who exactly they were. But, it’s likely that this was someone’s very real experience. 

Who is the speaker of Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night?

The speaker is a father who was serving alongside his son during the Civil War. He watched his son die next to him during a battle and returned that night to sit with his son’s body and bury him in a shallow grave. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night’ should also consider reading some other Walt Whitman poems. For example: 

  • Animals’ – a poem describing the poet’s love for animals and their nature.
  • A Clear Midnight’ – a simple, yet impactful poem that depicts a speaker’s desire to free his soul from the confines of day to day life.
  • I Dream’d in a Dream’ – depicts a speaker’s dream of a utopian world in which love is the reference point for all decisions and actions. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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