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Walt Whitman: Two Patriot Poems

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Walt Whitman - 1863

Walt Whitman - 1863

Poem 1: Introduction and Text of "Cavalry Crossing a Ford"

Walt Whitman's "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" is one of his most widely anthologized poems from his Civil War experience. This poem first appeared in "Drum-Taps," in 1865 in his much revised Leaves of Grass, his collection that he continually added to and revised for many years.

Cavalry Crossing a Ford

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark to the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink,
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the ford—while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.

Reading of "Cavalry Crossing a Ford"

Commentary on "Cavalry Crossing a Ford"

The speaker of this poem adds no commentary about what he sees; he simply reports the image as it appears to his sight. Each line becomes a single unit that gives its supporting value to the entire poem.

Line 1: A Portrait in a Line

The speaker is riding with a line of cavalry soldiers as they move into battle. The small group of soldiers is in the process of crossing a river, as the speaker commences his portrayal of this event. The attention of the viewer is directed to a line of the cavalrymen who are on horseback, "wind[ing] betwixt green islands."

Whitman eschewed any traditional riming scheme with this poem; however, the assonance of words with such as "wind," "island," and "line," offer a stand-in and function as rime would do in helping to render the line a unified whole. The viewer can see the whole group of cavalry in just the first line.

Line 2: A Snake-Like Formation

The line of soldiers seems to form a snake-like line as it glides through the landscape. Crossing the river the "serpentine" line appears to move as the snake would move through grass.

The speaker now refers to the soldiers by reporting that, "their arms [are] flash[ing] in the sun." The speaker then adds to his description a sound: "Hark to the musical clank." The poem, therefore, is offering an image that a snapshot could never do.

Line 3: The Drama of the River

The speaker now dramatizes the river, reporting that it is "silvery" with the horses "splashing" the water, taking a gulp of the water every time they halt to wait their turn to trot ahead. The speaker adds a marvelous touch by commanding his reader/listener/viewer: "Behold the silvery river."

Line 4: Dramatizing the Soldiers

Employing this line and the following line to dramatize the soldiers, the speaker again commands his listeners to look at the "brown-faced men." The speaker then asserts that each soldier represents a "picture," as the whole group of soldiers also paints its own picture. He notes that some seem rather laid-back and seem to be merely relaxing in their saddles before they begin their difficult journey again.

Line 5: Completing the Crossing

The speaker then claims that a section of the line of soldiers is completing their crossing of the river, as others remain in the process of stepping into the river.

Line 6: The Flag of a United Country

The flags representing the colors of the united country, the union flag, which serve as a guidon for the group remain in a single line to stress their important function of representing the country they are fighting to preserve.

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Line 7: Flags in the Breeze

The final line finds the speaker stressing the colorful flags, "flutter[ing] gaily." The speaker finds that fluttering a happy event as the flags do what they would simply and naturally do in a light breeze.

Patriotic Drama

This poem simply offers a moving portrait of soldiers crossing a river. It paints its dramatic features in colorful descriptive images, revealing the scene as closely as possible to what the observer actually saw. The description implies great affection for what the observer is painting; his drama is the simple movement of soldiers, but his respect, love, and admiration abound in his choice of images that move.

Poem 2: Introduction and Excerpt from "Song of the Banner at Daybreak"

Walt Whitman's "Song of the Banner at Daybreak" features a variety of voices who offer their own unique views and attitudes toward patriotism. Five distinct characters perform this little drama: poet, pennant, child, father, and banner.

Excerpt from "Song of the Banner at Daybreak"

O a new song, a free song,
Flapping, flapping, flapping, flapping, by sounds, by voices clearer,
By the wind's voice and that of the drum,
By the banner's voice and child's voice and sea's voice and father's

Low on the ground and high in the air,
On the ground where father and child stand,
In the upward air where their eyes turn,
Where the banner at daybreak is flapping. . . .

To read the complete poem, please visit "Song of the Banner at Daybreak" at the Whitman Archive.

Reading of "Song of the Banner at Daybreak"

Commentary on "Song of the Banner at Daybreak"

This poem features a drama in five voices.

Poet: "O a new song, a free song"

Upon observing the flag and pennant of his country and the military, the poet wishes to make the ultimate statement about the meaning of patriotism. With all of the voices who may express a thought, the poet will attempt to "twine them in" and give life to them.

Pennant: "Come up here, bard, bard"

The pennant representing the military invites the poet and the others to join him as he flies high in the sky and "play[s] with the measureless light."

Child: "Father what is that in the sky beckoning to me with long finger?"

The child is thrilled by the invitation of the pennant but does not quite understand what it is or what it means; thus, he asks his father what it is that is so inviting to him.

Father: "Nothing my babe you see in the sky"

The father typically tries to avert the child's attention from the military pennant's allure and points that attention to other areas of life. The father points out that there are houses and money and cars loaded with goods to be dealt with.

His implications are that the land is rich with material wealth which he would like his child to become engaged with instead of having to serve in the military to protect these things.

Poet: "Fresh and rosy red the sun is mounting high"

Here the poet again interjects his beautiful words: "But I am that which unseen comes and sings, sings, sings." And in addition to some lovely landscape description, the poet adds, "And the shore-sands know and the hissing wave, and that banner and pennant, / Aloft there flapping and flapping."

Child: "O father it is alive--it is full of people--it has children"

The child, despite the father's attempt to redirect his attention, becomes even more

enthralled by the pennant; in it, the child sees people, especially children: "It is talking to children / I hear it—it talks to me."

Father: "Cease, cease, my foolish babe"

Again, the father seeks to dissuade the child from noting the pennant and directs the child's attention to things on the ground.

Banner and Pennant: "Speak to the child O bard out of Manhattan"

Now the flag and the pennant both appeal to the poet to talk to the children and help

them understand that the banner and pennant are more then mere strips of cloth.

Poet: "I hear and see not strips of cloth alone"

The poet avers that the banner and pennant are not merely strips of cloth: "I hear and see not strips of cloth alone, / I hear the tramp of armies, I hear the challenging sentry, / I hear the jubilant shouts of millions of men, I hear Liberty!"

Banner and Pennant: "Yet louder, higher, stronger, bard! yet farther, wider cleave!"

The banner and pennant, however, feel that poet needs to be even more emphatic: "Yet louder, higher, stronger, bard! yet farther, wider cleave! / No longer let our children deem us riches and peace alone."

Child: "O my father I like not the houses"

The child then tells his father that he is not interested in the material things of this world; he prefers to work for higher ideals as symbolized by the pennant and banner.

Father: "Child of mine you fill me with anguish"

Naturally, the father fears for the child as any father would fear for a son or daughter who joins the military service. As the child seeks to perform duties that honor his country, the father only sees the possibility of the child fighting and dying in war.

Banner: "Demons and death then I sing"

The banner then admits that duty is filled with "demons and death," but the banner nevertheless insists that it will sing these things. It then catalogues the guts and glory that it represents and is unashamed of the work it symbolizes.

Poet: "My limbs, my veins dilate, my theme is clear at last"

The poet is finally emboldened to sing the praises of the banner and pennant, claiming, "a little child taught me." The poet now thinks only of the heightened duty symbolized by the pennant and banner, not of the material wealth accumulated by a free people. The key focus is on the freedom, without which the material wealth would remain an unachieved desire.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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