Vigil Strange I Kept On the Field One Night


As summarized in a January 2023 WSJ masterpiece review by Kelly Franklin, Whitman's speaker goes beyond improvising a battlefield ritual; he preserves solemnity and reverence. How could family and friends find closure when soldiers died or disappeared far from home? Was respectful burial feasible under the pressures of battle?
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
      battlefield 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
  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 was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Mon, Jan 23, 2023


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