Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Then resumed the chaos louder than ever..."

I often think about the life of my great-great-grandfather and wonder if he told any stories to his family about his time in service of the nation during the "Great Rebellion". Surely he lay awake some nights remembering the trials he faced as a young soldier.

Walt Whitman's poem, The Artilleryman's Vision, describes such a night spent in memory of long-ago days still fresh on a soldier's mind. According to a description of the poem in The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry: From Whitman to Walcott edited by Richard Marius, "All this is imagined since Whitman never saw combat. But no poem in this collection better expresses the nostalgia for the war once it was over, the remembered excitement that brought thousands of men on both sides together for reunions with their comrades as long as they lived. Probably no better description of combat emerged from the Civil War - certainly not in poetry."

Here Whitman takes us into the mind of a soldier as he remembers the war while his wife and child are sleeping nearby:

The Artilleryman's Vision
by Walt Whitman

While my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars are over long,

And my head on the pillow rests at home, and the vacant midnight passes,

And through the stillness, through the dark, I hear, just hear, the breath of my infant,

There in the room as I wake from sleep this vision presses upon me;

The engagement opens there and then in fantasy unreal,

The skirmishers begin, they crawl cautiously ahead, I hear the irregular snap! snap!

I hear the sounds of the different missiles, the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle-balls,

I see the shells exploding leaving small white clouds, I hear the great shells shrieking as they pass,

The grape like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees, (tumultuous now the contest rages,)

All the scenes at the batteries rise in detail before me again,

The crashing and smoking, the pride of the men in their pieces,

The chief-gunner ranges and sights his piece and selects a fuse of the right time,

After firing I see him lean aside and look eagerly off to note the effect;

Elsewhere I hear the cry of a regiment charging, (the young colonel leads himself this time with brandish'd sword,)

I see the gaps cut by the enemy's volleys, (quickly fill'd up, no delay,)

I breathe the suffocating smoke, then the flat clouds hover low concealing all;

Now a strange lull for a few seconds, not a shot fired on either side,

Then resumed the chaos louder than ever, with eager calls and orders of officers,

While from some distant part of the field the wind wafts to my ears a shout of applause, (some special success,)

And ever the sound of the cannon far or near, (rousing even in dreams a devilish exultation and all the old mad joy in the depths of my soul,)

And ever the hastening of infantry shifting positions, batteries, cavalry, moving hither and thither,

(The falling, dying, I heed not, the wounded dripping and red I heed not, some to the rear are hobbling,)

Grime, heat, rush, aide-de-camps galloping by or on a full run,

With the patter of small arms, the warning s-s-t of the rifles, (these in my vision I hear or see,)

And bombs bursting in air, and at night the vari-color'd rockets.
I share this poem to honor the memory of my great-great-grandfather William Cowhey and all fellow soldiers who did their part in the Civil War. It is posted in celebration of today's Poem in Your Pocket Day.

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