A distillation of Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night”

This post is unusual for Montaigbakhtinian. The poem below—in English, en Français y en una versión en prosa española—is a distillation of Walt Whitman’s Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night. Leaving aside the fact that my dear son has recently embarked on a military career, I note, more drily, that this distillation is, or is also, a response to an intuition: Whitman’s “free verse” lines are variations on simple eight-syllable lines. For more in this regard, please see An Explanation below.

Vigil strange I kept one night

After Walt Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night”
Battery Park with light & Liberty, photo by William Eaton, 19 May 2020Vigil strange I kept that night,
As at my side you fell.
My comrade, you, one look I gave;
A look returned, I won’t forget.
The touch of your hand, to mine reaching,
O you, my son, on the ground.

Onward I in the battle sped,
And hotly contested it was.
But of war relieved late in the night,
Once more I made my way,
And found my comrade cold in death,
On earth never more responding.

This body of responding kisses
And the battlefield dimly spreading.
The gentle wind, the night cool and long –
Your face in the starlight I bared,
And around me as I in vigil stood,
The fragrant night, the silent night –

O vigil wondrous, vigil sweet,
No tear fell, nor drawn-out sigh.
Where I long and longer, chin in hand,
Reclining gazed and passing sweet
Immortal hours, mystic hours,
On earth, as by your side I leaned.

With you my comrade, no tears or words,
Vigil of silence, of love and death.
As onward silent the stars aloft,
And eastward new ones upward stole,
Vigil final for you, my brave boy,
Vigil for my son, my soldier.

I could not save you, swift your death.
(Surely we’ll meet again.)
Faithful loved I and cared for you,
Until at the latest lingering night,
The dawn appeared, and this comrade form
With care in his blanket wrapped.

I folded the blanket, tucked it well
Over head and under feet,
And there and then, bathed by the sun,
My son in his rude grave ending.
Night vigil strange; battlefield dim,
Vigil for a comrade swiftly slain.

Vigil for a boy of kisses,
On earth never more responding.
With brightening day I rose from the ground,
My soldier in his blanket folded.
O vigil I will never forget.
He I buried where he fell.
William Eaton, Battery Park, New York, May-June 2020

An Explanation

Again, “my” poem is a distillation of Walt Whitman’s Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night. It arose from an intuition: Whitman’s lines are variations on simple eight-syllable lines. Iambic tetrameter with the first unaccented syllable elided. For example, imagine that the lines that begin with “Vigil” actually begin with a muted “A”: “A vigil strange I kept that night.” I note, too, how Whitman’s poem, published in a single stanza, so naturally divides into eight six-line stanzas.

I am not a Whitman expert and am more poet than poetry scholar. I can recommend Paul Fussell’s pages on Whitman in Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, to include his proposal that the free-verse poet’s ambition involves, inter alia, trying to keep his or her meter from showing. I note also Fussell’s commitment to “significant variations on established patterns.” And he quotes Ezra Pound: “Most arts attain their effect by using a fixed element and a variable.” This becomes easier to perceive, and perhaps easier to accomplish, in less-free verse forms.

More philosophically, there is Helen Vendler’s observation (in Poems, Poets, Poetry): “The theoretical appeal of free verse is that it admits an element of chance; it offers a model not of a teleological or providential [or economic-determinist] universe but of an aleatory one, where the casual, rather than the fated, holds sway.” Which would be to say that a more structured poem, such as “my” vigil, would make life seem less adventitious.

In Poetic Rhythm Derek Attridge proposes:

Although rhythm in poetry can often work effectively as an imitation of the spoken voice . . . the heightening of language also produces a certain impersonality. When language, usually assumed to be the product of a single individual and a single mind, takes on the garb of some conventional order such as figures of rhetoric or oral formulae, it becomes to that extent trans-individual. A comparison of my distillation with Whitman’s actual poem could offer insight into Whitman’s method, into some of his favorite ways of obscuring or resisting meter, and into the feelings he conveys. And in the original “Vigil,” as elsewhere, one may find the Whitmanesque absorption or subsuming of the other—other people or things—into the glory of the capacity of the lone self.

Down through the ages one of the hallmarks of the rhetoric of lyric poetry has been concision, and even in a Whitmanesque poem like Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” one finds evidence of it. (And see John Donne on the Psalms—poems which, he wrote, when they are made, “can have nothing, no syllable taken from [them], nor added”.) But perhaps, among many other things, Whitman honors this feature of poetry, or of much poetry, in relentless breaching? (One might see the two stanzas of his “Miracles,” and get the impression that the many seemingly unnecessary words of the first stanza prepare the way for the energy contained in the greater concision of the second stanza. As when we plod up stairs and then—with a surge of energy—take two at a time!)

And meanwhile I—and perhaps many others, too, caught up in the current pandemic—we may find ourselves in vigils of silence, love and death. Vigil for a boy of kisses. Vigil for my son, my soldier.


Veille étrange que j’ai maintenue une nuit

Après “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night” de Walt Whitman

Veille étrange que j’ai maintenue cette nuit,
Comme à mes côtés, tu es tombé.
À mon camarade, toi, un regard lancé ;
Le regard revenu, à jamais oublié.
Touche de la main à la mienne qui s’étendait
De toi, de mon fils, sur le sol cette nuit.

De nouveau la bataille, et je la suis ;
Le résultat était encore en suspens.
Mais la guerre s’est éteinte avec la nuit,
Et une fois de plus, j’ai fait mon chemin,
Pour trouver mon camarade mort de froid
(Sa réponse à la terre dès lors partie).

Ce corps avec baisers qui avait répondu,
Ce champ de bataille qui s’étendait mollement,
Vent doux, nuit fraîche, nuit fraîche et longue,
Ton visage mis à nu devant les étoiles.
Autour de moi, en veille et debout,
La nuit parfumée, la nuit silencieuse.

Veille féerique et tellement douce,
Veille sans larmes et sans soupirs.
Les heures passaient, le menton aux mains,
Douces heures immortelles, douces heures mystiques ;
Allongé là, je te regardais,
Sur la terre avec moi à tes côtés.

Avec toi mon camarade, sans larmes ni paroles,
Veille du silence, de l’amour et du trépas.
Dernière veille pour un jeune courageux,
Veille pour mon fiston, pour mon soldat.
En avant, en haut les étoiles muettes ;
Vers l’est, doucement, des nouveaux gravissent.

Ô, je n’ai pas pu te sauver, ta mort si vite venue.
(Je suis sûr qu’un jour nous nous reverrons.)
Fidèle, je t’ai aimé et ai pris soin de toi,
Jusqu’aux ombres dernières de cette longue nuit.
L’aube apparue, la camarade forme
Avec soin dans sa couverture, je l’ai enveloppée.

J’ai plié la couverture, je t’ai bien bordé
Au-dessus de la tête et sous les pieds fatigués,
Et puis, là, baigné par le soleil,
Mon fils, il a trouvé son caveau de terre.
Veille nocturne ; champ de bataille indécis,
Veille pour un camarade trop vite tué.

Veille pour un garçon plein de baisers
(Sa réponse à la terre dès lors partie).
Le jour s’éclaire et je me lève ;
Mon soldat-là, dans sa couverture pliée.
Veille que je n’oublierai jamais.
L’ai là enterré je, où il était tombé.

∩ Oui, cette dernière ligne est une bouchée, pas grammaticale, etc. Dans ce cas-ci, le texte original de Whitman est beaucoup plus simple et clair : “And buried him where he fell.” = Et l’a enterré là où il est tombé. Mais je voulais conclure avec des impressions générales qui donnent le poème : d’un homme plus âgé qui a perdu un jeune bien-aimé et de la mort du jeune semblant moins importante que les sentiments que le poète a pus éprouver grâce à la nuit passée avec le défunt. Un souvenir m’est venu : de ces lignes de la chanson de Serge Rezvani et Jeanne Moreau “J’ai la mémoire qui flanche” : “Tout c’que je sais c’est que depuis / Je n’sais plus qui je suis.”

L’Espagnol m’a proposé une solution plus simple : Enterré él, enterré donde había caído. Ou bien, l’anglais : He I buried where he fell.


Vigilia extraña que mantuve una noche

Después de “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night” de Walt Whitman

Vigilia extraña que mantuve esa noche, después de que tú, a mi lado, caíste. Mi camarada, tú, una mirada que di; una mirada devuelta, no puedo olvidarla.
El toque de tu mano a la mía alcanzando… mi hijo, en la noche y en el suelo.

La batalla no muy lejos sigue disputada; me apresuré a ella reencontrar mi lugar. Hasta tarde en la noche, cuando aliviado, volví una vez más y encontré a mi camarada en la muerte frío. (Su respuesta a la tierra entonces desapareció.)

Este cuerpo de besitos que responden… y el campo de batalla que se extiende tenuemente. Viento suave, y la noche, fresca y larga. Tu cara he desnudado bajo las estrellas. Alrededor, mientras yo estaba en vigilia, la noche fragante, la noche silenciosa.

Vigilia maravillosa y dulce vigilia; no cayó una lágrima, un suspiro tampoco. Largo, largo, miré hacia abajo, la barbilla en mis manos, dulce horas inmortales, horas místicas, pasando en la tierra, a tu lado, reclinado.

Contigo, mi camarada, sin lágrimas ni palabras: vigilia de silencio, de amor y de muerte. Vigilia final para tú, valiente muchacho; vigila a mi hijo, a mi soldado. Las estrellas estaban en silencio en lo alto, y las nuevas del este ascendían lentamente.

No pude salvarte, rápido fue tu muerte. (Un día, estoy seguro, nos encontraremos de nuevo.) Fiel, te amé y te cuidé, hasta las últimas sombras de esta noche tan larga. El amanecer aparece, y la forma del camarada cuidadosamente en su manta la envolví.

Doblé la manta, la metí bien sobre la cabeza y bajo los pies; y en el acto, bañado por el sol, mi hijo encontró su bóveda de tierra. Noche de vigilia extraña; campo de batalla oscuro, vigilia a un camarada con tanta rapidez asesinado.

Vigilia por un chico lleno de besos. (Su respuesta a la tierra entonces desapareció.) El día se iluminó, me levanté del suelo, mi soldado en su manta doblada. Vigilia que nunca podré olvidar. Enterré él, enterré donde había caído.

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