It was mentioned today in class by someone how much they appreciated Whitman’s composition of “The Artilleryman’s Vision” and its notable lack of violence or graphic detail. I applaud Whitman for this poem as well, though I wonder if it is as effective without such imagery. Certainly, Whitman is a poet of concrete images and snapshots just as much as he is one of lofty ideals and life lessons, so why not offer readers more in depth detail in this piece?
My theory is that he constructed this poem the way he did for two reasons. Firstly, because there is something about its composition that resonates with the way in which people dream. After a particularly haunting vision, people often struggle to recall specific details; furthermore, the more they try to focus on what occurred and how it occurred, the more they tend to lose their grip on the few details they remembered in the first place. Secondly, I have the feeling that to go into great detail would’ve been too much for Whitman to bear personally. After learning about his deep connection to the young men in those unsavory Union hospitals, I cannot imagine that he would ever want to retell their stories with the same grisly detail that was given to him.
All that being said, I do feel that certain elements are lost without those images. Granted, part of this may be due to the age in which we live, an age in which we have access to an entire world’s experience with a simple Google search, movie ticket, or game rental. Regardless as to the lenses through which we are forced to view Whitman’s work, I do believe there is value in seeing the sort of action he was referring to.
So, I have attached a YouTube video at the end of this post with a clip from the film Cold Mountain. Though I cannot personally recommend the movie as a fan of the novel and large critic of Hollywood in general, I can say that they actually did a very good job with this particular scene. In this clip, you’ll see their reenactment of the Battle of the Crater from Petersburg, Virginia, in which Union army engineers planted a bomb next to the Confederate lines in order to breach their defenses. Though the explosives were quite effective, the strategy was not, and many Union soldiers lost their lives in the crater.
I would like to forewarn you: this is graphic. If you don’t care for war movies or have trouble with graphic violence, please don’t watch the clip. If you don’t though and are interested, I’d encourage you to reread Whitman’s poem, watch the clip, and then read it again, allowing your emotions to wash over you. I think this clip helps to illustrate what Whitman meant by the “grime,” “heat,” “rush,” and “suffocating smoke.”