After our discussion in class yesterday, I began thinking about Whitman and his connection to post-traumatic stress disorder. “The Artilleryman’s Vision” is ahead of its time in so many ways. Whitman appreciates the social impact of war and he identifies and describes details of PTSD. The soldier in “The Artilleryman’s Vision” exhibits many of the same symptoms that distress soldiers today. In an article on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, Robert Poole says, “They returned, many of them, showing no visible wounds but utterly transformed by combat—with symptoms of involuntary trembling, irritability, restlessness, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, emotional numbness, sensitivity to noise”.
In his review on “Drum Taps”, Huck Gutman argues that in “The Artilleryman’s Vision”, Whitman approaches the war as “purely experiential” rather than as a larger ethical issue and he “reveals a recognition of what today is called post-traumatic stress syndrome”. The contrast of the enormously quiet domestic scene to the chaotic war scene and the clear emotional impact the transition is having on the solider shows that Whitman is sensitive to the psychological effect of war. The tone of the poem encompasses detachment and restrained despair. Words like, “vacant”, “stillness”, “cautiously”, “eager”, and “distant”resonate as the most powerfully precise throughout the poem. Even the last line lacks triumph and seems rather defeated (And bombs bursting in air, and at night the vari-color’d rockets”).
It seems Whitman’s own encounters with post-traumatic stress disorder have been so vivid and influential that he is capable of representing it accurately. The most interesting thing to me is how PTSD has changed since Whitman’s time. One major challenge that soldiers are facing today is how quickly they transition from war to home life (literally, one morning they can be at war and that same night they can be at home, whereas in previous wars soldiers would travel by boat and have weeks or months to transition). Interestingly, “poetry therapy” is gaining acclaim as an outlet for soldiers to find healing. One veteran poet, Larry Winters, has undertones of Whitman in his writing. Winters’s poetry, like Whitman’s, personalizes war stories and explains the contradicting emotions associated with being back at home. “The Artilleryman’s Vision” captures the passion of a recovering solider in a way that continues to resonate into our present war.