“The Artilleryman’s Vision”, I think, is one of the most powerful poems in Drum-Taps because all of the terror that the subject of the poem is experiencing, the frightening noises and imagery, isn’t an account of a scene taking place in the present- it lies in the memory of a former artilleryman long after the war has ended. The account is beautifully and frighteningly expressed. I think Whitman’s time spent in the hospitals with men who were not only physically wounded, but mentally wounded, may have inspired him to write a poem on the way such an experience can have an everlasting and haunting effect on the human mind.
The visions of the veteran take place during a time when all is silent, when the worries of the daytime have passed, a time when the mind is supposed to be at rest. For the subject of the poem, there is no such thing as a restful state of mind, for when all is silent, visions and sounds from the past come flooding into his head. Just as the former artilleryman hears the breath of his infant amongst the silence of the night, his nightmarish vision begins. It is interesting that a vision of violence, death, and human destruction follows the innocent and naive breath of an infant, as if Whitman is suggesting that pain and human destruction is inevitable from the very beginning of a life.
Whitman gives us words like “exploding”, “crashing”, “smoking”, and “suffocating”. These words come with connotations of permanent destruction and not only describe what is going on in the vision, but what has happened to the mind of the subject as a result of the war. The line, “After firing, I see him lean aside, and look eagerly off to note the effect…” could also refer to the consequence of war on it’s victims- after the gun has been shot, all one can do is sit back and observe the effect.
The last line of the poem begins with, “And bombs bursting in air”, a sure reference to The Star-Spangled Banner. The line is sung in The Star-Spangled Banner as a patriotic tribute to our country, but in the poem it follows a series of bloodshed and misery- representing and paying tribute to the reality of the line and the men who actually experienced “bombs bursting in air”.