Tuesday

May 31, 2011

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night

by Walt Whitman

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my way,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses,
(never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear,
not a word,
Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,
And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug
grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" by Walt Whitman. Public domain. (buy now)

On this day, George Washington signed into law the Copyright Act of 1790, the first federal copyright act in the United States. Development of copyright law wasn't a priority in the primarily agrarian colonies, but in 1783 several authors petitioned the Continental Congress, saying, "Nothing is more properly a man's own than the fruit of his study, and the protection and security of literary property would greatly tend to encourage genius and to promote useful discoveries." The Copyright Act of 1790 granted copyrights to American citizens for books, maps, and charts for a term of 14 years, with a possible extension of another 14 should the author still be living when it ran out.

The first registered copyright was granted to John Barry on June 9, for The Philadelphia Spelling Book; early copyrights tended to be granted to textbooks, rather than literary works. Since the 1790 Act only extended to American writers, publishers soon figured out that they could reprint the works of European writers without permission and sell them much more cheaply, and authors on both sides of the pond — like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain — complained that it robbed them of the full reward for their work.

It's the birthday of Walt Whitman (books by this author), born in West Hills, Long Island, New York, in 1819. He worked as a printer, and then a journalist. During the 1860s, Whitman worked as a clerk for the government, although he was fired from his job at the Indian Bureau when the director found out he'd written a collection of "indecent" poetry; Leaves of Grass was published in several editions beginning in 1855, and was controversial for its frank treatment of sex and sexuality.

Whitman loved transportation and transportation workers; he would ride the ferry endlessly, going back and forth for the sheer pleasure of it. In his poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he wrote:
"Now I am curious what site can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-
hemm'd Manhattan,
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg'd waves of flood-tide,
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter."

He enjoyed great camaraderie with the omnibus drivers and conductors, and he'd ride the whole length of their route just for the company. He got in the habit of visiting the Brooklyn Hospital to look in on these friends when they were injured. As the Civil War got under way, he began to see more and more wounded soldiers filling the hospital beds, and he would listen to their stories, write letters for them, and give them gifts and whatever measure of comfort he could offer, "to help cheer and change a little the monotony of their sickness and confinement," he wrote. He became friends with the doctors and even assisted them in surgery from time to time.

In December 1862, his brother George's name appeared in the list of war wounded, and Whitman left New York to journey to Virginia. After a search of 40 hospitals and a trip to Fredericksburg, he found his brother, who had suffered only a mild facial wound. But Whitman couldn't turn away from the horribly maimed soldiers, "a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart," he wrote in his journal, "human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening." He stayed in Washington to help the wounded and dying soldiers, Union and Confederate alike; he wanted to be their arms and legs, often staying late into the night, moving between the rows of cots to offer a comforting touch. "What an attachment grows up between us, started from hospital cots, where pale young faces lie & wounded or sick bodies," he wrote; "The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield." Whitman visited tens of thousands of soldiers through the course of the war, and he developed close friendships with several of the men, particularly a young Confederate soldier from Mississippi. He took a job in the Army paymaster's office, and used whatever little money he could spare to buy gifts for the soldiers. He also wrote poetry about the war, but about the after-effects of battles, not the battles themselves. His collection Drum-Taps was published in 1865 and was eventually incorporated into a later edition of Leaves of Grass.

He was in New York, recuperating from exhaustion, when the Confederate Army invaded the capital, and he was there again, visiting his furloughed brother George, when the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated. At his mother's house, he wrote, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" for the fallen president:
"Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep'd from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin."

On this day in 1927, the last Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line. It was the first affordable automobile, due in part to the assembly line process developed by Henry Ford. It had a 2.9-liter, 20-horsepower engine and could travel at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. It had a 10-gallon fuel tank and could run on kerosene, petrol, or ethanol, but it couldn't drive uphill if the tank was low, because there was no fuel pump; people got around this design flaw by driving up hills in reverse.

Ford believed that "the man who will use his skill and constructive imagination to see how much he can give for a dollar, instead of how little he can give for a dollar, is bound to succeed." The Model T cost $850 in 1909, and as efficiency in production increased, the price dropped. By 1927, you could get a Model T for $290.

"I will build a car for the great multitude," said Ford. "It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces."

It's the birthday of Clint Eastwood (1930), born in San Francisco. He was a musician long before he ever thought of becoming an actor. "When I was a kid, music was a constant," he said. "After Fats Waller died, my mother brought home a whole collection of his records. ... I learned to play the piano by listening to his records and trying to imitate other jazz and blues artists of that era. I taught myself to play a little stride piano and a three-chord, eight-beat thing. I became interested in boogie-woogie, jazz, and bebop. I was telling stories on the piano long before I ever directed a movie."

Even when he made his name in the movie business, music managed to find its way into his films. His directorial debut was Play Misty for Me (1971), in which he plays a jazz disk jockey who has an ill-fated affair with a loyal listener. He directed and starred in 1982's Honkytonk Man, playing an aspiring country singer who finally gets his chance in Nashville just as he's dying of tuberculosis. In 1988, he directed Bird, a biography of saxophone legend Charlie Parker, and he's also produced documentaries about Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck. He directed "Piano Blues," an episode of the Martin Scorsese documentary series The Blues. He's been contributing compositions to his films since Unforgiven (1992). His next project will be a remake of A Star is Born, starring Beyoncé Knowles, and his son Kyle, who has acted in some of Eastwood's films, is a successful jazz bassist.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »