Review of “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” by Walt Whitman

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“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” is a Walt Whitman poem in the Drum Taps section of Leaves of Grass. Ironically, the section begins with a poem called “First O Songs for a Prelude” which deals with a different kind of march – the patriotic pep-talk inspiring and praising the quick response to take up arms and go to war. But as the reader traverses Whitman’s poetic fare in this section the ebullient flag waving gives way to the somber realities the author would experience or observe. Although Whitman was educated, older than many in uniform, and dealt with the wounded, his personality and writing style favored the common man. After all, he still aspired to be and maintain the position of America’s Poet.

While reading this poem I had no trouble imagining Whitman, while working with the wounded, observing a slew of platoon buddies seeking news of fallen friends, or seeing the newbies drawn to the carnage as if receiving a christening before their baptism under fire. And Whitman, always the writer, could not help but empathize and imagine himself in their shoes.

“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” places the reader into the mind of an average soldier in the Civil War. Like most common troops this young man endures the drudgery, the forced marches from one unknown location to another. The body wearying travel is usually only broken-up with momentary rest periods, or battle preparation followed by skirmish after skirmish – until the brass, on one side or the other, decides they have had enough loss at this location and sends them to another before confronting the enemy again.

The soldier marches with the column in darkness. This time they are the ones in retreat: “Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating.” And retreats are often made under the cover of darkness, and usually throughout the night with only momentary stops. It is during one of those brief halts that this poem primarily focuses on. They draw toward, then rest beside a large church, dimly lit, that is now a makeshift field hospital.

The soldier knows it will be a brief stop, but he is drawn to the “impromptu hospital,” and he sees “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” It is one of those experiences no one ever thinks about during the rally ‘round the flag speeches when seeking volunteers to recruit. And I have no doubt that Whitman experienced the pride of patriotism shown in the beginning Drum Taps collection, just as he experienced a change after witnessing the savagery of war. Yet each individual deals with it in their own manner. Some, usually the newbies, have an innocent morbid curiosity. Others have an intense compassion for their fellow man. And still others will not be caught dead around a hospital (unless wounded). Whitman, however, always seems to portray a sense of compassion during these somber encounters:

“At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding

to death, (he is shot through the abdomen).

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the younster’s face is white as a lily).”

And instead of blocking out the scene this soldier wants to see it all: to remember it. And I cannot help but feel that a similar event evoked those feelings in Whitman during his war experience. The curiosity of the writer is so clear in the following passage:

“Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all.”

And the scene he describes is not eye-candy; it is human horror, a living nightmare. And this nightmare cannot be contained – not even within the church (such an iconic symbol used in the contrasting reality).

“The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d.

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the

death-spasm sweating.”

This soldier takes it all in. He does not shield his eyes or turn away.

Is Whitman merely recalling personal experience? Or is Whitman still keen on being the poetic voice of America? After all, how does a young country evoke change if it is not willing to confront its problems head-on, with eyes wide open?

The problems facing the Nation at this time were especially hard because they turned brother against brother. It was a solemn duty, a responsibility, to get America back on track. But the outcome was impossible to predict in the initial stages of the war. And Whitman shows us in the use of metaphor. After the soldier takes in the harsh reality, the rest period is over; it is time to resume the march:

“Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in;

But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me.

Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,

Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,

The unknown road still marching.”

Like the soldier, the Nation was marching on an unknown road: it marched against itself, and even the best possible outcome would create a rift between the warring states that would require generations to heal.

 

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Black Elk Speaks

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The biographical text indeed has a poetic flare (though not entirely) to it that comes across from the introduction onward, and can be seen in both Black Elk and John Neihardt’s speech and writing. For instance, Neihardt writes the following:

“Little else but weather ever happened in that country – other than the sun and moon and stars going over – and there was little for the old man to do but wait for yesterday (p.xxiii).”

 

And Black Elk’s normal manner of speech sings with the aged simplicity of wisdom and the colorful style of the long ago Indian, as seen in the following passages:

“What I know was given to me for men and it is true and it is beautiful. Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost (p.xxv).”

“I was born in the Moon of the Popping Trees on the Little Powder River in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed (p.7).” Continue reading

Leading up to the Red Power Movement

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People often try to pinpoint specific events when they talk about the birth of wars, happenings, fads, and major movements. For instance, it is easy to say America entered into a war with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is a lot harder to retrace historic and cultural events which paved the way for Japan to ally itself with Germany and Italy. The same concept applies with consideration over what paved the way for the Red Power Movement of the 60s and 70s among the Native Americans. Similar to a chef adding various ingredients to some meal a variety of events occurred among Indians, over a thirty to forty year period, that created the recipe which brought forth the Red Power Movement. It is a complex issue that could easily require a volume of text to do justice. However, for the sake of brevity, I will point out some of the predominant ingredients which helped create the socio-political concoction known as the RPM: government policies, poverty, perseverance, and place paved the way for the Red Power Movement. Continue reading

War touches all

The following is a term paper based on several books written about the Vietnam War; but it is just as relevant for any war… and for any time.

[Take your ego and preconceived notions out of the equation and it’s never too late to learn.]

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War touches all

War is greedy. A little thing can release it, but after it is let loose it cannot easily be tamed. It has no loyalty, not even to those who cast it forth. It seeks to ravage anything and anyone it touches, and it touches everyone. And anyone touched by war will never be the same. But individuals who experience war firsthand will, inevitably, bear a bigger cross: a burden uniquely forged by their experience and perspective. Continue reading

Poverty

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Poverty serves up depression and despair instead of delight.

It brings lethargy to body and soul that longs for life.

It drops doubt into every dream with the ability to

distort reality into nightmarish proportions.

It envelopes and smothers every ray of light

with an oppressive shroud of darkness.

It transforms fresh air

into the polluted toxins of tainted existence.

It causes a metamorphosis

from lasting love to unsatisfying lust.

It fails to nurture and nourish well-being,

but perpetually feeds addiction.

It steals faith from the faithful,

infects decency with depravity,

and turns the hopeful into the hopeless.

However, it is a human construct.

It is only able to do what humans allow it to do.

Humans are responsible for it.

Humans can fix it.

Humans must discover their lost humanity.

Human or inhuman?

That is the question.

© JW Thomas

Offenses and extenuating circumstances

[*I had no time to write a new post, so I’m reprinting one from a previous blog that encourages us to find better ways to deal with young offenders; especially those with extenuating circumstances.]

 

Did you see the story of the family evicted from section 8 housing because the 13-year-old son stole a pair of shoes from K-mart to keep his feet warm? A single-mother and her three children have been told to vacate their Grand Junction apartment in two weeks, right around Christmas, because of the incident that had nothing to do with the apartment complex.

 

By no means am I condoning the act of stealing, but what type of lesson has the system just taught this family (especially the young kids)? This boy, after being forced to wear tattered shoes because of the family’s poverty, which kept his feet cold and hurting, was tempted (as any child would be) to find a way to relieve the pain. And he made a wrong choice. But the system that blindly and callously casts the entire family, including the boy’s two younger siblings, out in the dead of winter is a far greater criminal act than what the child did.

 

The manager of the apartment complex in Grand Junction said in a statement to the media that “shoplifting violated the family’s lease agreement” — (Huffington Post). Any criminal activity, even off the premises, is grounds for immediate eviction. But what they fail to take into account is the extenuating circumstance. This was not a case of a hard-nosed delinquent trying to get over on the system; it was a poor child with hurting feet trying to ease the suffering. And now that child is riddled with guilt over his mother and siblings being cast out into the cold for something he did.

 

The act of shoplifting should not be condoned, but the manager missed a great opportunity to make a huge difference in the life of both this boy and his family. Instead of evicting them it would have been much better to let the boy see the error of his ways, and then give him the opportunity to make up for his mistake by working around the apartment complex (about two weeks), and then paying him enough to buy a pair of shoes. The boy would learn he had to take responsibility for his actions and that it is better to work for things you need instead of stealing. And his younger siblings would have seen the lesson as well, and their mother would have felt that someone in society actually cared about her circumstance and attempted to help instead of simply adding to her burden because it’s easier for the manager and property owners to callously cast an adult and three children into the cold: hoping they can find a shelter that will take them.  

 

The action taken by the manager and property owners has only reinforced the belief to this family, especially the children, that nobody cares for them so they need to look out for themselves. And that kind of belief will create the temptation for more bad choices.

 

The majority of Americans use to have compassion and think about others more than themselves, but those days appear to be long gone. That’s what happens when you take a loving God out of a society’s belief system.

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© JW Thomas