Walt Whitman was born son of house-builder Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor on this day May 31, 1819, in West Hills in Huntington on Long Island, NY. He spent much of his childhood and career years in Brooklyn, where he left school at the young age of eleven to work. By the age of twelve, he was learning the printer’s trade, and during that time he developed a deep love for reading and read works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. Later he took jobs as a teacher, journalist, and government clerk.
Although controversial in his time, especially for the sensuality expressed in Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman is considered one of America’s greatest poets, with his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass as his magnum opus. His poetry reflects transcendentalism and realism, celebrating human dignity, body, and soul. Leaves of Grass was inspired by his travels and his love for transcendental writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Whitman also influenced many writers to come, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg.
Here is a Walt Whitman poem fitting for the week of Memorial Day, “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” first published in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps (1865) and later included in Leaves of Grass.
Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night
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.