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Stevens' "Death of a Soldier" Vs Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Dead Confederate Soldiers

Nihilism in Stevens' "Death of a Soldier"

Wallace Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier" is dramatizing a nihilistic attitude.

Stevens' "Death of a Soldier"

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage.
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

This attitude has ushered in a disturbing and often disgraceful display of antipathy toward the men and women of the military who serve their country with honor and distinction. In Wallace Stevens' poem, the speaker's nihilistic attitude fosters an acquiescence, showing no bitterness, no sorrow, no emotion of any kind. He likens the fallen soldier's demise to the decay of life during the autumn season. By repetition, he emphasizes this focus: "As in season of autumn" and "When the wind stops."

The speaker observes that in the fall when the wind stops, the clouds continue to move, suggesting that life goes on after each human death, akin to Robert Frost's speaker in "Out, out," who says, "And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs." Except for those two phrases, the poem is devoid of poetic devices. It remains quite literal in its execution.

The lack of human emotion in a poem about death reveals the influence of the modernist dilemma, where in many poets, culture critics, and other thinkers began to suspect that human beings had more in common with the animals than with children of God; thus, they began to question the value and purpose of religion. Falling victim to a spiritual dryness that led to confusion, melancholy, and egomaniacal pandering and propagandistic displays instead heartfelt, truthful artistic expressions.

Musical rendition of Stevens' "Death of a Soldier"

Honor in Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

The Whitman speaker contrasts mightily with the Stevens speaker. Whitman honored the military and showed his love, respect, and affection by serving in military hospitals and on the battlefield during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene;
Pour softly down night's nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple;
On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss'd wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.

In Walt Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon," which is extremely brief vis-a-vis Whitman's penchant for long poems filled with expansive cataloguing, the speaker shows great emotion; he is almost keening while begging the moon to bless these poor "ghastly, swollen, purple" faces, these poor creatures, who are on their backs, with "their arms toss'd wide." This image of the arms flung wide offers readers the possibility that the body appears to be resembling the shape of a cross.

This speaker is beseeching the moon, to which he assigns a kind of divinity by calling it sacred, to put a halo, "nimbus," around these poor dead soldiers. This speaker's plaintiff sorrow exposes the human heart, open to divine healing, not accepting the pessimistic, nay, nihilistic tendencies that it is apt to fall prey to in such agonizing scenes.

Reading of Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

Modernist Mindset vs Romantic Sensibility

While both poems focus on the death of soldiers, the Stevens twentieth-century, modernist speaker does so without passion, while the Whitman speaker, demonstrating the nineteenth-century reverence for the qualities and duties of military personnel, shows great sorrow. Therefore, the themes are similar but the attitudes or tones are very different. In the Stevens poem, the modernist attitude is expressed in complete sentences, such as "Life contracts and death is expected" and "Death is absolute and without memorial"—very exact and matter-of-factly stated.

Whitman's speaker, on the other hand, expresses the Romantic sensibility of passionate sorrow in several words that reveal tone: bathe, softly, ghastly, sacred. This speaker is almost praying to the moon to pour down its soothing rays, to pour them down softly on the deceased. The speaker refers to the faces of the dead as ghastly, a word that clearly reveals the speaker's pain at having seen such devastation. And finally, the speaker refers to the moon's light as sacred, which goes well beyond personification into deification of the moon, giving it the ability to consecrate the dead. Such exaggeration defines the pure, raw emotion felt by the speaker.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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