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

Updated on July 5, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

The Confederate Dead Soldiers

Source

Nihilism in Stevens' "Death of a Soldier"

Wallace Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier" dramatizes 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)