“Come up from the Fields, Father” – Critical Analysis
“Come up from the Fields, Father” is a poem from Walt Whitman on the topic of warfare, more specifically the impact that a soldier’s involvement in war has on the family. The poem occurs on a calm Ohio autumn day, tranquil and wondrous on a quiet farm. The eldest daughter of the family begins by calling to her parents to “come up”, to hear the news from their son who has been away fighting in the civil war. The peaceful setting is abruptly changed when Whitman suggests ‘something ominous’ about the letter, the mother’s steps tremble as she races toward the house and does not “tarry to smoothe her hair, nor adjust her cap”. The first sign she notices about the letter is that it is not in her son Pete’s handwriting, yet his name is signed. ‘O stricken mother’s soul!…she catches the main words only’ as she assumes the worst has happened to the family’s only son. “Sentences broken – gun-shot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital. At present low, but will soon be better,” are the main words that the mother reads in horror. The daughter tries to comfort her mother in saying the letter says soon Pete will be better, but it seems that the mother knows something her daughter does not. “Alas, poor boy, he will never be better,” is the next line, apparently directed back to the daughter – implying that while they stand at home at the door, he is dead already. The mother turns white in the face and cannot even think, and wants to follow her son in death.
Whitman shows his feeling about war in a number of ways. He first explains about all the wonderful colours he can see. The colours of autumn are vividly captured creating a sense of harvest and abundance. The colours are deeper suggesting strength and vitality. A pastoral image of harmony and tranquillity is created where a cool wind sweeten the Ohio villages. The natural abundance and beauty is continued with the apples ripening and grapes on the trellised vines with their aromatic sweetness suggested by the repetition of smell you the smell. The beauty of the scene is extended by the vast calm skies that seem so clear and suggest openness, a land at peace with itself.
This image of peace is shattered by the contrast of the opening of the letter. On the 3rd stanza (2nd line), he adds 'BUT', and this changes everything in the poem as it goes from a lovely scene to a horrible dreary and dark scene. The rhythm starts to get a lot faster whereas before it was quite a slow rhythm. The sentences themselves are broken and fragmented, imitating the nervousness of the mother as she reads the lines. The repetition of the exclamatory ‘o’ captures the mothers fear and disbelief. Her world has been destroyed by the news, emphasized by the poets choice of the harsh sounding and emotion-stricken words.
Unlike the calmness of the skies and the union of man and nature in the opening stanzas, here the mother is disconnected, showing what war can do to the loved ones. 'All swims before her eyes, flashes of black, she catches the main words only', this scene is showing her reading the letter and only reading a few words such as 'cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital, at present low, but will soon be better'. He expresses his feeling about war in saying how the mother reacts to this letter, 'Sickly white in the face and dull in the head, very faint, by the jamb of a door leans'. Whitman shows the distress of the mother and how the children try to comfort her showing role reversal, they try and make her feel better by saying, ' Grieve not so dear mother, See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better'. All the sisters huddle round the mother to help her. Whitman then goes on to say 'Alas, poor boy, he will never be better (nor maybe needs to be better, that brave and simple soul), while they stand at home at the door he is dead already, the only son is dead'. This stanza really catches the reader as she can imagine the family standing at the door thinking everything will be ok, but Whitman knows that there only son is dead and it draws the reader’s attention to what war can do to any family. The last stanza shows the mother grieving over her dead son, 'But the mother needs to be better, she with thin form presently drest in black, by day her meals untouch'd, then at night , fitfully sleeping, often waking'.
This is how the mother is trying to cope but can’t help but be so down and depressed. Whitman is trying to show the break up with the family with the son not being there and the grief all this war has caused. The mother needs to be better, because she still has other children to look after, showing how hard it is for the family to cope with all the ups and the downs. Last few lines he says, '0 that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw, To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son'. Whitman displays how the mother just wants to give up and go to be with her dear dead son and just want to join him in heaven. Whitman has showed this poem as if he was standing nearby and watching them while they receive the letter and deal with the consequences of war.
The poem is written in free verse. It does not follow any rules in terms of rhythm, rhyme patterns or the length and style of stanzas. The poet uses realistic imagery to show the tranquility of the farming area. He uses "deeper green, yellower and redder, ..leaves fluttering" to show the richness of autumn and to set the reader up for the fall, because it makes it more tragic when she learns that Pete has been injured and dead.