Whitman’s “Come Up from the Fields Father,” as a Civil War poem

The Civil War had a great impact on Walt Whitman’s life. He moved to Washington in 1863 and, after volunteering as a wound dresser in Washington hospitals, determined to devote his life to war service. His experiences during the war inspired many poems, a collection of which, Drum-Taps, was published in 1865. In "Come Up from the Fields Father," Whitman turns his full attention to the mother's experience of war, exploring the depth of her alienation and the tensions it suggests.

Whitman’s “Come Up from the Fields Father,” which appears to be based on a real incident, is one of his few attempts at characterization and dramatic presentation of a scene. While the poem expresses the grief of many families during the war, Whitman’s specific inspiration was a young farmer from Delaware, Ohio, and named Oscar Cunningham. Cunningham was wounded in May 3, 1863; amputated on May 1, 1864; and died on June 4, 1864.

In this poem, 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. A pastoral image of harmony and tranquility is created where a cool wind sweetens the Ohio villages. The natural abundance and beauty is continued with the apples ripening and grapes on the trellised vines with their aromatic sweetness. 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 poet’s choice of the harsh sounding and emotion-stricken words.

In " Come Up from the Fields Father,” Whitman depicts both sides of a story with which he was painfully familiar. As the parents of a young soldier hurry from their farmers' routine to read news of their son, thoughts flash through the mother's mind, "O this is not our son's writing, yet his name is sign'd…”  The "strange hand" belonged to Whitman in many cases as he so lovingly performed the rueful duty of writing to families of the suffering or death of their beloved soldiers. Whitman's striking image of the grieving mother with "the little sisters huddle{d} around" is effective because it is written through sincere empathy with the scene. This stanza really catches the reader as s/he can imagine the family standing at the door thinking everything will be ok, but Whitman knows that there only son is dead - 'Alas, poor boy, he will never be better … the only son is dead'. It draws the reader’s attention to what war can do to any family. In the last few lines 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.

No mention is made of the cause in which he died, or of heroic deeds or necessity. The poem centers only on the mother's withdrawal into silent grief and death. She never cries out against the powers which took "the only son" from her, but passively rebels against the life which they rule by her "one deep longing," to follow her son into death. Isolated as she is, the mother is no threat to the powerful call of the drums, but her alienation signifies the depth of the rupture the war bred in American society. The "meals left untouched" in the poem's final stanza represent a spiritual denial of the autumnal abundance with which the poem opens. The loss of the mother and "the only son," the rightful heir, suggests that the continuity of American life has been irrevocably broken. This sub-textual resistance to the ideals and activities of the war becomes more central in the poem which directly concerns the soldier who fought it.

Last modified: Sunday, 8 April 2018, 12:22 PM