Walt Whitman

(31 May 1819 - 26 March 1892 / New York / United States)

A March In The Ranks, Hard-prest



A MARCH in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown;
A route through a heavy wood, with muffled steps in the darkness;
Our army foil'd with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating;
Till after midnight glimmer upon us, the lights of a dim-lighted
building;
We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted
building;
'Tis a large old church at the crossing roads--'tis now an impromptu
hospital;
--Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all the pictures
and poems ever made:
Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and
lamps,
And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and
clouds of smoke;
By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some
in the pews laid down; 10
At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of
bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)
I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is white as a
lily;)
Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o'er the scene, fain to absorb
it all;
Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity,
some of them dead;
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether,
the odor of blood;
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers--the yard
outside also fill'd;
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the
death-spasm sweating;
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor's shouted orders or calls;
The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the
torches;
These I resume as I chant--I see again the forms, I smell the
odor; 20
Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, Fall in;
But first I bend to the dying lad--his eyes open--a half-smile gives
he me;
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,
Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching.

Submitted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

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  • * Sunprincess * (3/15/2014 8:11:00 AM)

    ........beautiful ending..
    ~But first I bend to the dying lad- his eyes open- a half-smile gives
    he me;
    Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,
    Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
    The unknown road still marching. ~ (Report) Reply

  • Praneeth Kandula (10/23/2012 2:31:00 PM)

    i couldn't agree more with Alain llan Braun in the previous comment....Whitman's brother actually was involved in the war and when Walt went to see his brother he was deeply affected by the wounded soldiers he saw..he also volunteered in army hospitals as a nurse... probbly thats where the inspiration came from...anyways coming back to the poem.. it has a beautiful meaning to it which is poignant and inciting.... i especially liked the last four lines where the soldier who's dying accepts his death with a smile and the person watching can do nothing more than to resume marching in the darkness... the unknown road still marching...which depicts the helplessness and futility of life...! ! (Report) Reply

  • Brian Purdy (1/7/2012 5:17:00 PM)

    The reader is given a dark and hellish scene painted with broad and powerful strokes. For its center-piece, the small grace of the speaker's kindness to a dying soldier, that soldier's calm acceptance of death. This is a masterful job of reporting on events so calamitous they dry the spit from the mouth, come close to stopping human hearts with horror and shame. And a score given of 5.6 from 10? Quite apart from the absurdity of asking the general reader to assess a poem's excellence by assigning to it a numerical score - how can anyone imply that this accomplished work deserves a below average score? So funny I have to weep; so sad I have to laugh. (Report) Reply

  • Alain Ilan Braun (9/19/2011 7:07:00 PM)

    This poem really impressed me! Who could tell what is the origin or source of inspiration for this very weird 'war poem'? Did Walt Whitman fight during the Civil War? I am quite surprized by the fact that I am the only one poet-member up to now to try to write a comment! This poem is so strong as well as disturbing in a noble way. My feeling is that poetry, such as his, must be disturbing the mind's tranquillity of all readers! Otherwise, what is the meaning of poetry? Just a sweet song? Birds do much better, I can tell you as I am an expert in wild bird songs! As it is dealing with war, blood, suffering and death. I am deeply touched by Walt Whitman's message. I just cannot believe that I am the only one to react! As a French reader and poet I have to find out if this poem has been translated in French? If not I will do it. I hope some people will 'awake' to this comment and send their own! (Report) Reply

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