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Wallace Stevens' "Death of a Soldier" and Walt Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon"

Updated on April 18, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Dead Soldiers


The Nihilism of Wallace Stevens' Poem

Wallace Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier," the speaker portrays a nihilistic attitude. This attitude ushered in a disturbing and often disgraceful display of antipathy toward the men and women of the military who serve the 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.

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.

Line by line text of poem with music: Wallace Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier"

The Honor, Love, and Respect of Whitman's Poem

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).

In Walt Whitman's "Look Down, Fair Moon," 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.

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.

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.

Modern and Postmodern Disrespect

One of the more egregious blows to the culture brought on by modernist and postmodernist thought has been that negative attitude toward those individuals who have served in the military.

Examples of the utter hatred that some men in uniform have experienced include that coming from a place where such would never be expected—the White House. During the Clinton administration (1993-2001), the men and women serving the White House occupants were subjected daily to condemnation coming from those beneficiaries of their service.

A secret service agent has reported:

The former secretary of state [Hillary Clinton] also did not want to see American military officers in their uniforms.

“Hillary didn’t like the military aides wearing their uniforms around the White House,” yet another Secret Service agent recalled. “She asked if they would wear business suits instead. The uniform’s a sign of pride, and they’re proud to wear their uniform. I know that the military was actually really offended by it.”

On numerous occasions, the Clintons, especially Hillary, have demonstrated hatred for the military.

The secret service was not immune to the Clinton nastiness. According to Ron Kessler, the following deplorable scene once occurred:

“Good morning, ma’am,” a member of the uniformed Secret Service once greeted Hillary Clinton.

“F*** off,” she replied.

That Clintonian attitude is a hangover from the undisciplined and anti-discipline 1960s, but the sixties were simply the blooming and flourishing of the nihilistic attitudes that started earlier in the century and the poets were not unaffected by it, as much of Wallace Stevens' work testifies.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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