Sometimes life in the city feels a bit like a battle. Marching off to work every morning, elbowing your way through the crowd just for your own tiny little space. Then back out on the streets to trudge, trudge, trudge your way through the sweltering crowds who shout and bustle and bristle.
Coming home is equally exhausting. It’s almost a test of one’s meddle to see if you really want to get there (I wouldn’t begrudge the cowardly soul who stops to get a long drink instead).
This poem reminds me of the trek home especially the “negligent rest[ing] on the saddles”. I would too if I was riding my horse home.
This scene, to my mind, is a picture, a scene from a story frozen in time. Something else probably quite important and exciting happened before this and something very important will happen after (they are the Cavalry and they do have all of that rescuing to do after all), but we the reader won’t know exactly what. Instead we’ll have to read the details, “the arms that flash in the sun”, “the musical clank”, “brown-faced men”, the long guidon flag and all, the horses and the men, are exhausted.
I like when a poem can tell us a story even without meaning to tell us a story. It isn’t a “once upon a time.. and this is how it happened” type of a story. It’s the type where we infer the drama and all of the plot points.
I do know that Whitman is famous for commemorating important American events and achievements, so I can imagine that perhaps this is from a famous battle like something from the Spanish American War, or perhaps they’re being called upon to chase an outlaw or help a small frontier town. All are possibilities, but I wonder which as I often do with many of his poems.
In “Captain, My Captain” the battle is won, but we don’t know which one. We simply imagine the sails whipping in the wind, the gunsmoke exploding and clouding the air, the waves curling and crashing, the men shouting and rushing about. Yet he writes none of that in his poem. And it is a very exciting poem.
Sometimes a poem is more about what has not been written, than what has.
Cavalry Crossing a Ford
by Walt Whitman
A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun – hark to the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink,
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the ford – while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.