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;
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
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.
Dante couldn’t have said it better. Here is a descent into hell, a visit to an inferno of tortured souls. It is a vision painted by Rembrandt, luminous in detail (“the glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches”) yet evocative in scope (“Faces, varieties, postures beyond description”). Whitman has placed us right at the heart of the horror, at the dying center of what war does, what we do to each other through its agency. And yet there is no mistaking the compassion in this great man’s voice, the tenderness for the fallen soldier, the empathy for all who are suffering and lost. Whitman isn’t only our most large-hearted poet, he is also our premier humanist and it is the moral authority of this that allows him to see and acknowledge the beauty of the human at its most miserable. What other poet could write “the youngster’s face is as white as a lily” and not be accused of trivialising, of versifying? With Whitman we know, no, we feel the breathless truth of the observation, and allow ourselves to be moved.
But exquisite as Whitman’s skill in painting this scene for us is, it is by no means the only reason to admire this poem. With that incredible starting Whitman has plunged us firmly into the metaphorical. Bracketed between these marches into the unending dark, the body of the poem becomes a moment of reflection amid the confusion and urgency of war – a time for considering consequences, for reckoning up the cost . The march must go on, even though the road be unknown and the wood be thick. Doubt is a luxury the soldier cannot afford, despair is the true enemy and must be fought against, but compassion, yes, compassion is possible. Whitman reminds us that it is important not to turn away from these realities, but to bear witness to them, to understand that the cost of war is measured out in young man’s lives, and to carry the memory of these horrors in our heart – for that is the beginning of conscience. The march must go on – or must it? As the poem ends, Whitman’s narrator returns to what Arnold calls “the confused alarms of struggle and flight / where ignorant armies clash by night” but Whitman himself (and by the extension the reader) remains bathed in the light of this vision, remains with the dying and the wounded, wondering how much longer these hard-prest ranks of boys must go marching out into the darkness, getting themselves killed.
 Half a century later, and a continent away, Wilfred Owen would return to this idea of an interlude to create perspective:
“It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.”
A poem that makes fascinating reading with the Whitman.