Come up from the fields, Father

As a member of the millennial generation, I have a very different relationship to war than my parents and grandparents. Today, war is ever more distanced from daily life, fought by fewer and fewer people in more and more covert ways. A higher percentage of soldiers come home from war than ever before, but they bear greater internal wounds—since 2001, more American soldiers have committed suicide than have been killed in active duty in Afghanistan.[1] The struggles of war are disproportionately carried by this small group of men and women and their families, a group that’s generally less well-off than the average American. These struggles are increasingly private affairs, stories we are more than eager to push to the margins of our lives.

It is for this reason that Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem “Come up from the fields, Father” still resonates so deeply. Whitman, who worked as a nurse during the latter half of the war, wrote the poem after tending to a young Ohio farmer named Oscar Cunningham. After Cunningham’s leg was amputated, Whitman wrote a hopeful letter to Cunningham’s family suggesting a speedy recovery. However, weeks later, Whitman wrote the following to his own mother:

 I have just left Oscar Cunningham, the Ohio boy—he is in dying condition—there is no hope for him—it would draw tears from the hardest heart to look at him—he is all wasted away to a skeleton, and looks like someone fifty years old…[2]

Whitman never met Cunningham’s family, yet he truly sympathized with their pain, evidenced by his searing evocation of their private mourning. By writing the poem, Whitman becomes a witness to all who grieve, showing that they are not alone. My hope is that this piece continues Whitman’s witness in our time, shining a light on the stories of the marginalized of today.

 

[1] Yochi Dreazen, “Five myths about military suicides,” The Washington Post, November 7, 2014.

[2] Quoted in Joe Countryman, “Walt Whitman and the Civil War,” pamphlet, Camden, NJ: Walt Whitman House, NJ Historic Site.

————————————

Come up from the fields father, here’s a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door mother, here’s a letter from thy dear son.
Lo, ’tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees, deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio’s villages with leaves fluttering in the moderate wind,
Where apples ripe in the orchards hang and grapes on the trellis’d vines,
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vines?
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)
Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent after the rain, and with wondrous clouds,
Below too, all calm, all vital and beautiful, and the farm prospers well.
Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come father, come at the daughter’s call,
And come to the entry mother, to the front door come right away.
Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous, her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor adjust her cap.
Open the envelope quickly,
O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d,
O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she catches the main words only,
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.
Ah now the single figure to me,
Amid all teeming and wealthy Ohio with all its cities and farms,
Sickly white in the face and dull in the head, very faint,
By the jamb of a door leans.
Grieve not so, dear mother, (the just-grown daughter speaks through her sobs,
The little sisters huddle around speechless and dismay’d,)
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.
Alas poor boy, he will never be better, (nor may-be needs to be better, that brave and simple soul,)
While they stand at home at the door he is dead already,
The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch’d, then at night fitfully sleeping, often waking,
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.
————————————-

Heard it, was dope. Morbid, but dope. – Mikael Darmanie, pianist

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