Weekly Whitman: “I Saw Old General at Bay”

Grant at Cold Harbor

This week’s poem is a puzzle of sorts–just who is “old General?” I always thought it was Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but the copy of Whitman’s poems I usually use (Drum Taps: The Complete Civil War Poems) has a photograph of United States General Ulysses S. Grant directly across from the poem. The only clue we really have is that this general has grey eyes. We know Whitman spent time with the Army of the Potomac, but still …. Is it Grant at Cold Harbor? Lee at Gettysburg? Thomas at Chickamauga?

What think you?

I Saw Old General at Bay

I saw old General at bay;
(Old as he was, his grey eyes yet shone out in battle like stars;)
His small force was now completely hemm’d in, in his works;
He call’d for volunteers to run the enemy’s lines–a desperate
I saw a hundred and more step forth from the ranks–but two or three
were selected;
I saw them receive their orders aside–they listen’d with care–the
adjutant was very grave;
I saw them depart with cheerfulness, freely risking their lives.


3 Responses to Weekly Whitman: “I Saw Old General at Bay”

  1. I don’t think it matters who it is, just a metaphor for the responsibility of anyone in charge of a soldiers’ life, that their eyes should be grey, a prelude to the black of possible death.

  2. I suspect Whitman was speaking of any, generic “Old General,” whose command faces a time of desperate crisis. He calls on the true heroes of the poem, the few selfless volunteers who set forth on the perilous mission through enemy lines “with cheerfulness, freely risking their lives” to summon relief.

  3. Yes, this is vintage Whitman: using a nameless archetype in a vignette representative of many. The Old Artillerist is another. The above comment about the connotations of the eye-color grey seems on target.

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