“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest”

 

 

 

 

index

 

dedication

 

 

I am reaching the end of the novel Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott, which I have been reading for a few weeks by fits and starts (as is often my pattern), carrying it everywhere with me.

What a revelation, and what a writer.

I won’t spoil the book for would be readers by telling too much of the plot. But, it starts out with a young woman trying to make her way in the world in often tough circumstances; then there is a sort of Pride and Prejudice style romantic angle involving multiple relationships; and, at the end, the Civil War has broken out, and this profoundly affects the lives of all the major characters.

There are many autobiographical elements in the story.

The final chapters, in which the Civil War has profoundly affected and changed all the characters’ lives, contains heart-rending scenes of wounded soldiers being treated in hospitals. Obviously, Alcott drew upon her own experience as a Civil War nurse.

Regarding these concluding chapters and scenes, one of Walt Whitman’s great Civil War poems comes to mind: “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.”

I rank it right up there with three of Whitman’s greatest poems: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

 

 

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A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown

 

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, 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 stanch 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, 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 odor,
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.

 

— Walt Whitman

 

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I am not a literary critic, but one doesn’t have to be one to appreciate Whitman fully. He didn’t write for critics.

Is there another poem that brings the Civil War home with such harrowing clarity and force? All expressed with such remarkable concision. So much expressed with an economy of words and just the right images. To say just enough (and how much!), and nothing more.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 2018

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I posted the following review of Alcott’s novel on Amazon.com:

One reviewer’s comments caught my eye: “kitsch; too many good people.” This is unfair and unfounded. The book does have a Victorian quality about it, and at times verges on being overly sentimental. But it is beautifully written, and compelling. It also accurately depicts harsh realities of its time and place. Women should appreciate its insight into their concerns and the obstacles they faced then. But, bottom line (I am male), this is a brilliant novel that is worth reading for the beauty of its prose alone. I often found myself stopping to read passages over again and make note of them. Why this novel is not better known and not more widely read escapes me. It’s up there with the works of acknowledged masters.

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