Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill'd,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
- These pioneers are totally relentless. Once again, they're moving in formation, conquering like crazy.
- Even when a pioneer dies, his position is immediately filled with a new guy. This army of pioneers is one serious juggernaut. They're not to be trifled with.
- "Ranks" makes this sound like an army in formation – tight formation, too ("compact ranks").
- Here again we have brief mentions of violence and danger and death (maybe that's what was suggested when we saw our speaker "mourn" before.)
- And we get the feeling that this danger is part of the appeal. These men couldn't be daring and courageous if there weren't great danger and hardship to face.
- Although our speaker acknowledges that people die, we don't actually see anyone die. We don't see anyone individually at all.
- Instead we just have this image of this pioneer group, and the group itself doesn't die. Since new people always fill in the places of the dead, there seems to be a kind of immortality achieved.
- But Whitman could also be alluding to the fact that this isn't really a grand battle. That's just a metaphor. Really these pioneers die quiet, individual deaths at the hands of the hard land.
- And those deaths often go unnoticed, because sure enough, more and more pioneers head west every year.
O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill'd.
Pioneers! O pioneers!
- Our speaker acknowledges again the inevitability of death for us pioneering individuals. He suggests that to die on the march (busy at our pioneer work) is the best way to die, and reminds us again that someone else will come to fill our place. So, all in all? Not so bad, death.
- This marks a shift in the poem. Death has come to the center stage. It doesn't seem as abstract when it's "some of us" whose hour it might be to "droop and die." We're getting serious here.
- But still there's this sense that as a group, pioneers are kind of immortal. Every gap is filled, so the deaths don't have any huge consequence on the pioneering effort.
- And there's a sort of celebration of dying in action as a pioneer. There's some glory in it. It's really the best way to go.