The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” is a fifteen-line poem written in the free verse that is characteristic of much of Whitman’s work. The poem is broken into four uneven stanzas, ranging from one line to six lines in length. Although ostensibly a narrative influenced by the poet’s experiences as a nurse during the Civil War, the poem is also a meditation upon humanity’s inability to learn the lessons of the past.
Much of Whitman’s work, particularly his lengthy meditative poem “Song of Myself” (1855), is profoundly influenced by Transcendentalist philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the vein of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Whitman’s early poetry promises to provide the “original energy” of “nature without check” and is ultimately optimistic and vital. However, after an 1862 visit with his wounded brother, Whitman became a wartime nurse, serving both Union and Confederate wounded in a hospital encampment in Washington, D.C. The optimism and hopefulness of romantic Transcendentalism suddenly seemed out of place at such a time and in such an environment.
Like many of Whitman’s selections from Drum-Taps, a collection of poems written about the American Civil War, the title of “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” is taken from the first line of the poem. The narrator has emerged from his tent “sleepless,” and walking near “the hospital tent” he sees...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
It is almost impossible for a reader to overestimate the influence of Whitman’s verse on the poets that followed him. Although Whitman was not the first poet to write in free verse, the poems included in Leaves of Grass (1855-1892), like “Song of Myself,” so demonstrated his mastery of free verse that this form of poetic expression became inextricably linked with his name. Detractors of free verse are far less common now given the prevalence of the style throughout much of the twentieth century; what was rebellious during Whitman’s life is now commonplace.
The lack of formal line lengths, meter, and rhyme schemes in much of Whitman’s poetry does not mean that form was not an important tool to the poet. The long, breathless lines of “Song of Myself” seem to convey that the poet truly is energized by his understanding of nature, and that his powers of creativity are bursting at the seams; he cannot write quickly enough to place his impressions upon the page. The more somber subject matter of “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” however, is also served by Whitman’s use of free verse.
The poem begins with its longest stanza as the narrator describes his early rising and discovery of the three dead men. The entire first stanza is a series of inverted subordinate and appositive clauses that finally culminate in the lines, “Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,/ Gray and heavy blanket,...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.
Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.
Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.
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Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.
Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.