Walt Whitman

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Clarify What “desperate emergency” did the old general face in "I Saw the Old General at Bay"?

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Walt Whitman was profoundly moved by the human toll of the Civil War. When his brother, a Union soldier, was injured, Whitman became personally involved as he volunteered at field hospitals to help in many ways. He assisted in patient medical care, sat with gravely and mortally wounded men, and...

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Walt Whitman was profoundly moved by the human toll of the Civil War. When his brother, a Union soldier, was injured, Whitman became personally involved as he volunteered at field hospitals to help in many ways. He assisted in patient medical care, sat with gravely and mortally wounded men, and sought to comfort them with his simple presence.

"I Saw the Old General at Bay" is an observation of a speaker as an aged military commander faces a likely defeat. His forces are completely surrounded; this is the "desperate emergency" he faces. Despite the dire situation, several volunteers step forward to "run the enemy's lines" to assess the situation, knowing it is a mortal risk.

The poem is meant to recognize the perseverance, courage, and dutifulness of soldiers in battle and the heavy burdens on the men that lead them. Whitman, through his speaker, does not take sides or rail about the waste of war; instead, he keeps his focus on the qualities and actions of the men. The general's eyes "shone," the volunteers listen attentively, their "adjutant" is "grave," and the volunteers are cheerful as they "freely" risk all.

In the poem's title, the expression "at bay" means to be cornered, or in a position where evasion is no longer an option. That, and the adjective "old" establishes a tone of empathy. Few readers have been in a similar position but the vast majority are likely to feel for a person who has lived a long life and faces the end in a less than peaceful manner.

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