A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim

by Walt Whitman
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What is the structure of the poem "A Sight in Camp"?

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Walt Whitman’s poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” is structured around varying descriptions of three dead Civil War soldiers. The poem is from Whitman’s 1865 collection Drum-Taps, itself a section of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. The collection focused on poems about the Civil War, which was just coming to a close at the time. Whitman drew from first-hand experience when writing these poems, since he had served as a nurse caring for wounded soldiers. These experiences are reflected not only in “A Sight in Camp,” but in other poems by Whitman, like “The Wound-Dresser.”

Structurally, the poem has four stanzas, each of a different length. In the first, the speaker (presumably a nurse, like Whitman) emerges from a battlefield hospital tent:

Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there, untended lying,

Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woollen blanket,

Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

This stanza focuses on providing straightforward description and creating a somber mood. It also establishes the fact that the people on the stretchers are dead, through the use of details like calling them “forms” instead of bodies, and noting that the heavy blankets entirely cover the bodies.

The three subsequent stanzas focus on descriptions of each of the dead, one by one. The second stanza describes an “elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey'd hair.” The third and briefest stanza describes a young man, who the speaker calls “my child and darling.” Both of these descriptive stanzas close with a question where the speaker asks who the men are: “Who are you, my dear comrade?” and “Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?”

The fourth stanza describes a middle-aged man. Yet instead of asking the question “Who are you?”, the speaker says “Young man, I think I know you.” Structurally speaking, this sets the fourth stanza apart from the others. The speaker notes:

I think this face of yours is the face

of the Christ himself;

Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Setting this final stanza apart in this way provides a powerful close to the poem. “Brother of all” refers not only to Christ’s role as the savior of human kind, but also more immediately to the two other dead soldiers this person likes next two. This also creates an echo and modification of the first stanza. While in the first stanza it is the material blanket that the speaker sees “covering all,” in the final stanza it is the spiritual protection “of all” that the speaker observes.

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