A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim Questions and Answers
by Walt Whitman

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What is the point of this poem?

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coachingcorner eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The point of Walt Whitman's poem 'A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim' is lack of hope. The lack of hope is for mankind and for peace. The poem has a slightly despairing tone about it, from the very first line 'the daybreak gray and dim.' Often, poems written about the dawn or sunrise have a joyous exultant quality about them, but not this one. We begin to understand that this poem might be about more sombre issues. The words 'sleepless, hospital, stretchers and in particular 'untended' add to the hopeless atmosphere in the next few lines. We may wonder whether the patients (who are probably injured soldiers) have been cast outside as they were taking up valuable space that was needed for those with a more hopeful outcome - whereas the prognosis for the three was grim. Someone may have decided they were unlikely to make it and there was little hope for them. the reference to Christ at the end is strangely hopeless too -many spiritual poets find some kind of uplifting note in Christ's power to save, but in this case all that comes over is that mankind is repeating the same mistakes and not listening but killing Love over and over.

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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What critics tend to say is that this poem is about how people do not and have not learned from their mistakes.  Specifically, it is about how we keep having wars and keep killing each other.

You can see that in the three faces that he looks at -- all dead.  One is an old man, one is a young boy.  The third, he says, is Jesus Christ.  Talking about the third man, he says "and here again he lies."  He seems to be saying that in all the years since Jesus's time, we have not learned to be humane to each other.

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epollock | Student


In “A Sight in Camp,” as always in his work, Walt Whitman shows a beautiful feeling for nuance and detail. We tend to think of him as a grand, boisterous, inspirational chanter of American democratic freedom and equality, and it is true that he loves large, sweeping effects. Nevertheless, he is, surprisingly, a quiet, subtle, restrained kind of poet too: he excels in this mode.

In this poem, the speaker says he has risen early; the single word “sleepless” makes an important point about his state of mind and soul. He walks slowly, both because he has not slept himself and because he does not wish to disturb the other figures on the scene whom he later will tell us about, and who are still sleeping. The “cool fresh air” is a wonderful touch: we can feel it ourselves. The word “tent” is then used a second time, but it is in reference to a hospital tent, which clarifies and evokes the setting for the speaker’s walk.

As you examine the poem, no doubt you will make your way carefully from the first figure to the second to the third. What is distinctive about each of them? How are they related to one another? The phrases “dear comrade” and “sweet boy,” for example, are connected to one another, yet are not identical: the words carry different connotations within the same range of feeling. The focus on “the face of the Christ” in the final stanza is astounding. On one level, it symbolizes the profound sacrifices made by the soldiers in the war: they have given their lives for the cause they believe in. But when you think about this stanza, it dares you to to ask yourself: Might Whitman be saying that Christ, literally, is present here among the wounded, dying, and dead—that this “young man” is not “like” Christ, but, instead, “is” Christ? You might want to reply to your own thought that, “That is not the case, that is not possible.” However, perhaps for Whitman it is.

During the Civil War, Whitman found his calling as a wound dresser. Dying bodies became for Whitman the source of visionary poetry. This poem, therefore, conveys the central idea of a sacramental character tending the dying.