Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
The first key to understanding Whitman’s point in “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” is to remember the context and physical setting of the poem. In placing a poem that tells of a “hospital tent” in a cycle of poems about the United States Civil War, Whitman expected that his readers would understand that the poem is on some level about the war and that the three dead men are victims of the great conflict. As stated earlier, the same blanket covers all three casualties of the war; the sides they fought for in life are insignificant in the shadow of their shared fates. Union and Confederate soldiers alike are victims to the human tendency to kill other humans.
The ages of the fallen men are also significant. The first man uncovered, the “elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair,” is old, and the reader is to understand that war destroys the old. The next unveiled is a “child and darling,” a “sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming.” War, and all that it stands for—violence, lack of compassion, vengeance—also destroys the young. The third member of the deceased soldiers, with a face neither “child nor old,” shows that war destroys those in the full bloom of life.
In the face of this destruction, the narrator asks the first two casualties, “who are you?” In part this signifies the loss of identity that violent death results in; the corpse’s hopes, dreams, and beliefs are all lost. Perhaps the repetition and vehemence of the questions, however, must cause the reader to ask “Who am I?” Who are humans, that they could perpetuate such violence upon one another again and again over the ages? Who are these Americans of the Civil War era, who, while considering themselves enlightened and civilized, feel justified in holding others slaves and are content to destroy each other in a war?
The number of forms on the stretcher is made important by the narrator’s assertion that the third man is “Christ himself.” The number three has Christian significance; in this case, the number not only calls to mind the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but also recalls the fact that two other men were crucified on Calvary with Christ. Although Whitman was not religious according to the conventional notion of the term, he was spiritual, and here he is concerned with what Christ represents: all that is possible and all that is good in humankind and the potential that humanity, as a race, must strive for. Nonetheless, states the narrator, “Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” The declaration seems to announce that although nearly two thousand years have passed since Christ’s life, humans are still killing each other in wars and falling sorrowfully short of the potential that Christ represented. Humans are still destroying all that is Christ-like in each other and themselves.
Like many of the other Drum-Taps poems, “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” is more somber and questioning than is typical of Whitman’s work. In some ways, its preoccupation with the poet’s firsthand encounter with war prefigures the emergence of realism in American literature. After the Civil War, the bombast, optimism, and love of self that characterized Romantics and Transcendentalists failed to adequately reflect the American mood; in “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” Whitman provides a bridge to the literary future in both form and theme.