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 “three forms” on “stretchers lying,” beneath a “Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.” The narrator’s mindset at this discovery is made clear from his description of the “daybreak gray and dim.” This is not a glorious new day full of promise and potential, but rather the dawn of a day that will bring lessons somber and sad in the forms of the three war casualties.
“Curious” and “silent,” the narrator lifts the blanket “from the face of the nearestfirst,” finding an elderly man with “well-gray’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes.” The narrator asks the dead man “Who are you,” naming the corpse “my dear comrade.” Although one may quickly suppose the narrator speaks to a fallen Union soldier whose cause is sympathetic to the narrator’s (and Whitman’s) own, to do so is to miss the point. The dead man is the narrator’s comrade because each is a human being, a member of a wartorn and beleaguered people. Uncovering the face of the second blanket-shrouded form, the narrator finds a young man, a “sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming,” and again asks him, “who are you my child and darling?”
Finally, the narrator inspects the third victim, a man whose age is neither “child nor old,” his face colored a “beautiful yellow-white ivory.” Examining this last casualty, the narrator does not ask “who are you” but instead states, “Young man I think I know you.” The face of this final victim, he realizes, is the “face of the Christ himself,/ Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.”
Forms and Devices
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...
(The entire section is 1,138 words.)