The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)