Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As a tale told to the young, the poet’s memories act as an offering of wisdom and future direction for healing the nation: not to remember the glory of battles won, but to remember the pain that soldiers on both sides suffered, their sacrificial deaths, and the war wounds that need loving healing. The nation’s people should not pass by the wounded because they are too difficult to look at; instead they are to become wound-dressers, whose function is a holy one. A few but clear allusions are made to the divine nature of the soldiers as Christ-like: the soldiers’ “priceless blood,” the poet dressing “a wound in the side, deep, deep,” the dying arms “cross’d” on the wound-dresser’s neck. The soldiers are sacrificial soldiers like the dying Christ, the suffering servant, except that they have died to preserve the unity of the nation. The wound-dresser is also a servant, the one who attends faithfully and humbly to the greater suffering of the soldiers. The wound-dresser’s love goes as deep as that of the soldiers’ love for country, for he desires to die in a boy’s stead. The image of the dying soldiers with their arms crossed on the nurse’s neck and kissing, which closes the poem, is fully earned through the nurse’s deep compassion and humble service.

“The Wound-Dresser” occupies a central place in the “Drum-Taps” group. It not only is one of Whitman’s finest poems but also marks a shift from Whitman’s call to war...

(The entire section is 551 words.)