The Wound-Dresser

by Walt Whitman
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199

The Wound-Dresser is one of Whitman’s most famous works. There are many different angles you can take in analyzing it for an assignment. You can talk about some of the form elements, for example. The poem is written in free-verse, which was a favorite of Whitman’s, and comparing this poem to others he’s done in blank verse could be fruitful.

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Another angle for analysis is how the poem is based on experiences that Whitman actually had. He was a wound-dresser, or nurse, himself, and had many experiences in hospitals like the one he describes in the poem. Going into his backstory and connecting his real-life experiences to different bits of the poem, especially in the later parts, could give you an in-road into getting done what you need to get done.

The poem is specifically about the Civil War, so this should help too. Whitman’s recollections about the war’s focus on the sad elements largely because these are what he saw, namely the aftermath of the fighting since he served as a wound-dresser.

You can find quotes to help support ideas around the section where it says, “… I recall the experience sweet and sad.”

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

Walt Whitman’s “The Wound-Dresser” is a sixty-five-line free-verse poem in four sections describing the suffering in the Civil War hospitals and the poet’s suffering, faithfulness to duty, and developing compassion as he tended to soldiers’ physical wounds and gave comfort. Published at war’s end, the poem opens with an old veteran speaking, imaginatively suggesting some youths gathered about who have asked him to tell of his most powerful memories. The children request stories of battle glory, but the poet quickly dismisses these as ephemeral. He then narrates a journey through a military hospital such as Whitman experienced in Washington, D.C., during the second half of the war.

In three lines added in 1881 (lines 5-8, previously the epigraph to “Drum-Taps”) he admits he was at first “[a]rous’d and angry” and “urge[d] relentless war,” but soon relinquished his war-as-glory stance to dress wounds of soldiers both Northern and Southern, to “sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.” The poem then takes the reader into his “dreams’ projections,” the horrors of the hospitals that vividly haunt him while others around him are happy and busy making money on the economic recovery.

The vision from the past proceeds in the present tense as a scene projected before the poet’s eyes. The majority of the lines set the details of the military hospitals before the reader’s senses, with Whitman leading the reader onward as he confronts agony, comforts and bandages the wounded, and watches some die. The soldiers’ agony is agony to him as well, but he moves on “with hinged knees,” humbled and barely able to continue at times.

Section 2 gives a view of the wound dresser as a soldier, steadfastly pressing “onward” through the hospital tending the wounded amid horrible conditions and despite the unbearable pain he witnesses—row after row of cots, some soldiers without cots lying on the ground bleeding into the dirt, row after row of amputations, gangrene, fevers, crazed minds, bloody rags, open wounds. Seeing the look of death coming upon one soldier, the poet wishes he could die in the boy’s place, but he cannot and so he asks for merciful death to hurry.

Section 3 develops this dutiful faithfulness and expands on the poet’s experience of loving compassion as he witnesses the suffering and suffers himself to see others in such pain, as he can do little to relieve them. Detailing more specific and terrible wounds, the poet stays firm, calm, “impassive” on the surface, “yet in [his] breast a fire, a burning flame.” The final section summarizes his actions and their profound effect on him, that the complex “experience sweet and sad” continues, relived “in silence in dreams’ projections.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

Whitman earned his place as the father of modern American poetry by developing a capacious free-verse style, voice, and imaginative content capable of expressing the country’s expansive democratic spirit. Among his chief devices are long lines of rhythmic cadences, catalogues rich with detail, syntactic repetition, and a voice that is bold and mastering yet casually intimate, inviting the reader to see and share his experience of reality. In most poems, these devices advance experiences of celebration, wonder, and joy. In this poem syntactic, cataloguing, and rhythmic repetition concentrates the deep suffering, piles detail upon detail, portrays the relentlessness of the appalling conditions, and underlines strong emotional content—the wound-dresser’s shock, humility, and loving compassion—as he moves through the hospital doing his work. Long lines of flowing rhythms interrupted by pauses and short phrases modulate the emotional content of a consciousness that can stand to witness the horror of amputations, crazed minds, and dying boys and still remain open enough to feel deep compassion. A hushed, awed quietude is advanced by long cadences and in the lines of accurate, honest details as the reader follows his eyes:

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood;Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head;His eyes are closed, his face is pale, (he dares not look on the bloody stump,And has not yet look’d on it.)

The visual and psychological power of the poem owes much to the unflinching rendering of bloody details delivered by the voice of a person who not only does not turn away but also allows himself to feel deep tenderness for those to whom he ministers. The poet notices the specific way each head is laid on a pillow and intuits a soldier’s horror at the loss of his hand.

The poem is characteristic of Whitman’s belief that experience, not logic, convinces, and he gives the reader raw experience, causing one to cringe and look away, as the soldier did, as the speaker wanted to but did not. Metaphor is rare, but when it appears is used to dismiss, as early in the poem in a quick figure—“like a swift-running river they fade.” Metaphor is also transformed into a complex of pervasive and profound meaning, as in the central figure of the wound-dresser as soldier, going without fail to the work of binding wounds and comforting despite horror, unbearable pain, and death surrounding him on all sides. Humbled, the poet gives the reader twice the marvelous rich image of his going with “hinged knees,” suggesting in its complex symbolism a physical, emotional, and spiritual door where quaking fear, petition, utter weariness, humility, love, strength, and courage to go on, are all fused—the whole powerful mix of thought and feeling that marked his experience as a nurse.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 168

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