The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Reynolds, David S., ed. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.

Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.