The Wound-Dresser Analysis
by Walt Whitman

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The Wound-Dresser Analysis

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.

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

(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 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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Whitman earned his place as the father of modern American...

(The entire section is 1,314 words.)