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.)