The Wound-Dresser

by Walt Whitman

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"The Wound Dresser " was inspired by Walt Whitman's voluntary service in the hospitals of the Civil War. He visited with the wounded and dying, often writing letters for them to send to their families and loved ones or reciting passages from the Bible or Shakespeare for them, to try to raise their spirits.

The speaker in the poem is likewise a presence in the war's hospitals, but as a "wound-dresser" he is more physically and intimately involved in the treatment of the soldiers' wounds. Among the themes that emerge from the poem is the pathos of their suffering, and more largely, the agony of soldiers of all wars. The focus in the poem is not on the heroism of battlefield exploits, but on the humble suffering of the men who have been devastated physically, psychologically, and spiritually. The speaker observes a grievously wounded soldier:

His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
Another theme that emerges from the poem is an exploration of the psychological, emotional, and spiritual demands on those who care for the wounded and dying. The speaker is accompanied on his rounds through the wards:
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
Empathy and compassion for the sacrifice of soldiers is exemplified when the speaker is deeply moved by the extremity of one of the wounded who
...turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
The speaker also notes how the human spirit and desire to live are primal forces in a soldier who, though mortally wounded, struggles against death.
I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard...
And finally, the speaker reflects on the humanity of the men who die in war not as soldiers sacrificing for a cause, but as mortal, individual men who left life with acts that reflect the brotherhood of mankind.
Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.

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