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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

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"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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

As a tale told to the young, the poet’s memories act as an offering of wisdom and future direction for healing the nation: not to remember the glory of battles won, but to remember the pain that soldiers on both sides suffered, their sacrificial deaths, and the war wounds that need loving healing. The nation’s people should not pass by the wounded because they are too difficult to look at; instead they are to become wound-dressers, whose function is a holy one. A few but clear allusions are made to the divine nature of the soldiers as Christ-like: the soldiers’ “priceless blood,” the poet dressing “a wound in the side, deep, deep,” the dying arms “cross’d” on the wound-dresser’s neck. The soldiers are sacrificial soldiers like the dying Christ, the suffering servant, except that they have died to preserve the unity of the nation. The wound-dresser is also a servant, the one who attends faithfully and humbly to the greater suffering of the soldiers. The wound-dresser’s love goes as deep as that of the soldiers’ love for country, for he desires to die in a boy’s stead. The image of the dying soldiers with their arms crossed on the nurse’s neck and kissing, which closes the poem, is fully earned through the nurse’s deep compassion and humble service.

“The Wound-Dresser” occupies a central place in the “Drum-Taps” group. It not only is one of Whitman’s finest poems but also marks a shift from Whitman’s call to war of the early poems to the later poems’ distressed assessment of the human costs on both sides with its implicit injunction to heal the broken nation through wound-binding love. This poem expresses the powerful effect direct exposure to the war had on Whitman, resulting in the late poems’ powerful treatment of the pain and sacrifice endured by the soldiers and their families, who were left to grieve unconsoled. This and other poems in “Drum-Taps” constitute the first modern war poetry, which turns away from celebrating the glories of battle to render starkly, even brutally, the physical and emotional realities of war and its costs to human individuals.

In this context, the image of “hinged knees” suggests that the nation choose the path of humility, not glory; prayer for the end of hardship; and awareness of the divinity of all people, North and South, to bind the broken nation with loving, unflagging service in spite of personal suffering. Thus, personal suffering is recognized for its true weight, but it is to be turned to the recognition of shared pain and loss, and from thence to the shared work of rebuilding the nation. The war experience has been both “sweet and sad,” bringing profound harm but with it the means necessary for healing. The poem’s ending, with the strong memory of the loving kisses of dying soldiers on the poet’s lips, promotes the power of loving union. The soldiers in Whitman’s care have gone into death with loving arms about them, a theme that is continued in other poems, such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” It is left to the listeners—especially the young—to take up the message and continue the example of healing at war’s end.