Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim, A" (1865)
Author:
Schwiebert, John E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In a December 1862 notebook entry written at Falmouth, Virginia, Whitman recorded the prose description of a scene that closely parallels the one described in this poem. "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim" was first published in Drum-Taps (1865) and incorporated into the body of Leaves in 1871 as part of the "Drum-Taps" cluster, where it remained in subsequent editions of Leaves.

The poem's three-stanza symmetrical shape prompts Allen to associate it, structurally and metrically, with sonnet form. Emerging from his tent at daybreak, the speaker encounters the bodies of three dead soldiers. In the third he discerns "the face of the Christ himself, / Dead and divine and brother of all."

The poem is interesting, on a literal level, for its reportorial accuracy of description. In addition, the literal images evoke Whitman's larger symbolic sense of the war, its everyday heroes, and its place in history. For instance, the three soldiers, collectively, may represent all dead soldiers; the image of the dead "Christ," with its connotations of redemptive sacrifice, matches what Whitman saw as the similarly redemptive sacrifice of the Civil War dead; and the emphatic reference to "all" in the last line suggests Whitman's sense of the war as a unifying cause in furtherance of community and comaraderie, which can temper selfish individualism and materialism.

Bibliography

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

Glicksberg, Charles I., ed. Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1933.

Schwiebert, John E. The Frailest Leaves: Whitman's Poetic Technique and Style in the Short Poem. New York: Lang, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.


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