Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Wound-Dresser, The" (1865)
Author:
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in Drum-Taps as "The Dresser" and given its present title in 1876, "The Wound-Dresser" distills Whitman's wartime hospital experiences and his urge to be the war's memorialist, "to be witness again" (section 1), in an America reconciled in the future, to the deaths and sufferings of the soldiers and his own health-destroying sacrifices. As his Memoranda During the War and Specimen Days volumes attest, he felt that deaths and agonies were the ultimate truths of the war. The poem's persona is a stoical remembrancer committed to performing his nation's grief work; in his consciousness (as in the poet's) a tragic past is projected as a dream-like continuous present.

In the Washington military hospitals, Whitman comforted thousands of ailing and dying "boys" as a bedside attendant and—rarely—as a wound-dresser: "I have some cases where the patient is unwilling anybody should do this but me" (Whitman's Civil War 123). He chiefly benefited the bedridden by his presence and "soothing hand" (section 4). Despite the physical and psychological breakdowns that these ministrations caused him, he felt drawn to this voluntary service: "You can have no idea how these sick & dying youngsters cling to a fellow," he wrote to his mother, "& how fascinating it is, with its hospital surroundings of sadness & scenes of repulsion and death" (Correspondence 1:118).

The poem's first two verse paragraphs (which together with the final paragraph form a poetic "envelope" for the central action) portray the persona as a seasoned veteran summoning up ("resuming") memories of "the mightiest armies of earth" (section 1) and his own "perils" and "joys" (section 2). But three semi-autobiographical lines (originally an independent introductory poem incorporated here in 1881) confess that his strength failed him "and I resign'd myself / To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead" (section 1). In an incantatory stanza (lines 20–24) he conveys the reader into the hospital milieu.

For thirty-four lines thereafter the persona becomes the ambulatory wound-dresser, moving among "my wounded" (section 2) on the ground or in the (often makeshift) hospital. "Bearing the bandages, water, and sponge" (section 2), he attends each soldier "with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame)" (section 3). Looking into the eyes of one dying soldier, he reflects, "I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you" (section 2). He appeals to "beautiful death" to "come quickly" (section 3). He observes a "yellow-blue countenance" and (using the unsterile sponges and homemade bandages of the time) cleans and dresses amputations and wounds with "putrid gangrene" (section 3) and blood infections that were fatal to more than half the soldiers wounded in the chest or abdomen. Although most hospital fatalities, as Whitman observed in Memoranda During the War, resulted from diarrhea, fevers, and pulmonary infections, the poem's wounded more poignantly represent the agonies of the armies and the wounded American nation.

Rehearsing "the experience sweet and sad" of serving the suffering soldiers and pacifying them "with soothing hand" (section 4), the poem's final stanza merges the close-ups of the empathetic healer-persona and the silently grieving Walt Whitman, perennially recalling the bittersweet embraces of these grateful soldiers.

Among the finest "hospital" or "war" poems in English, "The Wound-Dresser" demonstrates Whitman's mastery of poetic and dramatic structure, of direct and simple diction, and of conveying actions and tightly controlled depths of feeling in an intimate conversation with the reader.

Bibliography

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Memoranda During the War & Death of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962.

____. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1964.

____. Walt Whitman's Civil War. 1960. Ed. Walter Lowenfels. New York: Knopf, 1971.


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