Week 12, Whitman and the Civil War

Walt Whitman inscription at the Dupont Circle station in Washington, D.C.(photo by Benjamin Ong)
Walt Whitman inscription at the Dupont Circle station in Washington, D.C.(photo by Benjamin Ong)


This week's text is "The Dresser."

On the granite walls of the Dupont Circle Metro station in Washington, D.C., lines from Whitman’s “The Wound-Dresser” (originally titled simply “The Dresser”) are engraved in a semicircle around the escalators, engulfing those who enter or exit the station: “Thus in silence in dreams’ projections, / Returning, resuming, I tread my way through the hospitals, / The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, / I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, / Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad . . . .” The quoted lines—from the final section of the poem—stop there. What is missing are the final two parenthetical lines of the poem: “(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested, / Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)” Whitman’s lines were chosen to honor the many doctors, nurses, and volunteer health care workers who had, at great risk to themselves, cared for AIDS victims during the years of the scourge of that disease. The Dupont Circle area of D.C. has been a center of the gay population in the capital, and Whitman’s poem about nursing the suffering and dying young men in Civil War hospitals resonated with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s through the mid-1990s, when over 40,000 people a year died from the disease before medical advances cut the mortality rate dramatically. While there was general acclaim for the public display of Whitman’s poem, many in the gay community were troubled by the decision to excise the final lines, since they underscored the homoerotic nature of the act of caring in “The Wound-Dresser,” emphasizing the importance of physical contact between the caregiver and the patient, affirming the crucial hug and kiss that turned dispassionate medical care into compassionate caring.

Whitman’s entire poem is an urgent flow of words continually interrupted by parenthetical asides, the syntactical equivalent of the action of the wound-dresser that the poem traces: “I onward go, I stop.” That onward thrust, brought on by the necessity of dealing with so many patients, is impeded by the need of each individual soldier to be tended, to have the wound-dresser stop with him, talk with him, touch him. To be an effective caregiver, the wound-dresser has to be “firm with each” and keep moving on to the next case, but he feels the “sharp yet unavoidable” “pangs” as each patient “turns to me his appealing eyes” and makes the wound-dresser want “to die for you, if that would save you.” It is this Christ-like expression of a willingness to sacrifice, combined with a clear sense that such a sacrifice would be useless, that makes the wound-dresser’s job so vexing. To maintain his effectiveness, the wound-dresser has to contain and repress his emotional response to what he experiences, for his skill requires a steady and “impassive hand,” no trembling, “hinged knees” that can remain steady and flexible to do the work of kneeling and rising without buckling, an ability to be “straight and swift” in his duties, though everything about his work makes him tremble inside and threatens to melt his “impassive” hand into the gentle touch of compassion. “I am faithful,” he says; “I do not give out.” That statement is rife with the wavering ambiguity that marks the entire poem: to be “faithful” to his work, he must not allow himself to physically or emotionally waver, to “give out.” But to be “faithful” to each suffering patient, he wants to “give out” in the sense of giving generously, radiating his love outward from his body that must in fact hold back in order to move on. And so, while he moves inexorably from one horror to the next—from “the amputated hand” and the “bloody stump” to the “wound in the side” to the “perforated shoulder” and the “putrid gangrene,” on to the “fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen”—he has to quell within himself (just as he literally contains in the poem with his parentheses) the “fire, a burning flame” that rages in his “breast.” He works to heal, to soothe, even when he knows such care is ultimately useless (“But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking”). He dresses the “crush’d head” and examines the “neck” with “the bullet through and through” (in one side and out the other), and, while his “impassive hand” nurses the wounds, deep in his breast (and deep in parentheses) he is calling for an end to this unbearable suffering (“Come sweet death!”).

While this poem is often taken to be a clear autobiographical statement—especially with Whitman’s framing of the poem as the recollection of an “old man” answering “children” who are curious about what the war was like—it is important to remember that Whitman was never a wound-dresser in the hospitals, though he certainly watched and came to know such people. As with his Civil War poems that offer the perspective of soldiers, this poem is built on a persona, as Whitman imagines—based on his observations of wound-dressers’ work and his talks with them—what these tireless health workers must have felt, what they would carry with them for the rest of their lives (what would “deepest remain”). And what he imagines most powerfully embedded in the memory (since Whitman himself experienced the magical effects of personal touch with the wounded and dying soldiers) is what the inscription of the poem at the Dupont Circle Metro station—not far from where Whitman visited wounded and sick soldiers 150 years earlier—left off: the final parenthetical two lines, the things the wound-dresser now (long after the war is over) knows meant even more to the soldiers than his careful medical care—the embrace and the kiss, body to body, mouth to mouth, the physical touch of love, held in a parenthetical moment, amidst otherwise overwhelming pain, loss, and death.


"The Dresser"

An old man bending, I come, among new faces,
Years looking backward, resuming, in answer to chil-
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens
that love me;
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions,
these chances,
Of unsurpass'd heroes, (was one side so brave? the
other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again—paint the mightiest armies of
Of those armies so rapid, so wondrous, what saw you to
tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious
Of hard-fought engagements, or sieges tremendous,
what deepest remains?

O maidens and young men I love, and that love me,
What you ask of my days, those the strangest and sud-
den your talking recals;
Soldier alert I arrive, after a long march, cover'd with
sweat and dust;
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly
shout in the rush of successful charge;
Enter the captur'd works . . . . yet lo! like a swift-
running river, they fade;
Pass and are gone, they fade—I dwell not on soldiers'
perils or soldiers' joys;
(Both I remember well—many the hardships, few the
joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dream's projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the
imprints off the sand,
In nature's reverie sad, with hinged knees returning, I
enter the doors—(while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow me without noise, and be of
strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd
To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I
To each and all, one after another, I draw near—not
one do I miss;
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.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand, to dress wounds;
I am firm with each—the pangs are sharp, yet unavoid-
One 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.)

On, on I go—(open, doors of time! open, hospital
The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand, tear not the
bandage away;)
The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through
and through, I examine;
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye,
yet life struggles hard;
(Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the
matter and blood;
Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv'd neck,
and side-falling head;
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on
the bloody stump,
And has not yet looked on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep;
But a day or two more—for see, the frame all wasted
and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bul-
let wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so
sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me, holding
the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out;
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdo-
These and more I dress with impassive hand—(yet
deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)

Thus in silence, in dream's projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hos-
The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night—some are so
Some suffer so much—I recall the experience sweet
and sad;
(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have
cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)


It is sometimes difficult to remember that for all the advances in medical science the healing arts still depend to some degree on touch—which governs the movement of “The Dresser,” Whitman’s fictional recreation of a soldier and wound-dresser, told in the form of an old man’s recollections of his service during the war. “The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand,” he remarks in the last stanza, after cataloging a variety of gruesome wounds he dressed—a crushed head; bullet holes in the shoulder and neck, abdomen and foot; fractures and gangrene and worse. “From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,/ I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,” he says. The unimaginable suffering he witnesses even leads him at one point to plead with death—sweet, beautiful, merciful death—to deliver from agony a cavalryman with a glazed eye and rattling breath. His compassion knows no bounds.

Juxtaposed with grisly descriptions—blood-soaked rags dumped in a refuse pail, the putrid odor of gangrene—is an image of the wound-dresser methodically working his way down the long rows of cots, bearing “bandages, water and sponge” to salve the men’s pain with “impassive hand” and burning heart. Just as hospice volunteers know that touch can alleviate the anxiety experienced by patients nearing the end of their lives, so the wound-dresser attends to the dying, pacifying them with his presence, the touch of his hand, a kiss, his personal feelings supplanting his professional obligations. For compassion means to suffer with, and so he does, again and yet again.

There is a religious aspect to his ministrations, his laying-on of hands. He describes himself as being faithful to the suffering and to his calling; the wound he dresses in the side of one soldier brings to mind the spear that a praetorian guard thrust into Christ’s side to hasten His death on the Cross; and when he exclaims, “On, on I go—(open, doors of time! open, hospital doors!),” one hears an echo of Jesus preaching to His disciples: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” His practice of lovingkindness, Myles Coverdale’s inspired translation of the Hebrew term for a quintessential religious virtue frequently invoked in the Psalms, mingles with the erotic, reminding us of the ancient connection between sexuality and the divine. That his most urgent pleas and revelations occur in parenthetical asides points to the division between his professional duties and his personal feelings—a division that at every turn threatens to dissolve into love. Which is what he remembers now.



Although “The Dresser” was written during the Civil War, Whitman decides to frame it as a recollection told from many years in the future, when the narrator is an old man, surrounded by children who are asking him questions about a war that for them is just a part of history. What is the effect of such a framing, and how would the poem work differently without that frame?

Answer in the Comment box below or on WhitmanWeb’s Facebook page.

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