The Wound-Dresser by Walt Whitman: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Walt Whitman published 'The Wound-Dresser,' which became one of his most famous poems, in 1865. Read further to find a summary of its four sections and quotes from the poem.

Walt Whitman

What does it mean to be an American? How is American writing separate from British--or any other--writing? These were questions plaguing American poetry in the first part of the nineteenth century, but it wasn't until Walt Whitman boldly wrote in a new style that an American poetic tradition began. Whitman was born in Brooklyn in 1819. He went into his father's business of printing and found his love in the written word. His dramatic focus coupled with his use of free verse, or unmetered and usually unrhymed lines of poetry, led to his own style. Along with Emily Dickinson, he is considered to be one of the poets who established a distinctly American style of poetry.

Walt Whitman.

Poem Background

''The Wound-Dresser'' is one of Walt Whitman's most famous poems, published in 1865 in his collection Drum Taps. It gives a graphic yet unsentimental view of war and the inglamorous side of what happens to the men who go to fight it. It also uses his signature free verse, which was so out of fashion when Whitman wrote that many of his contemporaries ignored his work.

The poem details Whitman's experiences during the Civil War as a volunteer in Washington's hospitals. At the age of 43, he traveled to Washington, DC, to find his brother. Once he found his brother healthy, he stayed on to help care for the wounded soldiers.

Walt Whitman just a few years before leaving for Washington.
walt 2

Summary: Section 1

An old man is asked to recount war memories by children. Just a few lines into the poem the speaker thinks,

Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,

But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

In these lines, the speaker begins as someone motivating others to fight. Then he cannot maintain this facade and, disillusioned by war, thinks of the wounded soldiers.

He relates the excited, innocent questions of the listeners:

What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,

Of hard-fought engagement or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

The listeners are excited to hear of thrilling battle scenes which remain with the old man. On closer inspection, however, what ''deepest remains'' are not positive memories.

Most of this section is narration or questions from the children. It is a frame for the sections to come, asking questions of an old man, while the rest of the poem will be his memories.

Summary: Section 2

The section begins with the speaker charging boldly into battle. Then he notes,

I dwell not on soldiers' perils or soldiers' joys,

Both I remember well--many of the hardships, few the joys.

He points out that the soldiers have good times, but there are much more terrible times. The idea that all of the soldiers' wartime glory is quickly forgotten is made clear with the lines, ''So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand.'' Like a footprint in the sand washed away by the tide, the war glory passes. Then the speaker describes the wounded lying on the ground and in hospital tents. The work of tending the wounded appears neverending. The section ends with the speaker beginning to dress wounds.

The speaker tells of his experience as soldier. He is quickly disillusioned with war when he sees all the wounded soldiers, and he then begins helping to care for them.

Summary: Section 3

Right away the speaker jars the reader with graphic descriptions of a war hospital tent and the soldiers struggling to stay alive. From bullet holes to amputations to crushed heads, the speaker provides a seemingly endless catalogue of incapacitating wounds. Disgusted by their terrible wounds, Whitman writes of ''a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive.''

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